Why 'Mad Max: Fury Road' Deserves An Oscar Nomination For Best Picture
After dominating the early prizes, a pair of movies are upending the 2015 Oscar race. Todd Haynes’ radiant 1950s drama Carol, starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, earned Best Picture and Best Director prizes from the New York Film Critics Circle. (Spotlight, the All the Presidents’ Men-style look at the team of journalists behind the Boston Globe’s 2002 exposé on sexual abuse in the Catholic church, had been heavily favored to win that award.) Meanwhile, Mad Max: Fury Road proved to be an even bigger surprise at last month’s National Board of Review, when it was named as the year’s best film over conventional Oscar fare like Bridge of Spies and Room. In the weeks since, the film has reaped major kudos from both the Golden Globes and Critics Choice Awards.
Despite its lesbian plotline and female-focused cast, Carol’s success isn't much of a shock — it's a period piece drama starring A-list actresses. It’s difficult to express what a miracle it is that Mad Max: Fury Road, however, even got made, let alone be as good and critically acclaimed as it is. The film has been mired in production hell for the past 18 years; director George Miller began work on the film all the way back in 1997, with Fury Road intended to begin filming in late 2001 with Heath Ledger in the title role. However, the shoot was put on hold by the 9/11 attacks, the onslaught of the Iraq War, and Ledger’s tragic death. The ultimate indication of how long Mad Max: Fury Road has been in development? At one point, Mel Gibson was in talks to come back to the franchise, according to The Huffington Post.
Like 2013’s long-delayed Gravity, Mad Max: Fury Road isn't just a miracle — it's a hail Mary of Gonzo filmmaking. The nearly silent movie features a male protagonist that doesn’t speak, a one-armed female warrior who does all the heavy lifting, and some of the most exhilarating action sequences ever seen on film. At a time in which studio sequels and franchises are becoming increasingly perfunctory, like this year’s Fantastic Four reboot, Fury Road is daring and dazzling, completely unafraid to take chances. After all, the whole movie is one nearly unbroken chase scene.
What makes Mad Max so special is that it shows what is possible in Hollywood, and its groundbreaking success may help redefine the big-budget blockbuster as we know it. Although Tom Hardy proved a smart choice to fill Ledger’s shoes, the film belongs to Charlize Theron — its true lead. This is crucially important in an industry that continues to reduce women to supporting parts or total cliches, and while some may have (undeservedly) questioned having a woman lead a blockbuster, it clearly worked out spectacularly. In Imperator Furiosa, audiences were given an action heroine for the ages. And if nothing else, Fury Road may be the only movie to ever shatter the Bechdel Test while featuring a guitar player cranking heavy metal on a giant rig.
Still, while breaking all the rules of action movies may win you critical praise and audience love, Mad Max: Fury Road still faces one hell of an uphill battle in one realm: the Oscars. The Academy Awards remain notoriously averse to big-budget action movies. Just look at 2008's The Dark Knight which, despite placing second on Rotten Tomatoes’ year-end critics roundup and racking up approximately $200 billion in theaters, didn’t earn a Best Picture nomination. What reaped a bid instead? The Reader, a period drama starring Kate Winslet that wasn't much of a critical hit and took in just $34 million in the U.S. It seems that The Reader got nominated simply because it was the type of movie (i.e., a “serious” Holocaust drama) the Academy tends to recognize, a far cry from the superhero thrills of The Dark Knight.
To date, a superhero movie has never gained entry into the Best Picture pool, and the recognition for action films has been few and far between. It's not that no one's tried to change things; there was significant backlash to The Dark Knight snub, which many blamed on the limited number of nomination spots available for Best Picture (at the time, it was five). In June of 2009, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced that it would be allowing 10 nominees for the first time since 1943, when a large pool of contenders was customary. (They later decided to switch to a confusing 5-10 model.) The hope was that by expanding the Best Picture race, the Oscars could make room for well-liked blockbusters alongside niche fare.
So, in theory, that should have paved the way for movies like Mad Max: Fury Road to enter the race, but in reality, that hasn't happened. but it hasn’t really. While Neill Blomkamp’s sci-fi blockbuster District 9 was a welcome addition to the group in 2009, it was an anomaly, as similar nominees like Inception and Avatar were likely to be included anyway thanks to their dialogue-heavy scripts and stunning visuals. The only genuine “people’s movie” to benefit from the nominee change was The Blind Side back in 2009, but considering the film's less-than-stellar reviews, it's hard to call that a win. Its inclusion in the Best Picture category was a sign that the Oscars still have no idea what the “people” actually want.
Should the Academy want to address the elephant in the room, voters should look no further than Mad Max: Fury Road. Once considered a longshot in the Oscars’ top categories, there’s no reason that the film shouldn’t be taken seriously as a major contender — in the Best Picture category, for Best Director, or even a crowded Best Actress race. No 2015 movie has inspired the kind of universal, breathless devotion as Fury Road, which is currently topping more year-end critics’ lists than any other “frontrunner” in the race. If the Academy often nominates films because they fit the image of what an Oscar movie is, Mad Max deserves a Best Picture nom for precisely the opposite reason: because it gave audiences something they'd never seen before.
But what exactly does it mean to win Best Picture? Some movies win because of the Academy’s internal politics, but others stand as a symbol for what film meant that particular year. In 2014, 12 Years a Slave became the first movie with a predominantly black cast to take home top honors, and its victory was reflective of a decades-long discourse about race in Hollywood, as well as black artists’ own struggle for Academy recognition. The 2009 winner Slumdog Millionaire, meanwhile, was heralded as the Oscars’ first truly international choice, a Best Picture fit for a globalized industry. And in 2015, no film defined and defied the current cinema better than Mad Max: Fury Road — a singular masterpiece that looked into the past while showing audiences the future.
But if Mad Max: Fury Road doesn’t make it into the Oscars’ Best Picture category, it has nothing to do with the film’s quality and everything to do with the Academy Awards.
Images: Giphy (3); Warner Bros.