Jennifer Kent’s fledgling fright flick The Babadook is one of the most acclaimed horror movies of the last few years, an instant classic about a single mother fending off the malicious advances of a storybook boogeyman. For all its primo scares, though, the film’s value extends far beyond its ability to put hairs on end. There’s an overwhelming emotional power to this bump-in-the-dark material, and it’s owed chiefly to star Essie Davis, an Australian actress whose most prominent prior role was probably a supporting turn in the Matrix sequels. No mere scream queen, Davis offers a disturbingly acute portrait of festering resentment, demonstrating how undigested trauma can curdle slowly into abusive rage. The Babadook, the well-dressed fiend of the title, is scary. But he’s not half as scary as Davis, hissing hateful instructions (“Why don’t you go eat shit?”) at her freaked-out son. It’s a true transformation, from quietly frazzled mother to bellowing monster of grief.
I’m not the only film critic to have sung the praises of this powerhouse work. Davis placed third for Best Actress in this year’s Village Voice poll, right below Marion Cotillard and Scarlett Johansson (both of whom had the advantage of being cited for multiple films); 20 of the 85 surveyed critics called the performance one of the year’s finest. The results of the Indiewire poll—which consults a larger group of writers, many of whom admittedly participate in the Voice poll too—were nearly identical, with Davis placing fourth behind the same two actresses and Gone Girl’s Rosamund Pike.
Given this groundswell of critical support, one might reasonably assume that the Aussie actress is a viable candidate for this year’s Academy Awards—or at the very least, a dark house worth stumping for. But in the full year that’s passed since The Babadook premiered, and won raves, at the Sundance Film Festival, nary a single one of the major Oscar odds-makers have floated Davis as a potential nominee. She appears on none of the regular shortlists of prospective candidates, even as a distant long shot. The list at Awards Circuit, where “Oscar week never ends” (shudder), extends to a whopping 40 potential nominees—none of them Davis. Even fans of the film won’t entertain the slimmest possibility of her squeaking in. Not that they should, really. Were I a betting man, I wouldn’t put a dime on it either.
So why is one of the year’s most beloved performances not even a tiny part of the annual award-season discussion? Why is Davis a lost cause in the eyes of anyone who earns their keep as an Oscar soothsayer? The potential answers speak volumes about the Academy Awards, a machine that values certain breeds of cinema over others and which privileges the coronation of showbiz royalty over the honoring of new talent.
Tempting though it might be to blame the sheer smallness of The Babadook, which made less than a million dollars on about 80 screens, such a theory wouldn’t hold water. The current Best Actress frontrunner, Julianne Moore, is being considered for a movie, Still Alice, that played on maybe one screen for a single week last month, just to qualify it for awards consideration. (It gets a wider release this Friday.) Nor is it quite fair to look to The Babadook’s international roots as a reason why the Academy will surely ignore Davis. Yes, the Oscars are often reluctant to nominate non-American fare, but that prejudice mainly extends to films in foreign languages. (See: Marion Cotillard, whose widely and justly praised performance in Two Days, One Night would be a shoo-in, rather than an underdog, were it in English instead of French.) The Babadook is an Australian film, which theoretically puts Davis in the company of the various British actresses who often slip into the Oscar race and sometimes even win. That Anne Dorval is being considered a (very) long shot for her work in the French-Canadian Mommy, while Davis isn’t being considered at all, suggests that country of origin is not the cause of the oversight here.
A simpler and more likely explanation is that The Babadook just isn’t the kind of movie that gets nominated for major awards. Horror, that most disreputable of genres, goes notoriously unnoticed by the voting bloc of AMPAS, a group that would rather celebrate some faintly “important” middlebrow achievement than an expertly made monster movie. Only bona fide box-office phenomena have ever occupied the middle circle of an Oscar/horror Venn diagram: Films like Jaws, The Exorcist, Silence Of The Lambs, and The Sixth Sense shattered the glass ceiling of the Academy’s genre snobbery only by proving themselves too successful to ignore. The Babadook isn’t a big enough hit for voters to “forgive” its “low” aims. Never mind that the film grapples with depression and parental anxiety much more thoughtfully and trenchantly than, say, an Oscar-winning mediocrity like The Hours. The fact that one of Davis’ costars is a fiendish specter is enough to disqualify her.
