Academy Awards snub the animal kingdom

February 23, 2012

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This year’s nominees for the top Oscar slots (picture, director, actor, actress) generated the usual responses, from elation to disappointment to prolonged bouts of head scratching. I don’t know whether they’re a better or worse batch than previous years' contenders, but the Academy must be feeling a bit itchy about its picks - in recent years rules have been tweaked so that in theory more – and perhaps more deserving – films make it into contention.

As far as deserving Oscar performances go, what hasn’t changed is the ineligibility (technically) of non-human actors. Now, that oversight normally doesn’t generate a whole lot of controversy. But in a year when star turns by dogs, cats and other creatures are both ubiquitous and in some cases outshine their two-footed competitors, well, that’s a horse of a different color.

Animals in films that are actually nominated include Uggie, who plays "The Dog" in The Artist, Cosmo aka "Arthur" in Beginners, Blackie, the fierce doberman "Maximilian" in Hugo, and Finder, who plays "Joey" in War Horse. All won awards at the recent PAWSCARS (Cosmo snagged the award for best speaking part because his barks were subtitled. Surely Uggie deserved those as well – the rest of his silent co-stars got them!).

Best ensemble cast went to a non-nominated film – We Bought a Zoo. I would have recommended Bullhead, one of this year's foreign film nominees. A herd of photogenic Belgian cattle alongside a duplicitous veterinarian and mobsters dealing in banned bovine hormones? That’s got Oscar written all over it!

The most glaring oversight might be Andy Serkis' performance in Planet of the Apes (a tour de force that also troubles the human-animal hierarchical bent of the Academy). Another performance to ponder, if not necessarily award, is the talking cat Paw Paw in Miranda July’s The Future (who really ought to connect with another crowd-dividing animal performer - the apocalyptic fox in Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist). Hummer, the Pomeranian who played "Dolce" in Young Adults deserves special mention as a non-professional animal actor.

Meanwhile Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff features a tragic canary and a bestiary of oxen, horses and burros, but not her soulful dog, Lucy, who co-starred in her previous film Wendy and Lucy and completely stole Old Joy out from under solemn, Walt Whitman look-alike Will Oldham.

I admit, I’ve got a bit of a thing for animal performances. Where would westerns be (which never get a lot of Oscar love) without horses? Particularly charming is Stardust, the frequent co-star of Randolph Scott.

But I can trace my fixation far earlier, to the 1919 Canadian film, Back to God’s Country. Starring the multi-talented (and real-life animal lover) Nell Shipman, the Northern epic features scenes with adorable bear cub Cubby, as well as a very prickly porcupine. The film has some interesting gender politics –it is heroine Nell who races her sled across the frozen North to save her man.

I’ve also always wondered about the film’s sexual politics. Thanks to some frenzied cross-cutting at the film’s climax, the true-love relationship seems to involve Nell and Wapi the wonder dog, an abused Great Dane she picks up along the way.

But I digress - let’s get back to Oscars country! Rumor had it that the semi-retired Jack Russell, Uggie, would make an appearance at the awards. Sad to say that’s not the case. What do you want to bet that Billy Crystal, a man who’s done his share of acting opposite animals, thought he might be upstaged?

Nominate your favorite animal performance (from this or previous years) below!