7 Discontinued Oscar Categories

Tim Boyle/Getty Images
Tim Boyle/Getty Images

Oscar season is upon us, and just about every casual moviegoer and professional film critic has formed opinions on the various competitors in the race to the golden statuette. As always, the fiercest contention is for Best Picture, the self-explanatory award for the greatest overall achievement in the motion picture industry in 2019. Other awards of equal prestige but less popular interest include those for Best Documentary Short, Best Makeup and Hairstyling, and Best Sound Mixing—Oscars that rarely incite such impassioned debate over the most deserving winner.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the professional organizing body of the ceremony intended to honor the highest achievers in the field of filmmaking, recognizes that standards of achievement in the film industry evolve over time. The awards issued each year have reflected the ever-changing nature of the movie business—today’s Best Visual Effects may well give way to tomorrow’s Best Use of De-Aging Technology. Recognition is currently meted out to winners in 24 categories, but that number isn’t set in stone, as categories have been added and discontinued over the years.

In the lead-up to this year’s Academy Awards ceremony, we’re exploring some past categories that deserve their own spot in the "In Memoriam" tribute.

1. Academy Juvenile Award

Child actor Jackie Cooper with MGM vice president Louis B Mayer in 1928.
Child actor Jackie Cooper with MGM vice president Louis B Mayer in 1928.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In its heyday, the Academy Juvenile Award was a special away given only sporadically to performers under the age of 18 for particularly impressive dramatic feats. As a Special Honorary Academy Award, the Juvenile Award was under the exclusive jurisdiction of the Academy’s Board of Governors, who would periodically issue an Honorary Award to recognize “outstanding contributions to screen entertainment” not otherwise validated by existing award categories—for example, by child actors whose talent was worthy of merit, but whom voters had trouble pitting against their more worldly adult counterparts amid the cutthroat competition of the Best Actor/Actress categories.

At the 4th Academy Awards in 1931, 9-year-old Jackie Cooper won the impressive honor of being the first child nominated to the Best Actor category, as well as the more unfortunate distinction of being the first child to lose the Best Actor category. In the absence of even a Best Supporting Actor category at the time, the Academy saw fit to provide special dispensation to the industry’s wide-eyed youths. Three years later, Shirley Temple took home the first “Oscarette” at age 6. Eleven other performers received the same honor intermittently over the next 25 years, including Judy Garland in 1939 for her work in both The Wizard of Oz and Babes in Arms. Appropriately, the half-size statuettes which the winners held stood only seven inches tall.

During this time, the Academy established its Best Supporting Actor/Actress category, for which juveniles from 11-year-old Brandon deWilde to 17-year-old Sal Mineo were nominated and lost. When 16-year-old Patty Duke finally ousted her older competition to win the 1963 Best Supporting Actress award, the Academy dropped the Juvenile Award category and considered child actors on equal footing with adults. In 2013, 9-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis set a record as the youngest nominee in the Best Actress category for her role in Beasts of the Southern Wild. To be nominated, however, is not to win, and no one under the age of 21 has yet won a Best Actor/Actress Oscar for a leading role. (Marlee Matlin has held the record for youngest Best Actor/Actress winner for more than 32 years for taking home the gold in 1987 for Children of a Lesser God at 21 years and 218 days old.)

2. Best Title Writing

Some discontinued Oscar categories are obvious relics of the past. The award for Best Title Writing in particular recalls the silent film era, which was just coming to an end as the first Academy Awards ceremony debuted in 1928. One of three contenders for the Best Title Writing title, founding Academy member Joseph Farnham, won the category not on behalf of any particular film, but as an individual whose overall career his peers chose to recognize with the first and only award for title writing. As talkies rapidly rendered the intertitle screens explaining the film’s action obsolete, so too did this category lose its relevance in the blink of an eye.

3. Best Dance Direction

A lobby card for Robert Z. Leonard's 'The Great Ziegfeld'
A lobby card for The Great Ziegfeld (1936), which was one of three films ever to win an Oscar for Best Dance Direction.
Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons

Oh, those Gene Kelly days ... Once upon a time, when black-and-white movies predominantly featured light-footed stars in tuxes and leading ladies in sequins and tap shoes, it made perfect sense to honor the choreographers in charge of coordinating all the twirling and whirling, as well as translating the live action artistry to a two-dimensional screen. The category remained a popular one for its short-lived stint from 1935 to 1937, with seven nominees vying for the title each year. However, resentment from the Directors Guild of America over the semantics of “direction,” a term they felt should only be applied to the overall guidance provided by the film’s Director (with a capital D) effectively squashed the Academy’s love for the choreographers among them.

4. Best Assistant Director

Unlike other now-defunct Academy Awards, the category of Best Assistant Director has a number of fans clamoring for its return. In the first year of its awarding, the Best Assistant Director Oscar went to no fewer than seven winners from seven different studios, acknowledging the diverse and necessary division of labor within a filmmaking team, much of which went to the assistant director uncredited. As the awards became more about competition and less about any sense of congeniality among film professionals, assistant directors continued to do the dirty work, but lost the opportunity to stand up onstage to be recognized for it.

