What This Year’s Oscar Nominations Say About the Academy
The Academy Award nominations for 2020 have been announced, and naturally, there are plenty of omissions that have become a topic of heated debate. That happens every year as there are always oversights and snubs. It’s wise to remember all that goes into getting an Oscar nomination – it takes the right mix of acclaim, box office, publicity, and peer love. And thankfully, this year’s slate is an admirable bunch. The eleven nominations for Joker have caused some to scratch their heads, but it’s a $330 million-plus blockbuster at the U.S. box office and has been the talk of the movie season since it opened last autumn.
Such an edgy and controversial choice at least lends modernity to the 92nd annual Oscars, despite the lack of diversity in various categories this year. And the Academy should be praised for having the insight to nominate a foreign language film for Best Picture the second year in a row – South Korea’s international phenomenon Parasite. (Last year, Mexico’s Roma made the cut.) And while the Academy didn’t nominate any women for Best Director, 31% of this year’s overall nominees this year are women. That’s the highest percentage ever, although still low.
There are also some definitive trends this year, with two of them speaking well of the Academy, while the other is a tried-and-true trope that suggests that the voters still navel-gaze far too often.
The Academy Is Following the Critics
To be more relevant in an accolade-heavy season, the Academy has been pushing up their award dates over the past decade. Last year’s statues were handed out on February 24. This year, winners will be clutching Oscar gold the night of February 9. With truncated schedules, voters are having to see as much as they can to make reasonably informed decisions. That means they may not be popping as many screeners into the DVD player and attentively watching films from beginning to end as in years past. If that’s true, then they likely are relying upon the endorsement of others to guide their voting… specifically critics.
The Farewell, Apollo 11, Us, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, and Hustlers are a few of the films that critics loved but received no Oscar nominations, but by and large, the Academy echoed most of the “critics’ darlings.” Take the acting nominees for example – every single one has figured in various awards given out since December. Kathy Bates’s nod for Richard Jewell struck some as out of left-field, but she was awarded Best Supporting Actress by the National Board of Review, in addition to being nominated by five critics groups including the Golden Globes. Academy taste has often lined up with critics in the past, and this year it was especially true.
Shrewder Voting Drives the Technical Categories
Actors nominate actors, directors nominate directors, and costume designers nominate costume designers. Everyone votes on Best Picture, but the other nominations are voted on by experts in the specific categories. And as peers sit down to cast their ballots for their colleagues, they are becoming more and more discerning.
Frozen II may have just become the biggest money-making animated feature of all time, but the animation members of the Academy didn’t love it enough for a Best Animated Feature nomination. Instead, edgier, ‘arthouse’ fare like I Lost My Body and Klaus received more of their votes. Women directors may have been overlooked, but the heavily-male music wing of the Academy nominated Hildur Guðnadóttir for her Joker score. And production designers rarely take note of films that aren’t period or fantasy, but this year they nominated the modern-day Parasite for its distinctive presentation of upscale and downscale living in Korea.
The below-the-line experts tend to be less impressed by stars too. They don’t get any bigger than Beyoncé, but she found herself without a nomination for her song written for The Lion King. Whether one thinks she should have been nominated or not, her exclusion speaks to how the craftspeople march to their own drummer and don’t automatically fall in line with star power.
Hollywood Likes Stories About the Industry
For some time now, Oscar voters have been rewarding movies that are about them. Since 2010, show biz themes were part and parcel of these Best Picture winners: The King’s Speech (an actor teaches a monarch how to speak), The Artist (a silent film actor struggles in the industry), Argo (Hollywood producers help rescue American hostages in Iran), Birdman (an aging film actor tries theater), Green Book (a driver takes a concert musician on a southern tour).
Vanity Fair entertainment columnist Mark Harris noted on Twitter that seven of the ten characters played by the nominated Best Actor and Best Actress candidates have show biz careers. Best Actor? A movie director, theater director, TV actor, an aspiring comedian/working clown, and a pope. Best Actress? A TV actress, a singer/actress, a TV newscaster, a slave, and a writer. Technically speaking, Saoirse Ronan’s character of novelist Jo in Little Women brushes up against the entertainment field as well. It certainly did in Louisa May Alcott’s time.
Such a consistent trend likely speaks to the fact that to become an Academy member, you must be invited into the club. To get noticed even, one must have “made it” with a notable career. Such stars are likely immersed in their careers and the industry, let alone living in Los Angeles. It really is no wonder that such voters would tend to gravitate towards that which reflects their focus, interests, and experiences.
Of course, the Oscar voting needs to be less male-centric and less Caucasian, but if you look at the history of the awards, the Academy has always made plenty of blunders. They’ve given out countless career awards over far more worthy performances and clung to a middle-road sensibility that rewards the broadest appeal possible.
Is it sad that accomplished 2019 films like The Last Black Man in San Francisco, The Report, and Booksmart didn’t score a single nod? Of course. But this is the Oscars and unless blue-ribbon panels replace general balloting, that is how it’s going to be.
But all in all, this year’s slate is a worthy group, one deserving a healthy round of applause. No joke.
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