Why Elvis Proves the Oscars Should Bring Back the Best Dance Category

ytsfreeSeptember 17, 2022

No movie has captivated movie fans this year quite like Baz Luhrmann’s trippy Elvis biopic, and rightly so. The film captures Elvis Presley’s meteoric rise and devastating decline in a fashion that only Luhrmann can accomplish with brash unadulterated pizzazz. This marvelous feat by one of cinema’s greatest living auteurs results in a dazzling, dizzying spectacle that is now considered one of the Oscar frontrunners for this year, likely to sweep the 2024 Academy Award nominations in artistic and technical categories such as Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Production Design, Cinematography, Visual Effects, Make-Up/Hair, Costume Design, and Editing, all well deserved. This could be Luhrmann’s big year, having been nominated only once for Moulin Rouge! back in 2002.

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The real draw, of course, is Elvis’s music catalog, which Luhrmann uses smartly to display his most raw talent: dancing. It’s that “jiggle,” as the film puts it, that makes the girls scream, the hip sways that make the parents groan, and the pelvic thrusts that made politicos furious. Austin Butler does a great job at getting Presley’s moves right, astonishingly so. It begs the question if the film’s choreography will be rewarded as handsomely as everyone else once award season is fully underway. The short answer is no. That is unless the year was 1935, 1936, or 1937, the only years that the Academy awarded a Best Dance Direction Oscar to three films: Broadway Melody of 1936, The Great Ziegfeld, and The Damsel in Distress, respectively.

That means that for the last 85-odd years, some of the best dance moments in film history have been largely ignored by the Oscars as a craft. That’s right. Singing in the Rain, Flashdance, Chicago, West Side Story (both the original and the remake), and even Baz Luhrmann’s directorial debut, Strictly Ballroom, have all been largely ignored by the Academy in terms of the dance direction, and that’s a shame. A serious shame. Where would the world be if not for spirit fingers in Bring It On?


Dance Scenes Are Often the Scenes That Audiences Enjoy Most

Where would cinema be without Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey’s iconic lift in the air in Dirty Dancing? Or Tom Cruise’s smooth sock slide moves in Risky Business? How unforgettable was Jennifer Lopez’s pole dance to Fiona Apple’s Criminal in Hustlers? Or Catherine Zeta-Jones’s luscious lifts and jazz hands in Chicago? Jennifer Beals’ final audition in Flashdance? Or Billy Elliott? Period. The truth is that dance choreography is a craft of its own. It’s a talent that requires training and discipline, and oftentimes the film’s success depends on those moves being delivered with absolute perfection.

Related: Dirty Dancing Star Jane Brucker Shares the Story Behind the ‘Hula Hana’ Song

In a film like Elvis, where the craft of dance is central to the narrative, shouldn’t the craft maker be rewarded the same as some of the other filmmakers that get to take home Oscar gold? In the case of Elvis, it would be Polly Bennett, who is credited on IMDB as the movement coach/choreographer responsible for training Butler to deliver. Thanks to their collaboration, the film was able to convincingly portray the magnanimous life of Elvis. Imagine if the dancing didn’t match or wasn’t worthy of the screen. Would that have been enough to kill the quality of the film? Probably.

So if the Academy used to reward craft makers of dance with an Oscar in the past, why have they not revived the category given all the incredible dance moments that have graced the silver screen in the last 85 years? Dance direction in movies like Mary Poppins, Grease, Newsies, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, True Lies, Austin Powers, Mean Girls, A League of Their Own, La La Land, Black Swan, and Fame have gone largely ignored. It’s not like the category never existed; it did, for three golden years, during the middle of the Great Depression, in fact. Perhaps they were onto something then.

The Academy Can Vote to Re-Instate the Category

And it’s not like the Academy doesn’t make changes to the category line-up. As recently as 2019, they were fiddling with the categories, combining the Best Sound Editing category with its sister Best Sound Mixing and creating the behemoth Best Sound Editing and Mixing category. The Academy isn’t wrong there. Those two categories deserve to be together. It makes sense. But so does bringing back the Best Dance Direction category.

Related: Best Dance Breakout Scenes in Non-Musical Movies, Ranked

Why? Because musicals, dance scenes, and performances will always exist in movies, especially great when they appear in unlikely movies like Napoleon Dynamite and Little Miss Sunshine. And with the rise of the Tik Tok dance star, a Tik Tok movie is not too far-fetched and way more likely to get butts in seats or clicks for stream or eyes on the almost a hundred years old awards show, which could use some younger viewers.

To add fire to the mix, it’s particularly intriguing to watch the campaign for there to be a Best Casting Director category included in the line-up, which, again, does make sense. So why the hesitation in adding categories? Aversions to a longer telecast? Not enough talent to nominate? Unaware that YouTube and TikTok have shown people love to dance and grabbed eyes, and marketing dollars, away from stuffy award shows? Perhaps they don’t want to seem old and desperate and be ridiculed for looking too much like the Grammys, or even worse, the Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Awards. There’s the Technical Oscars, which would allow the Academy to reward the dance craft maker. The Emmys do it. The Tony’s do it. Even the MTV Awards do it. Adding these categories would be rewarding and, most importantly, entertaining. After all, this is show business, and there is no business without the show part.

It’s too late for Polly Bennett to get the reward she deserves for bringing Elvis’s iconic moves to silver screens, leaving us gasping and feeling stirred by Austin Butler. And thank heavens for Baz Luhrmann, who truly outdoes himself, showing how excellent he is at filming the moving body. He is to Hollywood what Fosse was to Broadway, and it’s incredible to watch him shine with Elvis. And perhaps that’s why Luhrmann deserves his first Best Director win, in honor of all dance directors out there.

Life is a Cabaret old chump, indeed. Life is a cabaret.

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