The position of assistant director, in recent years, certainly hasn’t been phased out; in fact, as the scale of movie production increases exponentially, the thankless work of an assistant director—preparing call sheets, maintaining orderly working conditions on set, and ensuring that filming progresses along its expected timeline—is often subdivided into first, second, and third assistant directors, if not more. Their roles embody the idea of “hard work, but somebody’s got to do it”; however, the absence of discernable creative output means that it is difficult to judge their labor by anything but the movie that it helps to produce. Historically, assistant directors could aspire to become full directors with a shot at awards ceremony glory, as Alfred Hitchcock did, but more recently the path has tended to lead to producer roles. There’s no Oscar for that, either, but at least they are the ones who get to collect any Best Picture Oscars—not to mention a little more notice in the end credits.

5. Best Engineering Effects

Movie poster for William A. Wellman's 'Wings' (1927)
A poster for William A. Wellman's Wings (1927), starring Clara Bow.
Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons

Awarded once and only once to Wings at the first-ever Academy Awards ceremony in 1929, the Engineering Effects category seems incredibly niche today. It was the predecessor, however, to a more general Best Special Effects award, which was subsequently renamed Best Special Visual Effects before the Academy settled on its most modern version as, simply, Best Visual Effects.

6. Best Short Subject—Comedy/Novelty, One-Reel/Two-Reel/Color

The award that gave way to today’s Best Animated Short Film and Best Live Action Short Film has seen a number of divisions and subdivisions over time, due both to changing technology and changing tastes in content. The distinction between the Comedy and Novelty categories might as well have been called “Comedy” and “Other”—there was no shortage of films featuring humorous subjects, which were naturally popular with 1930s audiences; all others were lumped into the Novelty category, for audiences for whom moving pictures themselves were still something of a novelty.

Later categories distinguishing one-reel from two-reel shorts classified the films by their definition of “short”—one reel referred to, literally, a single 1000-foot length of film corresponding to about 11 minutes of screen time; a two-reel was twice that. Awarding an Oscar for Best Short Subject - Color went out of fashion, of course, when color became the default standard.

7. Best Original Musical or Comedy Score

Prince in Purple Rain (1984)
Prince in Purple Rain (1984).
Warner Bros.

This particular category still exists, but with fewer restrictions, in its current incarnation as Best Original Score, as the Academy likely recognized the significant contributions made by musical effects even in dramatic movies. The increasingly hazy definitions of musical and comedy may also have played a role in their decision, as contemporary films incorporate both musical and comedic elements without necessarily identifying within those prescribed genres.

There is, in fact, still an award for Best Original Musical still legitimately up for grabs, but it’s been effectively defunct in the absence of sufficient eligible candidates every year since it was last awarded to Purple Rain in 1985. The rules for awarding it, according to Academy regulations, are as follows

An original musical consists of not fewer than five original songs (as defined in Paragraph I.B above) by the same writer or team of writers, either used as voiceovers or visually performed. Each of these songs must be substantively rendered, clearly audible, and intelligible, and must further the storyline of the motion picture. An arbitrary group of songs unessential to the storyline will not be considered eligible.

Unless Cats pulls out a surprise nomination, it's doubtful we'll see this award reemerge in 2020.

When Mississippi Once Banned Sesame Street

Children's Television Workshop/Courtesy of Getty Images
Children's Television Workshop/Courtesy of Getty Images

Since it began airing in the fall of 1969, Sesame Street has become an indelible part of millions of children's formative years. Using a cast of colorful characters like Big Bird, Bert, Ernie, and Oscar the Grouch, along with a curriculum vetted by Sesame Workshop's child psychologists and other experts, the series is able to impart life lessons and illustrate educational tools that a viewer can use throughout their adolescence. You would be hard-pressed to find anyone—even Oscar—who would take issue with the show’s approach or its mission statement.

Yet that’s exactly what happened in early 1970, when a board of educational consultants in Mississippi gathered, polled one another, and decided that Sesame Street was too controversial for television.

The series had only been on the air for a few months when the newly formed Mississippi Authority for Educational Television (also known as the State Commission for Educational Television) held a regularly scheduled meeting in January 1970. The board had been created by the state legislature with appointees named by Governor John Bell Williams to evaluate shows that were set to air on the state’s Educational Television, or ETV, station. The five-member panel consisted of educators and private citizens, including a teacher and a principal, and was headed up by James McKay, a banker in Jackson, Mississippi.

McKay’s presence was notable for the fact that his father-in-law, Allen Thompson, had just retired after spending 20 years as mayor of Jackson. Highly resistant to integration in the city during his tenure in office, Thompson was also the founder of Freedom of Choice in the United States, or FOCUS, an activist group that promoted what they dubbed “freedom of choice” in public schools—a thinly veiled reference to segregation. Mississippi, long the most incendiary state in the nation when it came to civil rights, was still struggling with the racial tension of the 1960s. Systemic racism was an issue.

