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Why Musical Movies Bohemian Rhapsody and A Star Is Born Won't Take Home Oscars

There's a long history of musicals winning Best Picture. These two nominees will not.

Some fun facts for musical-theater geeks to pull out at an Oscar party:

• The second-ever Best Picture winner was a musical, The Broadway Melody in 1930.

• In the 1960s, 4 of the 10 Best Picture winners were musicals: West Side Story in 1962; My Fair Lady in 1965; The Sound of Music in 1966; and Oliver! in 1969.

• The X-rated film Midnight Cowboy beat Hello, Dolly! for the Best Picture trophy in 1970.

• Only 1 musical has won Best Picture since 1968: Chicago in 2003.

If you're a fan of Oscars history — particularly the musicals that have won and been nominated — there will be two full Sundays of them on Turner Classic Movies, February 17 and 24. Running the gamut from Meet Me in St. Louis to South Pacific, and 42nd Street to 1776, it will be a prime way to get ready for Hollywood's biggest night, providing a window to a past where musicals regularly took home the gold, from a present where they're most frequently also-rans.

"The Academy has been interested in rewarding musicals since the outset of the Oscars 90 years ago," says Turner Classic Movies host and Oscars pundit Dave Karger. "Musicals are Oscar bait to a certain extent: They have high production values and they allow performers to surprise us. That's why they're still popular." But two musical films — Bohemian Rhapsody and A Star Is Born — are nominated for this year's Best Picture Oscar, and neither of them is expected to take home the trophy. Why is that?

Rami Malek stars as Freddie Mercury in Twentieth Century Fox's Bohemian Rhapsody.
(© Alex Bailey)

"By and large," Karger explains, "musicals are considered 'frivolous.' For a musical to win these days, it would have to have the prestige, it would have to be groundbreaking, and it would have to be seen as quote-unquote 'important.'" Not all musicals are frivolous, of course; Cabaret, for example, "proved that you could be a musical and also tackle very serious subject matter." It lost Best Picture to The Godfather.

Both Bohemian Rhapsody and A Star Is Born have prestige going for them, and you could actually make the case that they're both musicals and serious dramas. The former is a biographical portrait of the band Queen, examining the life of lead singer Freddie Mercury (Rami Malek) and the creation of beloved hits like "We Will Rock You" and the title track. The latter is Bradley Cooper's remake of a cherished classic that explores the relationship between Jackson (Cooper), a country music superstar on the way out, and Ally (Lady Gaga), the young singer-songwriter he falls in love with and helps catapult to fame.

Following in the grand tradition of the "integrated musical," where song, story, setting, and movement all come together to create a unified piece, A Star Is Born features wholly original songs with lyrics that provide insight into the emotional states of Jackson and Ally at given moments within the plot. Taking a cue from jukebox musicals like Jersey Boys and Beautiful, Bohemian Rhapsody presents the songs of Queen in the context of their creation, though they aren't necessarily used to comment on the action or further the story.

Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga in A Star is Born.
(© Warner Brothers Entertainment)

On the other hand, both films were nominated in the drama category at the Golden Globes, an awards show that has a category specifically dedicated to musicals, but combines them with comedies. (Never forget that Dreamgirls beat Borat for this title in 2007.) Giving us a clue as to how the film is really interpreted by voters, Bohemian Rhapsody actually won the Drama honor this year, which makes sense given its storytelling structure.

However, based on past precedent, A Star Is Born could have been slotted into either category. Both the 1954 version with Judy Garland and the 1976 remake with Barbra Streisand were considered in the Musical or Comedy categories despite dealing with topics like addiction and suicide. "I understand why they put this one in drama," Karger says. "They wanted it to be taken more seriously."

In an era where Oscar gold more often goes to the films that spark a conversation or shift a paradigm, being taken seriously is of primary importance. That's why Bohemian Rhapsody and A Star Is Born are trying to control the perceptions of what they are, and why it's likelier that, as in the case of Moonlight and La La Land in 2017, we'll see a Roma or Green Book victory this year. In Karger's words, "They'll go for something with a stronger message."