But for the sake of argument, let’s imagine that The Babadook had been some kind of multiplex sensation, grossing $200 million on top of its stellar reviews. That would probably be enough to guarantee it some nominations—perhaps a screenplay nod, possibly a technical notice or two. Best Actress still seems out of its reach, though, and that has less to do with where the film came from or where Netflix might file it than the fact that this category, more so even than others, is something of an exclusive club. And Davis hasn’t “earned” her invitation yet.
More often than not, Best Actress is dominated by an elite group of thespians whose names get bandied about almost every year. These are your Kate Winslets, your Judi Denches, your Helen Mirrens—fine performers who no longer need to do much more than appear in something vaguely respectable to get nominated. Meryl Streep is the most obvious example, as she’s capable of earning a place even when starring in films forgettable (One True Thing), innocuous (The Devil Wears Prada), or both (Julie & Julia). It’s this stranglehold the “regulars” have over the category that shuts promising performers like Davis out. How can she factor into the discussion when former nominees are universally considered more likely to get nominated, even when their films in contention have been mostly shrugged off? In other words, are there people out there who are truly passionate about Amy Adams in Big Eyes or Hilary Swank in The Homesman? Or are these two just being considered because they’re already part of the club?
This kind of favoritism isn’t unique to the annual Actress race. Many categories, including Best Score and Best Cinematography, are filled out by perennial contenders. But there’s a special tunnel vision to Best Actress, one predicated not just on honoring the same damn people year in and year out—because how many great female performers could there really be in the world?—but also on celebrating industry players who haven’t yet “gotten their due.” A.V. Club contributor David Ehrlich recently wrote a great piece for Slate on the Oscar odds for Jennifer Aniston, whose performance in the roundly ignored festival film Cake has suddenly become a near-lock, mostly on the strength of relentless (and costly) campaigning by its star and producers. Few have seen the film and much fewer like it, but Aniston is playing the game and making appearances. A nomination for her would be a culmination of her Hollywood Cinderella story, in which a movie star dutifully churns out populist hits and is eventually welcomed into the serious actress winners’ circle, à la Julia Roberts and Sandra Bullock.
Entertainment journalists play their own role, of course, in shrinking the field. One of the reasons the The A.V. Club doesn’t much participate in the annual, months-long sport of guessing who will get nominated for Oscars is that such predictions can be self-fulfilling prophecies. Call someone (or some film) a lock for long enough and it may just happen; even writers bemoaning Aniston’s “inevitable” nomination are helping secure it—by getting her name out there, by assuring Academy members that to vote for her is not to waste their vote, and by shifting the dialogue away from worthy candidates, like Davis, that could use the ink. By preemptively commenting on the Oscar race, journalists shape and solidify it.
There is, however, an upside to this potential power of the press. Even as the year’s best-reviewed movie, Boyhood would be among the artiest, least likely of Best Picture winners—a grand and ambitious experiment, not the kind of safe, ordinary crowdpleaser that often comes out on top. That it’s currently considered the frontrunner for the prize feels like a leap of faith on the part of pundits, whose placement of the film at the top of their lists of predictions suggests a belief that even notoriously stuffy, old-fashioned Oscar voters will be powerless to resist Linklater’s daunting accomplishment. If the film does win Best Picture, it may be partially because folks have been betting with their heads and their hearts, whether they realize it or not.
Now imagine how different Oscar night might go if these same prognosticators always used their Nate Silver-powers for a greater good, effectively risking their reputation as human Magic 8-Balls by casting long shots as frontrunners. There’s no guarantee that labeling Davis a sure thing would actually make her a sure thing. But it definitely would put her on the radar in certain circles, maybe encouraging IFC to launch a genuine for-your-consideration campaign on her behalf. Were candidates not written off months in advance, the field might widen. So on that note, let’s get the ball rolling on next year’s Oscars with a premature, wildly optimistic prediction: Another superb indie horror film, March’s upcoming It Follows, is a lock for a Best Picture nomination. Spread that around.