Entering this climate was Sesame Street, the show pioneered by Joan Ganz Cooney, a former journalist and television producer who became the executive director of the Children’s Television Workshop. On the series, the human cast was integrated, with black performers Matt Robinson and Loretta Long as Gordon and Susan, respectively, appearing alongside white actors Jada Rowland and Bob McGrath. The children of Sesame Street were also ethnically diverse.

Zoe (L) and Cookie Monster (R) are pictured in New York City in November 2009
Astrid Stawiarz, Getty Images

This appeared to be too much for the Authority, which discussed how lawmakers with control over ETV’s budget—which had just been set at $5,367,441—might find the mixed-race assembly offensive. The panel's participants were all white.

The board pushed the discussion aside until April 17, 1970, when they took an informal poll and decided, by a margin of three votes against two, to prohibit ETV from airing Sesame Street—a show that came free of charge to all public television stations. (The decision affected mainly viewers in and around Jackson, as the station had not yet expanded across the state and was not expected to do so until the fall of 1970.)

The members who were outvoted were plainly unhappy with the outcome and leaked the decision to The New York Times, which published a notice of the prohibition days later along with a quote from one of the board members.

“Some of the members of the commission were very much opposed to showing the series because it uses a highly integrated cast of children,” the person, who did not wish to be named, said. “Mainly the commission members felt that Mississippi was not yet ready for it.”

The reaction to such a transparent concession to racism was swift and predictably negative, both in and out of Mississippi. Board members who spoke with press, usually anonymously, claimed the decision was a simple “postponing” of the show, not an outright ban. The fear, they said, was that legislators who viewed ETV as having progressive values might shut down the project before it had a chance to get off the ground. It was still possible for opponents to suffocate it before it became part of the fabric of the state’s television offerings.

The concern was not entirely without merit. State representative Tullius Brady of Brookhaven said that ETV exerted “a subtle influence” on the minds of children and that the Ford Foundation, which funded educational programming, could use its influence for “evil purposes.” Other lawmakers had previously argued against shows that promoted integration.

Grover is pictured at AOL Studios in New York City in May 2015
Slaven Vlasic, Getty Images

Regardless of how the decision was justified, many took issue with it. In an anonymous editorial for the Delta Democrat-Times, a critic wrote:

“But Mississippi’s ETV commission won’t be showing it for the time being because of one fatal defect, as measured by Mississippi’s political leadership. Sesame Street is integrated. Some of its leading cast members are black, including the man who does much of the overt ‘teaching.’ The neighborhood of the ‘street’ is a mixed one. And all that, of course, goes against the Mississippi grain.”

Joan Ganz Cooney called the decision a “tragedy” for young people.

Fortunately, it was a tragedy with a short shelf life. The following month, the board reconvened and reversed its own informal poll result, approving of Sesame Street and agreeing that ETV could air it as soon as they received tapes of the program. Thanks to feeds from Memphis, New Orleans, and Alabama, Sesame Street could already be seen in parts of Mississippi. And thanks to the deluge of negative responses, it seemed pointless to try to placate politicians who still favored segregation.

In the fall of 1970, the Sesame Street cast appeared in person in Jackson and was met by representatives from the board, which helped to sponsor the live performance, though it’s not clear any apology was forthcoming.

Sesame Street would go on to win numerous awards and accolades over the proceeding 50 years, though it would not be the only children’s show to experience censorship on public television. In May 2019, ETV networks in Alabama and Arkansas refused to air an episode of the PBS animated series Arthur in which a rat and aardvark are depicted as a same-sex couple getting married.

Attention Movie Geeks: Cinephile Is the Card Game You Need Right Now

Cinephile/Amazon
Cinephile/Amazon

If you’ve got decades worth of movie trivia up in your head but nowhere to show it off, Cinephile: A Card Game just may be your perfect outlet. Created by writer, art director, and movie expert Cory Everett, with illustrations by Steve Isaacs, this game aims to test the mettle of any film aficionado with five different play types that are designed for different skill and difficulty levels.

For players looking for a more casual experience, Cinephile offers a game variety called Filmography, where you simply have to name more movies that a given actor has appeared in than your opponent. For those who really want to test their knowledge of the silver screen, there’s the most challenging game type, Six Degrees, which plays like Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, with the player who finds the fewest number of degrees between two actors getting the win.

When you choose actors for Six Degrees, you’ll do so using the beautifully illustrated cards that come with the game, featuring Hollywood A-listers past and present in some of their most memorable roles. You’ve got no-brainers like Uma Thurman in Kill Bill (2003) and Arnold Schwarzenegger in Total Recall (1990) alongside cult favorites like Bill Murray from 2004's The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and Jeff Goldblum in The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984). Of course, being a game designed for the true film buff, you’ll also get some deeper cuts like Helen Mirren from 1990’s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover and Sean Connery in 1974's Zardoz. There are 150 cards in all, with expansion packs on the way.

Cinephile is a labor of love for Everett and Isaacs, who originally got this project off the ground via Kickstarter, where they raised more than $20,000. Now it’s being published on a wider scale by Clarkson Potter, a Penguin Random House group. You can get your copy from Amazon now for $20.

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