Saturday, May 27, 2017

The Runner-Ups: Carrie Fisher in "Star Wars" (1977)

Carrie Fisher
Every Oscar season, there are a handful of actors who get tagged with the "snubbed" moniker. While it is always unfortunate to see our favorites not honored with at very least a nomination, there's another trend that goes largely unnoticed: those who never even got that far. The Runner-Ups is a column meant to honor the greats in cinema who put in phenomenal work without getting the credit that they deserved from The Academy. Join me every other Saturday as I honor those who never received any love. This list will hopefully come to cover both the acting community, and the many crew members who put the production together.

The Runner-Up: Carrie Fisher
Film: Star Wars (1977)
Oscar Nominees in the Best Actress category (1977):
-Diane Keaton (Annie Halle) *WINNER
-Anne Bancroft (The Turning Point)
-Jane Fonda (Julia)
-Shirley MacLaine (The Turning Point)
-Marsha Mason (The Goodbye Girl)

Save for the posterity of history, there's almost no reason to go into detail about why Star Wars has been a phenomenon for over 40 years as of a few days ago. Its iconography is so ingrained into daily lives that it would be impossible to go too long without a reference here or there. It's a big reason that many still find it contentious that Star Wars lost the Best Picture race to Annie Hall that year. After all, Annie Hall didn't spawn six sequels and change the technological landscape of cinema. It was just a romantic comedy by Woody Allen (I could argue equally as to why romantic comedies are just as difficult when ti comes to winning big prizes at the Oscars, but that's for another day). Whatever the case may be, Star Wars hasn't gone anywhere. Everything about it, even the background characters, seem to be iconic.

It's why there's something just as blasphemous about the Oscars in 1978. There was only one acting nomination for the entire film, and it was for old hat Alec Guinness in Best Supporting Actor. Ironically, he is the one actor in the original who hates Star Wars. Considering how iconic the performances by Mark Hamil, Harrison Ford, and Carrie Fisher are, it's difficult to understand why they were overlooked. If Guinness only got nominated because of his stature, it doesn't make sense why one of the most innovative movies of the era couldn't spawn one nomination. Speaking as her unfortunate death has inspired a lot of discussion, it's tough to figure out why it didn't land - of all people - Fisher one nomination (even if it was for one of the sequels, it would be understandable).

It is easy to make complaints that Hamil is too whiny and Ford is too wooden. However, it is tough to think of Fisher in such terms. If anything, she at least was on track to redefining women in sci-fi movies. Her confidence in line deliveries was only more impressive because of her young age. She had a maturity to her performance that made her able to stand up to intimidating and villainous characters. She may have still held many aspects that were dated gender politics, but she was setting a bar for female characters to come. Considering that Sigourney Weaver was nominated for Best Actress in Aliens, it's not entirely clear what changed over the nine year gap - but it couldn't have happened without Fisher's Princess Leia. She wasn't just an iconic look. She was an iconic persona that resonated off the screen, empowering women to fight back against an oppressive system.

There's some obvious clues when speculating why she wasn't nominated. Star Wars was more of a technical feat, as goes the genre movie logic. Similarly Mad Max: Fury Road failed to get any acting nominations, but swept technical fields. It can be argued that Tom Hardy or Charlize Theron's performances will be iconic in a decade whereas the prestige nominees may wind up forgotten. While Annie Hall's win contradicts this logic slightly, it does make sense when looking at the nominees. Fisher's performance was authentic and fierce, proving interesting in the face of conventional genre tropes. I can't say the same for Jane Fonda's nomination for Julia - which frankly hasn't held up as anything but Meryl Streep's cinematic debut and a dull take on a usually engaging subject. Fonda had two Oscar nominations before that, so leaving her out wouldn't be a great crime. If anything, those who saw Julia probably don't even remember the movie so much as a year later, unlike Fisher in Star Wars.

More than anything, acting nominations should be about cultural relevance as well as talent. If a performance has the ability to be good and appeals to general audiences, then it should stand more of a chance at the Oscars. It becomes curious to look through history and see the movies that were and weren't nominated in deserving fields. Even if one could argue that Fisher did greater work, there's no reason that she shouldn't have been nominated at some point for her most iconic role. It defined her while creating a cultural icon that still resonates past her death. People are still talking about the role, and usually in reverent terms. It's a shame that the only nominee from the film was Guinness, as his part seems the most hokey. If nothing else, the real shame here is that Fisher never got a nomination in her lifetime. She more than deserved at least something.

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