The First Discontinued Oscars Categories
Over the years, various Oscars categories recognizing an assortment of different cinematic disciplines have been discontinued.
It’s shocking how many key aspects of the Academy Awards have been there right from the start. Despite going on for 94 different ceremonies, a host was there from the beginning, ditto categories like Best Actor/Actress and Best Cinematography. There’s a consistency to the Academy Awards that makes them such catnip for casual viewers and award-season junkies alike. But that doesn’t mean every category introduced into this ceremony has become a permanent staple of the show. Over the years, there have been several Oscar categories that have been discontinued. Many of these have vanished from the memory of the general public, but it’s still worth remembering their existence and what led to them vanishing.
While certain staples of the Academy Awards were introduced in the very first ceremony and then maintained every year after, the first Academy Awards also featured several categories that would be immediately discontinued the following year. These categories primarily revolved around expanding how many features the ceremony could recognize as being the “best” of a given year. This included how the Oscars featured a pair of categories for filmmakers, Best Director, Comedy Picture and Best Director, Dramatic Picture. Frank Borzage for 7th Heaven and Lewis Milestone for Two Arabian Knights were the only winners ever of the prizes for Best Director, Dramatic and Best Director, Comedy, respectively. A single Best Director category would be implemented starting with the second Academy Awards ceremony.
Meanwhile, Best Picture was similarly split up between the Academy Award for Outstanding Picture and the Academy Award for Best Unique and Artistic Direction. This allowed Wings and Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans to each take home the most prestigious categories of the night, but in hindsight, it’s a strange distinction between movies. The Academy seemed to think so too given how quickly these categories were condensed into one category the following year. Film historian Monica Roxanne Sandler informed Time in 2018 that the decision to immediately forego two categories likely boiled down to something as simple as the terms used to distinguish these categories feeling too similar to one another. It’s one thing to pull a Golden Globes and split things based on Comedy/Musical and Drama. It’s another to make two Best Picture categories that don’t seem that different from one another.
The final category to get immediately cut from the Oscars was Best Title Writing. This one’s exclusion was based on grander changes in direction in what kind of films were getting made. As explained by Awards and Shows, the award was meant to recognize the best-realized writing for dialogue titles that showed up in silent movies. For the inaugural Oscars, where the two Best Picture winners were silent features, this seemed like a vital category. But The Jazz Singer would sweep the country and push talkies to the forefront of cinematic storytelling so fast that the Best Title Writing category became pointless within a year. It too would join the Academy Awards trash heap, but unlike the discarded additional Best Director or Best Picture categories, there would be no modern successor to carry on the spirit of Best Title Writing in the Oscar ceremonies to come.
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The 1930s would see extensive turnover in terms of categories getting introduced and then jettisoned. A pair of categories, Best Short Subject – Comedy, and Best Short Subject – Novelty, functioned as the very first time live-action short films were recognized at the Academy Awards. It was a welcome change that allowed outstanding filmmakers and their brief works to get recognized. However, these categories would be traded out for Best Short Subject – 1 Reel and Best Short Subject – 2 Reel by the end of the 1930s. It would take until the late 1950s with the 30th Academy Award ceremony before all of this was condensed down into a single Best Live-Action Short Film category.
Meanwhile, the 6th Academy Awards unveiled a Best Assistant Director category, with the inaugural version of this category allowing for seven different people to win the award. Subsequent uses of the category would make room for only one victor, but it was gone by the end of the 1930s. A Best Dance Direction category, a way of recognizing the flourishing musical genre, was also implemented in the mid-1930s, though it didn’t last long. This one’s exclusion ended up being a good idea in the long-term, as it’s hard to imagine there being enough films annually during the 1970s and 1980s (a dark period for the American musical) to justify the category’s annual presence.
After the 1930s, the Oscars largely stuck to whatever categories it introduced, save for the condensing of the Live-Action short film categories. The Academy Awards still allowed in new categories, as seen by the presence of the Best Original Screenplay and Best Documentary Feature categories in the 1940s. But whereas before new categories like Best Dance Direction would be introduced and then abandoned a few years later, they were now way more likely to stick around for the long term. Still, that doesn’t mean the Oscars haven’t dropped certain categories in recent decades that once seemed guaranteed to be permanent fixtures of the show.
In the mid-1990s, the Best Original Score category was split into two, with the distinction between the categories being genres. The ceremonies would now have Best Original Dramatic Score and Best Original Musical or Comedy Score categories. Per The Los Angeles Times, the decision was made due to a string of animated Disney musicals dominating the category in the early 1990s, a sweep that was perceived as being due to people voting for movies with grand musical numbers rather than focusing on the instrumental scores of motion pictures. This strategy was always a strange one and the Best Original Musical or Comedy Score would be jettisoned by the 72nd Academy Awards, the first ceremony of the 21st century. The timing on this ended up being inadvertently perfect as Disney’s animated renaissance came to a close by the end of the 1990s. There would be no Mouse House domination of the Best Original Score category in the early 2000s.
Then there was the Best Sound Editing category, which began life as the Best Sound Effects category. This category always had an awkwardly sporadic life, with it being awarded on and off as a Special Achievement category in various years in the 1970s and 1980s. Later retitled Best Sound Effects Editing, it would become a staple of the Oscars by the 1990s. Eventually, Best Sound Editing and its companion category, Best Sound Mixing (the renamed version of the original Best Sound category), would be merged back into the Academy Award for Best Sound category. The decision prompted a variety of responses from the sound effects industry, though the widespread perception of Oscar voters failing to understand the differences between Best Sound Editing and Best Sound Mixing categories made the condensing an inevitability.
The Best Sound Editing category has, to date, been the only Oscars category that’s been cut from the ceremony permanently in the 21st century. This is a reflection of how far this award show has come since the late 1920s when everything about the Oscars was so ill-defined that the number of Best Picture categories was still undecided. Nowadays, the Academy Awards have got a firm number of categories down, which provides a sense of consistency to both viewers and the poor souls tasked with pulling off this elaborate program. Still, even if they’re now a distant memory in the history of the Academy Awards, there’s still value in looking back on lost Oscar categories like Best Assistant Director and Best Title Writing. After all, they offer a peek into the history of film itself (since the elimination of many of these categories reflected broader cinematic trends) while also showing how the Oscars, despite its public perception as an unwavering beast, is always growing and evolving.
Douglas Laman is a life-long movie fan, writer and Rotten Tomatoes approved critic whose writing has been published in outlets like The Mary Sue, Fangoria, The Spool, and ScarleTeen. Residing both on the Autism spectrum and in Texas, Doug adores pugs, showtunes, the Wes Anderson movie Fantastic Mr. Fox, and any music by Carly Rae Jepsen.