Django Unchained and the formula for a Western to win Oscar

Django Unchained - Still A

By C.J. Bunce

How does a Western get nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award in 2013? As recently as two years ago the remake of True Grit was nominated for Best Picture and nine other nominations—but did not net a single win.  But would it have been nominated if it hadn’t been directed by the quirky directing duo of Joel and Ethan Coen?  Five years earlier Brokeback Mountain, a film with a Western—or at least a cowboy– theme was also nominated for Best Picture, winning three of eight nominations.  It took director Ang Lee and a completely non-Western plot for that to happen.  Then you have to go back to Unforgiven in 1992, which actually won Best Picture and four of nine of its nominations, to find the last major, critically acclaimed Western.

What made Unforgiven win?  Certainly by supplying one of the two most popular Western actors of all time as the film’s lead helped, even if it was one of his more bland performances, with Clint Eastwood also serving as director. (Yes, John Wayne still remains the #1 most popular Western actor ever).  But more importantly, like the few notable Westerns since, it had a very non-standard plot for a Western.  With its gunfighter-turns-farmer-turns-gunfighter-one-last-time story, it was basically a dark sequel to John Wayne’s Angel and the Badman.  You could keep going—back to Dances with Wolves in 1990, an example of the “epic Western” which seemed to reward the director and acting efforts of rising star Kevin Costner more than the movie as a Western genre masterpiece.  Or back to Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid in 1969, probably the last classic era Western to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, winning five awards, including a key win for the script by William Goldman.  Then go back to the also-quirky Cat Ballou in 1965 starring Jane Fonda—the rare Western notable for featuring a female lead.

Going back even further gets you into the classic era of Westerns, and throws you into the strange era of “epic Westerns” getting recognized by the Academy.  These were movies that in hindsight are really not as well done as many smaller pictures of the period, but their huge all-star casts and expensive sets made the films hard to ignore, such as How the West Was Won, The Alamo, and Giant.  Surprisingly you have to look back to the adaptation of Louis L’Amour’s Hondo starring John Wayne in 1953 to get back to the era of the “hero Western” as recipient of an Academy nod, a film up there with Shane and High Noon as successful and admired Westerns receiving acclaim by the Academy.

Schultz and Django

But if you put aside the classic Western and look at what has been selected by the Academy since the 1960s it makes a lot of sense that Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained is not only a Best Picture nominee this year, but a real contender for the win.  Set in the South two years before the Civil War, the film follows a slave named Django (Jamie Foxx) whose past owners lead him to meet up with German-born, dentist-turned-bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz).  Schultz’s next target is the wanted-dead-or-alive Brittle brothers, and only Django can help him literally recognize his bounty.  Schultz serves as mentor in survival and pursuit skills for Django who is squarely focused on rescuing long-lost wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington).  The search ultimately leads to a more complicated than necessary scheme to buy Broomhilda from infamous plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), if only his loyal house slave Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson) will not stand in the way.

So what is the formula for a successful Western in the 21st century and why should Django Unchained make the cut?

A completely unique movie.  First and foremost, Django Unchained does not follow any classic Western formula, a must-have for an Oscar nod.  At the most dismissive review, you could say it is a humorous romp in the Western genre like 1974’s Mel Brooks film Blazing Saddles, which was nominated for three Academy Awards (and was certainly a more trite look at race in the Old West), or even a wild ride done right, like Oscar winner Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.  At the most complimentary, you could rate Django Unchained as a serious examination of social class, race and history in America, a Western facing serious issues head-on like Unforgiven and Brokeback Mountain.  To the extent the Academy wants to reward a serious film this year, recognizing Django Unchained could be like rewarding Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing—another critically acclaimed, non-standard look at social class and race in America, nominated for two Oscars including one for Lee as screenwriter.

Django Unchained intro of Stephen

An innovative and clever story.  And speaking of writing, Django Unchained must be the lead contender for the screenwriting award for Tarantino.  Take away the humor and theatrics and you will be hard-pressed to find as compelling dialogue in any other drama, especially watching the almost Butch and Sundance relationship develop between Django and Schultz, where you get to see each character grow and change in big ways throughout the picture.

