Monday, June 8, 2015

On Mad Max and the need for a stunt performers Oscar

George Miller's Mad Max: Fury Road is an action extravaganza that deserves an Academy Award for it stunt performers. 

Late to the party is better than never, right? So, I finally caught up with Mad Max: Fury Road. It is precisely what you have heard it is – an action-packed extravaganza of brutality and mayhem. After years making children’s movies and weepies, director George Miller’s return to the genre that so nurtured him in his early years is everything for which audiences could have hoped.

Its brilliant reviews notwithstanding, this is not the kind of movie that is likely to win Academy Awards. It may sneak into the sound categories and could be a finalist for the visual effects honor, but any nominations will have to be their own reward. There will be other films less weird, less abrasive, and less difficult for voters who cannot handle Miller’s heart attack in a film reel. None of this is to say the film is not Oscar worthy. It is simply worthy for an award that does not exist yet.

For years, the guild representing stunt performers has lobbied the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for an award recognizing its members’ contribution to the medium, and for years, they have been rebuffed. There are a half-dozen theories or more as to why this change has yet to be implemented, the most prominent of which is that big action stars want nothing to dispel the illusion they are performing all their own dangerous stunt work. Of course, this ignores the fact that audiences are savvy enough to know that is probably not Channing Tatum jumping from the moving train.

There may be no recent movie that makes the necessity for a stunt performers Oscar clearer than Mad Max: Fury Road. From start to finish, the film is one long, intricately choreographed action sequence. The rightly lauded car stunts are just the tip of the ice berg. The fight scenes, the jumps, dodges, falls, and rolls, the fire play – every element of the film moves like a precision clock. Each individual piece moves perfectly into place to create the illusion of controlled chaos. If one comes out of synch, the entire operation falls apart.

Regardless of the Academy’s stance, I do not think it is controversial to say these people – and their contemporaries – deserve an Oscar for their brilliant work. Without stunts and stunt performers, these films could not exist any more than they could without cameramen, boom operators, or editors. The Academy just needs to catch up to the reality of the situation, something it has historically been slow to do. The Screen Actors Guild already has a category to honor stunt teams. So, if we take the awarding of a stunt performers Oscar as inevitable, then the question becomes to whom to give the statue.

Obviously, statues cannot be given to the hundreds of individual performers who make all of the action sequences sing. That would be impractical. Dayna Porter, who stunt doubles for Charlize Theron in Mad Max: Fury Road, and Jacob Tomuri, Tom Hardy’s stunt double in the film, would be worthy candidates, but it also seems unfair to single out anybody from such a remarkable group. My solution: Guy Norris, the film’s supervising stunt coordinator.

Norris has been in the business more than 30 years, and fittingly, his first job on a stunt team was on Miller’s Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior. I do not think anyone would argue with a lifelong veteran of the craft hopping up on stage for such a richly deserved recognition. It will not happen in any competitive category this year. Again, the Academy does not move that quickly, but an honorary award recognizing Norris’ achievement would be a nice segue into creating an official category.

The same sequence of events ushered in the makeup and foreign film Oscars. Why not stunt performers? It is about time, and the evidence is right there on screen. All you have to do is look.

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