Nominated for Nothing: Why the Oscars' TKO of “The Iron Claw” is below the belt

Zac Efron and Jeremy Allen White's wrestling drama landed every tragic gut punch. Here's why the Academy was wrong to ignore it.

They were destined to score zero Academy Awards, but they won our attention throughout a year (and awards season) like no other. Ahead of the 96th Oscars ceremony on March 10, Entertainment Weekly is breaking down the year's best movies, performances, and directorial achievements that were nominated for nothing.

The film: Think High School Musical if Troy Bolton actually listened to his dad and gave up his dream of performing onstage to focus only on sports — to extremely devastating results. The Iron Claw is the tragic true story of the Von Erich family, centered on four of the six brothers — Kevin (Zac Efron), David (Harris Dickinson), Kerry (Jeremy Allen White), and Mike (Stanley Simons) — and their abusive father Fritz (Holt McCallany), who would stop at nothing to solidify their wrestling empire in the '70s and '80s in Texas. The film is the most compelling piece of evidence in the debate of nature vs. nurture with writer-director Sean Durkin's (The Nest) deep dive into toxic masculinity as the brothers struggle under their suffocating, stern father's ideals that to be a real man means you have to be the toughest, strongest, and most successful, and never cry or show weakness, no matter what. With all the talk about the Von Erich family being cursed, it's clear the father is their real curse. And their apathetic, religious mother (Maura Tierney), who would rather ignore any issue than help her sons, sure doesn't help.

This emotional piledriver of a movie never pulls its punches. Just when you think the family's lives can't get any more unfortunate, another story beat enters the ring to dropkick your heart right when you least expect it. You can't avoid crying no matter how hard you try throughout the entire runtime — regardless of how well you know the true story of the Von Erichs. Knowing what's coming doesn't lessen any of the blows, and that's all thanks to a career-best, shockingly raw performance from former Disney darling Efron, who manages to convey more emotional turmoil with just his eyes than most actors can with their entire bodies (and that's not even taking into account the shocking physical transformation he underwent to become the hulking professional wrestler in real life). The film is rounded out by the rest of the impressive ensemble delivering nuanced acting that never lets you forget these were real people experiencing unimaginable misfortune.

<p>Brian Roedel/ A24</p> Zac Efron in 'The Iron Claw'

Brian Roedel/ A24

Zac Efron in 'The Iron Claw'

Why it wasn't nominated: The Iron Claw has all the makings of an Oscars goldmine. From indie powerhouse A24, it's a conventional, dramatic, period sports drama biopic, features actors undergoing intense physical transformations, delivers tragic gut punch after gut punch to tug on the Academy's heartstrings ... the list goes on and on. There is no Achilles' heel: It has a tightly-written screenplay, is beautifully shot, well-edited, with awards-worthy performances from an all-around strong cast of beloved Hollywood stars. It's also a bona fide box office hit with both commercial and critical acclaim. So what gives?

It's a shockingly simple — and therefore frustrating — answer. The Oscars has a history of only celebrating movies that come out before the awards "dead zone" of the months at the end of the eligibility window, a.k.a. the end of the calendar year. The Iron Claw's Texas premiere happened in November, and opened in theaters in December, which means it was doomed before it even entered the ring. It missed out on garnering important buzz from all the major fall film festivals, including Telluride, Toronto, and Venice, which have become necessary in the release-to-awards pipeline. In this day and age, it's extremely rare to see a late-year release without any festival premieres earn any nominations. While it won Best Ensemble and was named one of the year's Top 10 Films by the National Board of Review and was celebrated by smaller critics' associations, most Academy voters already made up their minds when The Iron Claw finally premiered, resulting in zero Oscar nominations in both the major and technical categories, when it deserved to earn some in both.

It also definitely didn't help that A24 put all their FYC funds and efforts behind campaigns for its other two awards-friendly films that came out earlier in the year, The Zone of Interest and Past Lives, both of which earned Best Picture noms (the first time the indie distributor has two movies in the running for the top prize). By the time The Iron Claw finally came out, there was nothing left for A24 to make a late push into the Oscars race. If only it had come out a month or two sooner (or even a few months later to kick off the 2025 pre-awards festival circuit), it's likely we'd be having a much different conversation, likely about Efron finally breaking free from his Disney past with his first-ever Oscar nomination.

<p>A24/Twitter</p> 'The Iron Claw' stars Harris Dickinson, Zac Efron, Stanley Simons, and Jeremy Allen White


'The Iron Claw' stars Harris Dickinson, Zac Efron, Stanley Simons, and Jeremy Allen White

Why history will remember it better than the Academy did: If this was a fictional story about a wrestling family dynasty, critics and viewers alike would be maligning it for being a ridiculously unbelievable tale with the sole intention to wring out tears from even the most steadfast, stone-cold audience member. But this really happened — and in real life, it was even worse, as the Von Erichs actually had six sons, five of whom died (one of the brothers was erased from the movie to streamline the script).

But the film's strength is how it doesn't exploit the tragedies of the Von Erich family for entertainment. It relies on the masterful performances by Efron, White, Harris, and the rest of the powerful ensemble to convey the deepest devastation in every unrelenting twist of the story, tackling heavy themes of abuse, depression, addiction, and suicide with extreme care. Even a corny afterlife scene that sounds overly saccharine on the page is brought to life onscreen in ways that feel like an unexpected, bittersweet payoff for these cursed brothers. This movie could have easily slipped into melodrama in less skilled hands at every level, but instead, it deftly walks a fine line to honor the real story and people behind it all.

Rest assured, Efron has proven he's serious, adult leading man material with The Iron Claw. But while this movie was a TKO for the Oscars, we will see him get that nom one day. He just has to keep getting back up after getting knocked down.

EW's countdown to the 2024 Oscars has everything you're looking for, from our expert predictions and in-depth Awardist interviews with this year's nominees to nostalgia and our takes on the movies and actors we wish had gotten more Oscars love. You can check it all out at The Awardist.

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