Non-stop surprises.  It is impossible to predict where Tarantino will go in each subsequent scene.  His story is incredibly unique in this way, never flowing according to any plan.  Django is both hero and villain. Schultz is both hero and villain.  Each man’s actions are understandable.  Each man’s drive and determination do not waver. Django’s follows his desire to save his wife. Schultz’s is dealing with his own understanding of right and wrong in an almost Oscar Schindler type of way.  And other surprises emerge–actors show up that you wouldn’t think you’d find in such strange roles:  like The Dukes of Hazzard’s Tom Wopat as a small town sheriff and Miami Vice’s Don Johnson as a feisty and mouthy plantation owner.

Don Johnson in Django

Casting is king.  Tarantino started with two Oscar-winning actors—Jamie Foxx for Ray, and Christoph Waltz, who won for playing a different kind of German in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds.  Foxx plays Django as pulp hero, a new kind of (and yet still retro) Billy Jack.  Waltz creates a completely new, complex and layered Western hero with his European bounty hunter more repulsed by slavery than even Django seems to be.  Tarantino then looked back to his own previous house of actors.  Samuel L. Jackson has his most incredible performance as a villain of his career.  Of all the bad guys he has portrayed, Jackie Brown’s drug runner Ordell Robbie, Unbreakable’s Elijah Price, or Pulp Fiction’s Jules Winnfield, none of these touch Jackson’s Stephen.  Jackson transforms into someone incomprehensible, scary to watch in so many ways, and viewers are left hoping he will redeem himself by story’s end, simply because–for the sake of humanity–he simply must redeem his misplaced loyalty in Leonardo DiCaprio’s Candie.

Classic Western cinematography.  Django Unchained has the look of The Magnificent Seven, and not jut because of the similarity of the against-type Western leads with Steve McQueen and Yul Brynner.  Sandy towns, saloons, rocky vistas, and sprawling land, coupled with a beautiful cast of horses give the film the actual look and feel of a Western masterpiece.

Django winter horse scene

The sound of a Western.  The film’s turbo-charged musical queues could not have played better, a sprawling musical score mirrored Robert Richardson’s cinematography and a quirky use of old pop songs reminded us of the use of similar popular songs in Westerns–and action movies–of the past.  The use of the Luis Bakalov’s 1966 song “Django” is probably obvious but perfect to Tarantino’s play on the genre, in the same vein as the song “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” was used in the film of the same name.  A humorous surprise: Jim Croce’s “I Got a Name” was oddly suited to its scene.  And the use of Ennio Morricone tunes placed us firmly in the theater of the 1960s.  The only question is whether someone could have successfully crafted new songs that would have given the same effect.  Would they have been able to ahve the same effect?  Probably not.  (If you want to hear the songs you can find them at this link).

What could prevent Django Unchained from Oscar recognition?

First and foremost, Tarantino’s strength is his weakness.  He himself is a Hollywood hero, and like Oliver Stone, maybe his brilliance and popularity are eclipsing.  His direction and writing do so much that is innovative in this film, maybe it will be seen as too much.  The first two-thirds of the film appears to be an honest attempt at recreating a classic spaghetti Western–warts and all– yet Tarentino’s talent at making good movies blows that attempt a bit.  After creating 21 acclaimed movies his work is far better than the B-movie, spaghetti Western, and so we get several scenes that are as good as comparable scenes in the best non-spaghetti Westerns of years past.  So which is this?  A brilliant drama, or a great clone of B-movies, or does it even matter how you slice it?

Django Unchained - Jackson and Washington

The other reason the film might get passed over is the blunt-force violence.  The last third of the movie turns into a typical Quentin Tarantino movie, with his signature stamp of unrelenting gunfights and blood splatters.  And pushing aside the gratuitous violence, the violence required for the film’s story about slavery is even more disturbing to watch as it is slowly played out on a giant theater screen.  Like the Holocaust, it’s something audiences likely should be forced to watch from time to time as a reminder of the age-old message from George Santayana.  Even so, watching a man pulled apart by dogs at the behest of a bunch of racist hicks, watching women and men being whipped while others stand by laughing, and seeing the boyish Leonardo DiCaprio’s Candie watching a gory “mandingo” death match in his parlor, all may be too much for some to handle.  But that must be Tarantino’s point.  The film is supposed to be uncomfortable to watch.  So will the Academy members understand the nuance?  We’ll find out on February 24, 2013.

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