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The Academy under pressure to add Oscar for stunt work

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As award season approaches more people are asking why Hollywood’s stunt community is ignored by the Academy

14th Annual Santa Barbara International Film Festival Honors Martin Scorsese With Kirk Douglas Award For Excellence In Film
Leonardo DiCaprio has been a vocal advocate for the inclusion of a Best Stunts category at the Oscars.
Photo by JB Lacroix/Getty Images

Filmmaking is inherently a risky endeavor. Huge sums of money may be lost. Much is made of artistic risks taken by directors or actors. But no one risks as much as a stunt performer. Just take a scroll through this grim Wikipedia page enumerating injuries sustained and lives lost in pursuit of capturing action on film.

The art of stunt work has evolved in recent years, thanks to the pressures imposed by CGI. Stunt coordinators, who have come to prefer the title action designers, offer filmmakers a lower budget option with the added bonus of the onscreen power of practical effects. Action designers will also often act as second unit directors, in charge of the action sequence on all fronts, from construction of sets to making sure those scenes match the rest of the film stylistically.

It is a huge job. And yet, no Oscar. Not even on the boring night of Oscars where they have one hot, smart woman host and they show you a brief recap during the Oscar telecast.

The effort to have stunts honored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences began in 1991. Legendary director Sidney Lumet commented to his stunt coordinator, Jack Gill, that there should be an Oscar for Best Stunts. Gill thought so, too, and went to the Academy. At least initially, the Academy though so, too. What was expected to take less than five years to achieve is now dragging on close to thirty.

Part of the baked-in reticence comes from the Golden Age of Hollywood, when the industry actively encouraged the audience to believe that stars like John Wayne were just as tough as their characters. Today, audiences are much more savvy to the reality behind the fantasy depicted on screen, and actors are far more likely to give credit to their stunt doubles. Famously, Keanu Reeves backed the stunt performers on The Matrix, two of whom went on to direct John Wick. Those former stunt performers, David Leitch and Chad Stahelski, have parlayed their John Wick success into careers directing big budget Hollywood films.

The changing climate led the Screen Actors Guild to add a Best Stunt Ensemble category to their annual awards in 2007. Actors Leonardo DiCaprio, Helen Mirren, and Tom Cruise have been vocal in their support of recognizing stunt work at the Oscars. The Academy, however, has a myriad of hoops for the stunt community to jump through before they will be included. Perhaps most difficult to achieve is a requirement that the professional organization have 100 members. Action designers believe they will hit that number this year, which should allow them to have their own branch of the Academy and presumably a seat at the table. Only time will tell—the Academy’s decisions are not cut and dried, nor are all their requirements made transparent. It may be a while yet before the awarding of the inaugural Best Stunts Oscar.

In the meantime, stunt performers and action designers have decided to make their presence known, and have considered protesting the Academy Awards.