Beauty and the Beast was nominated for Best Picture at the 64th Academy Awards, in a moment that changed the face of the animated film landscape forever. It signaled that the Disney Renaissance that began two years earlier with The Little Mermaid (or perhaps even earlier with Oliver & Company) was not just a fluke and was destined to continue on. It showed that animation is just as important as other types of film, and that they could be just as artistic and meaningful. And while it eventually lost to The Silence of the Lambs, it still stood as the moment when animation as an industry and a media announced itself as an equal to the rest of Hollywood. And while it was a number of years before feature length animation received its own category in the awards (2001) and even longer before another animated film would be nominated for best picture (2009’s Up), the fact that animated films are now consistently among the highest grossing films each year and are often the most popular and longest lived of new releases owes a lot to Beauty and the Beast.
But what if Beauty and the Beast had done even more for animation? What if, as a result of the film’s success the Academy had created a new award for Best Voice Performance? Who would we have won over the last 20 or so years, and who would have lost? What trends in animation casting and voicework would become more apparent from the existence of an award in that category? Would it be the Disney/Pixar show, or would there be a variety of winners? What actors would show up the most often?
So I thought I’d set out to try to answer those questions as a creative writing exercise. Starting today with 1992’s slate of films (for the 65th Academy Awards in 1993), in the aftermath of Beauty and the Beast, and doing one year per week, I should finish the week of the Oscars, which will air on March 2, 2014. That’s assuming my math is correct, however. I’ll give a theoretical overview of the Oscar race for each year, along with my hypothetical nominees and winner. It should be an interesting exercise, and offer up some interesting thoughts for discussion. Keep in mind that my picks for nominees and winners don’t necessarily reflect my opinion on which performance was most deserving, but instead are chosen to reflect one possible outcome of the award. So without further ado, let’s get started.
The history of the Best Voice Performance award actually starts a few years before Beauty and the Beast, in 1988. While Disney’s Oliver & Company was moderately successful at the box office, it was poorly received by the critics. However, that year also saw the release of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, which garnered much more critical acclaim. Particular notice was taken of the way the performances of the animated characters, especially Roger and Jessica. And while there wasn’t any call for Charles Fleisher or Kathleen Turner to get nominated in the acting categories, there was some murmuring about how it was a shame that there wasn’t a category for them. When The Little Mermaid was released a year later, the voice cast was highly praised, particularly Jodi Benson (Ariel), Pat Carroll (Ursula), Samuel E. Wright (Sebastian) and Buddy Hackett (Scuttle). The mumblings turned into actual discussion of a new category, especially if this trend was going to continue. However, when 1990 failed to produce a film of the same caliber, the conversation died back.
When Beauty and the Beast was nominated for Best Picture a year later, it was clear that voice performances had become deserving of recognition. And while it was too late to create a new category that year, and it seemed unfair to create a category to honor just one film, the Academy came up with a unique solution. They presented Beauty and the Beast with a Special Achievement Academy Award for “Voice Casting and Performance in an Animated Feature”. It was only the 18th Special Achievement Academy Award ever presented, and internal memos released later showed that the Academy considered either giving the award to Angela Landsbury alone for voicing Mrs. Potts, or giving her a separate Special Achievement Award as the theoretical “winner” of a nonexistent category. However, they decided in the end to award the entire voice cast, theoretically covering all of the potential nominees in that category for the year.
Soon after the award ceremony, the Academy announced that the 65th Academy Awards would feature a new category: Best Voice Performance. The decision was met with nods of approval from the general public, but with a bit of grumbling from some of the older Hollywood powers. They felt that a new category aimed at animation would be giving too much prominence to what they viewed as “kids’ movies”. As 1992 came to a close, there was much speculation about how the nominations would shake out, whether they’d be spread among a variety of movies or concentrated on the most widely acclaimed.
1992 – Nominees for Best Voice Performance in a Motion Picture:
- Tim Curry (Hexxus) – Ferngully: The Last Rainforest
- Jonathan Freeman (Jafar) – Aladdin
- Gilbert Gottfried (Iago) – Aladdin
- Robin Williams (The Genie) – Aladdin
- Robin Williams (Batty Koda) – Ferngully: The Last Rainforest
There was some slight uproar over the fact that Robin Williams was nominated twice, and some of those opposed to the new category pointed to this as proof that the field wasn’t diverse enough to support the award. On the other side of things, the voicework community objected that Frank Welker, who voiced Abu and Rajah (and also the Cave of Wonders), was left out. They felt that the choices were emphasizing the celebrity aspect of voice performances, and ignoring people who had worked in the industry for decades. However, no one could find a nomination that they particularly objected to and would prefer to eliminate in favor of someone else. It was also pointed out that the performances were all supporting roles, and not the lead characters from the film, a complaint that would plague the category off and on throughout the years. It’s still debated as to whether this is an indicator of Academy bias towards more flashy roles or a reflection of the way animated films are written and cast.
Robin Williams (The Genie) – Aladdin
The Academy brought out Angela Landsbury to present the award, in part to make up for the fact that she was not able to be nominated the previous year. When she opened the envelope and read out Robin Williams’ name, the cheering and applause drowned out the title of the film for which he had won. Once he reached the stage and hugged Landsbury, she informed him and the audience that he had won forAladdin. The performance also won him a Special Golden Globe Award that same year. It was unanimously agreed that the award went to the right nominee, and that Williams’ performance as the Genie was exactly what the category was created for, even if all of the nominees had only come from two different films. Williams’ Genie proved to be one of the defining roles in the history of animation, both demonstrating the creativity and individuality possible in voice performances, and also providing a character trope that would be copied repeatedly over the years with varying degrees of success. The addition of the category was mostly considered a success, though there was a fear that the animation surge would not be the lasting change that some (particularly Disney) hoped for, a fear that would be put to test in the years to come.
What do you think? What was the best voice performance in a film in 1992? Is there any bigger or more influential character in the history of animation than The Genie? In a hypothetical award category, could the Oscar have possibly gone to anyone other than Robin Williams? What roles do you think would be nominated from 1993, and what other controversies and debates might there be? Let me know in the comments!