Return of the King won big, but Fellowship changed the Oscars forever

US President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts

Director Peter Jackson (L) and actor Sean Astin arrive at the 74th annual Academy

When we talk about the Lord of the Rings trilogy and the Academy Awards, The Return of the King’s triumphant Oscar tally and Best Picture win from 2003 dominates that conversation. The Peter Jackson film is the ceremony’s biggest clean sweep, winning in all 11 of its nominated categories, tying Titanic and Ben-Hur for most wins in the ceremony’s history. But by that point, the series had become something of an award inevitability. The real groundwork was laid when The Fellowship of the Ring netted a historic 13 nominations and broke through the Oscars’ genre-film ceiling.

When the franchise launched in 2001, adapting J.R.R. Tolkien’s beloved series wasn’t an obvious candidate for an Oscar run. As Russell Schwartz, the president of theatrical marketing for New Line Cinema, has put it: “The question about the Academy campaign was, was it worth doing?[…] The biggest problem — and this started with Fellowship — was we had the dreaded F word.” And that word was fantasy.

Until this point, the Oscars had had a tenuous relationship with fantasy, horror, or science fiction films, unless they had Steven Spielberg’s name attached. Spielberg would earn buckets of nominations for films like E.T. or Close Encounters of the Third Kind (which still failed to show up in Best Picture despite eight other nominations), but his films were the exception to an unspoken rule.

Even films that made huge technological advances such as The Matrix, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Terminator 2: Judgment Day could rack up multiple nominations (and wins) in craft-focused categories without breaking the barrier into the big prize. While Best Visual Effects was naturally the most welcome home to genre movies, there would be occasional wins like Batman (1989) for Art Direction or Bram Stoker’s Dracula for Costume Design. Sigourney Weaver’s Best Actress nomination for Aliens was seen as a landmark anomaly.

The most notable exception of a high-fantasy movie landing in Best Picture was 1977’s Star Wars. But like Fellowship, Star Wars missed out on the biggest prizes of the night for screenplay, acting, director, and Best Picture, which went to Annie Hall. (Not counting for special achievement Oscars and including The Hobbit films, both franchises have earned a total 37 nominations each. For franchise comparison, the entire MCU has 19.)

US President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts

Gandalf has entered the chat

Photo: LUCY NICHOLSON/AFP via Getty Images

Much of this struggle for recognition is rooted in the industry’s and the Academy’s perception of what makes an Oscar-worthy movie. While the presence of major filmmakers and movie stars never hurts, the Academy Awards have always responded to prominent literary adaptations, true stories, and films that deliver something timely. The Academy voters’ patterns suggest they want films that can reflect our time and our history in a “serious” way, even if it looks like a flimsy prestige veneer. The decade leading up to The Lord of the Rings’ Oscars coup favored historical dramas (Titanic, Dances with Wolves) and bona fide movie stars and star directors (Forrest Gump, Unforgiven) even more than today. What helped set Fellowship aside was Jackson’s ability to produce something that delivered what the voters’ gravitated toward, regardless of genre distinction.

As soon as critics invoked names like David Lean and Francis Ford Coppola to describe Jackson’s achievement, the series was recontextualized from its blockbuster purpose. Jackson hadn’t just made an adventure with goblins and elves, he had made something on the wavelength of Oscar legends like Lawrence of Arabia. Best Picture was already trending toward favoring large-canvas films, with a previous decade of wins that included Titanic, Schindler’s List, The English Patient, and Braveheart. Gladiator was praised for reviving the corpse of swords-and-sandals epics like Ben-Hur, cementing Oscar’s nostalgia for big picture filmmaking of a certain scale. With Fellowship, Jackson and his collaborators unleashed that grandeur.

