With each Mission Impossible installment, a new headline is published about Tom Cruise’s latest life threatening, gravity-defying stunt. Famous for doing all his stunts himself, Cruise has piloted a helicopter, jumped out of a plane, and pushed his lungs to the limit over the course of the spy films. There is always a fun media campaign surrounding his stunts, and for the most part this is the only time you actually hear about this aspect of filmmaking. The lack of attention is surprising given how vital stunt coordination and performance has become in modern day filmmaking. So vital, in fact, that I believe stunts could and should be recognized with a category at the Academy Awards.
While many films ranging from smaller indie ventures to tentpole blockbusters utilize CGI, practical stunts are still very much present during production. Stunt coordinators and stunt-wo/men have been described as the “unsung heroes” by editors, producers and directors in Hollywood. Their role has become increasingly relevant in the wake of comic book adaptations and the superhero film genre, which have overtaken the box office and captured huge audiences in recent years.
But as I mentioned, stunts are certainly not absent from smaller, less action-oriented films. In the past few years, Oscar-nominated films have relied on stunts to some degree. For example, almost every best picture nominee in 2020 utilized the art of practical stunts – Parasite (dir. Bong Joon-ho, 2019), 1917 (dir. Sam Mendes, 2019), and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (dir. Quentin Tarantino, 2019), just to name a few. Due to the dedication, physicality, and risk required to be involved in stunts, I think it is appropriate to refer to this field as an art.
Creating an academy award category for stunt performance and coordination would bring recognition to the many individuals dedicated to the craft. An award category would bring attention to this part of filmmaking and allow more casual audiences to understand its significance. It is generally agreed that the intent of the Oscars is to highlight instances of exceptionally creative and quality filmmaking. To this end, it’s possible the Academy doesn’t consider stunts to be significant part of the process. This is a far cry from the large-scale and serious line of work that stunts have become, making that point of view seem outdated.
Regardless of whether stunts deserve their own category, I believe that it could be equally as beneficial to the Academy itself. The 2019 proposal for an “Academy Award for Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film” illustrated that the Academy is desperate to recognize films with more mainstream appeal in order to draw interest from a wider audience. In fact, John Bailey, the Academy president, admitted that the proposed award was in “direct response” to the Oscars’ decreasing ratings. A new proposal for a stunt category would allow the Academy to finally recognize popular films in a way that does not risk simply becoming a subcategory of Best Picture. Given the attention Tom Cruise receives for his stunts, clearly there is an audience for this topic. The Academy could take advantage of that interest to reinvigorate their program.
At the end of the day, I can’t see a downside to adding a category to honor the work of the countless stunt men and women working behind the scenes. Stunts could join the ranks of “Best Makeup and Hairstyling” or “Best Animated Feature Film”, which were both added as official categories in the last fifty years to reflect more contemporary ideas and methods. As filmmaking continues to evolve, the Academy should evolve with it.