Every year, brilliant movies are utterly ignored by the Oscars. The Searchers, Groundhog Day, Persona, Breathless, Hoop Dreams, King Kong, Caddyshack — the Academy has a long history of overlooking comedies, action movies, horror flicks, artsy foreign films, and documentaries that aren’t about World War II. This year, we’ll be taking a closer look at films that were too small, too weird, or perhaps simply too awesome for the Academy Awards. These are the Non-Nominees.
The Film: Loosely based on screenwriter Will Reiser’s real-life battle with cancer, 50/50 is equal parts tear-jerking (but never manipulative) cancer drama and R-rated Seth Rogen buddy comedy. Filled with heartfelt, nuanced performances from Anjelica Huston, Anna Kendrick, and leading man Joseph Gordon-Levitt at his career best as Adam, a 27-year-old coming to grips with his cancer diagnosis, the film excelled at taking an honest and funny look at the rarely accurately portrayed tragedy (and yes, comedy) of coping with the disease. [SPOILERS AHEAD!]
Why It Wasn’t Nominated: On paper, 50/50 is exactly the type of movie Oscar typically does go for. It’s got a fantastic script about cancer survival that just so happened to be written by an actual cancer survivor; there are dynamic leading and supporting performances worthy of acting nominations; and then there’s that killer hospital room scene that begged to be put on an Oscar reel and dared audiences to try to choke back their ugly cries. (Adam’s fearful plea to his mother puts the movie right on par with those gut-wrenching moments in the Oscar-winning cancer film Terms of Endearment.) So why — and how in the world — did director Jonathan Levine’s 50/50 end up one of this year’s most egregious Oscar snubs?
Rogen, who plays Kyle, the funny best friend of Gordon-Levitt’s Adam, actually had some spot-on theories regarding this. The actor — who primarily served as the film’s comic relief (though he finally had the opportunity to show audiences his surprisingly sweet side) — told EW even before 50/50 was shut out, “I know for a fact that some people are appalled by the movie.”
If Academy voters were, in fact, turned off by some of the film’s bawdier language and behavior, they likely didn’t give the rest of the film a fighting chance. Within the first few minutes of the movie, Rogen engages Gordon-Levitt in an explicit chat about why his sex life is nonexistent, despite having a girlfriend, played to shrill perfection by Bryce Dallas Howard. But when you consider last year’s Best Picture winner The King’s Speech was essentially a buddy drama about overcoming an obstacle (that had its own string of expletives in it, thank you very much), there was simply no reason for anyone to have been appalled. And you know what? Cancer or no cancer, it’s how guys in their 20s talk. If anything, it should have been refreshing to hear such true-to-life dialogue.
Rogen’s other theory was that the source material likely hit a little too close to home for some members of the Academy who had a difficult time making light of such a heavy subject. While some scenes were, unarguably, difficult for anyone who’s loved or lost someone to cancer (Mitch’s death certainly hit a nerve, and what parent wouldn’t feel just as helpless and scared as Adam’s mother?), it would be hard to imagine that the film didn’t help with the healing process more in the end. Or, at the very least, make you call your own mother more.
Why History Will Remember It More Fondly Than Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close: While so many cancer-themed movies can border on cloying like, say, Stepmom or The Family Stone — which both have the Hallmark touch of tugging at the heartstrings — they never get into the truly ugly moments of the awful disease. (Aside from a few coughs or looking tired, no one actually looks sick in so many of those movies, unlike Gordon-Levitt, who makes a complete spiritual and physical transformation over the span of 50/50.) But here’s the real secret to what makes this movie work: It’s so much more than a cancer movie. It’s a story about the complicated relationships in our lives that we have with our friends, our parents, our lovers, and yes, ourselves.
Of course, none of this would have worked without the film’s bittersweet script and those fantastic performances. While Rogen’s turn was a pleasant surprise (his career best, too), Gordon-Levitt’s was nothing short of a revelation. Had the role been given to anyone else, it may not have worked on the same level. It’s doubtful anyone else in Hollywood could have handled that car meltdown scene the same way Gordon-Levitt, one of the industry’s most promising young actors, did.
If you haven’t been lucky enough to see it, go to your Netflix now — years down the line, we’ll all still be talking about how 50/50 stands out as an honest, funny, sincere, memorable, and gimmick-free exploration of the human condition that transcends all generations. Surely it deserved better odds.