The film’s scope had an effect both timeless and timely for audiences — and voters. Despite perceptions on the limits of the genre, Fellowship was the Oscar film that spoke to the moment. Just as The Exorcist was interpreted through a lens of post-sexual revolution anxieties in an increasingly secular American society (resulting in 10 nominations), The Lord of the Rings subtextually ignited a culture reeling with the aftermath of 9/11. Audiences wanted escapism and clearly defined heroes; as the AV Club observed, Jackson offered a vision “where the forces of good and evil are as boldly demarcated as on the Fox News network.” Even though it was set in a land of wizards and orcs, Fellowship spoke to something larger that we were going through at the time. Jackson had, as Roger Ebert put it in 2001, “made a work for, and of, our times.”

Director Peter Jackson (L) and actor Sean Astin arrive at the 74th annual Academy

Peter Jackson and Sean Astin at the 74th annual Academy Awards in 2002

Photo: Anacleto Rapping/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

It also helped that voters had another popular fantasy franchise to which they could compare Lord of the Rings. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, which opened in the same holiday season, kicked off the Potterverse by handing the reins to Chris Columbus. Jackson and New Line Cinema filmed the entire series at once, a higher risk that Hollywood was more likely to reward if it paid off. The reviews were hosannas for Middle-Earth and passive respect for Hogwarts. The Wall Street Journal noted the difference: “Giving Lord of the Rings to an idiosyncratic filmmaker like Mr. Jackson was surprising corporate behavior, to say the least, in contrast to the resolutely conventional choice for another recent film involving wizards.” Sorcerer’s Stone earned three nominations to Fellowship’s 13, and went on to never win an Oscar. Other Potter movies earned nominations, but never won.

The Fellowship of the Ring was also perfectly placed in 2001’s Best Picture lineup to diminish potential fantasy film pushback. Opposite the idiosyncratic observation of Robert Altman’s Gosford Park and the claustrophobic intimacy of In the Bedroom, Fellowship’s massiveness was undeniable. But Baz Luhrman’s Moulin Rouge! was also nominated, a highly divisive film whose audacity and strangeness positioned Fellowship as the safe option in line with the Academy’s stodgier taste.

The only thing that could beat the film was typical Hollywood politicking and Oscar strategy, manifested in 2001 by the Ron Howard-directed biopic A Beautiful Mind. Before Ben Affleck was famously shut out of Best Director for Argo, Howard was known as one of the more notorious snubbed filmmakers, having been shockingly overlooked for 1995’s Apollo 13. Recent memories of that snub bolstered Howard and A Beautiful Mind’s chances throughout the season, cementing an “overlooked and overdue” narrative in the film’s favor. The Academy has always favored honoring industry legacies, and Peter Jackson was still considered an outsider, despite already having an Oscar nomination for Heavenly Creatures’ screenplay.

Mind weathered several hurdles to nab its win, from mixed reviews, controversies of obscuring its subject’s anti-Semitism and possible queer history, and its star Russell Crowe aggressing the director of the BAFTA ceremony. But Fellowship faced a single, more formidable obstacle: inhabiting a genre the Academy didn’t yet take seriously. A Beautiful Mind ended a decade that awarded timeless epics and began one that mostly awarded films by legacy directors. (Or had Gladiator been the final death knell? Either way, blame Russell Crowe.)

Fellowship would still win four Oscars, and the following year’s underwhelming showing for The Two Towers (six nominations with Jackson shut out of Best Director) would be blamed on the Academy already eyeing the trilogy’s finale as the place honor the entire series. In 2003, The Return of the King proved such theories correct with its historic Oscar showing, shattering conceptions of genre’s limitations. As The New York Times wrote, “It seemed to represent Hollywood’s soaring ability to create fantasy for the screen, but also seemed an emblem of a time when a conflict-ridden world was being reflected in Hollywood movies, as the original books seemed a reflection of the last world war and what followed.”

In the years since, Oscar has yielded such Best Picture nominees as The Shape of Water (which tied Fellowship’s 13 nominations for the most for a fantasy film), Black Panther, and Avatar. Even if all genre biases haven’t been broken, The Fellowship of the Ring changed the Oscar landscape forever.

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