The 89th Academy Awards nominations were historic on several fronts.
La La Land tied the all-time record for most nominations, garnering 14 total nods.
There were six people of color nominated across the four acting categories.
For the first time, three black actors/actresses were nominated in the same category.
And this year’s nominations announcement was the most putrid I’ve ever witnessed.
Hate to bury the lede here (this should, after all, be about the movies), but this so-called “live stream” – consisting of heavily-edited, over-produced, pre-recorded testimonials from past winners interspersed with hastened Voice of God announcement of the nominees – represented a total disconnect from the human connection we all cling to for this annual event. I may sound like a ranting purist (I’ve been guilty of that label before, surely), but for all the cynicism I sometimes bring to this business, one marvelous thing about the annual announcement of the Oscar nominations is how it momentarily unifies us all. We all come together for a few short minutes in the early morning – and yeah, we complain about how early we have to wake up, too – to witness the unveiling of that which we obsess over for six months out of every year. It’s supposed to be an event, not an infomercial.
In spite of how loudly I bemoan this soul-crushing devolution of the nominations announcement, there is actually a very simple fix that the Academy could employ without much of a reversal in strategy. It’s one that has been bandied about the punditry circuit and Film Twitter for years now – transform the Oscar Nominations Announcement into a primetime TV special. And in reality, that’s a way to merge the past winner testimonial style of this year’s announcement with the immediacy and shared experience of the live announcements in years past. Essentially, have all – or, to reduce complexity of scheduling, one or two – of the participants in the recorded testimonials also be on-hand for the live portion. Begin with a live intro by AMPAS President Cheryl Boone Isaacs, cut to the testimonials as an uninterrupted piece, and then return to Isaacs with a handful of the testimonial participants to announce the nominees in person. Maintain the cadence of having past winners from given categories announce the nominees from those categories – Dustin Lance Black announces screenplays, Jennifer Hudson announces Supporting Actress and the Music categories, Brie Larson announces Best Actress, etc. It evolves into a mixed media world but also maintains the intimacy of a live event. Plus, the primetime slot builds a broader audience. Seems perfect to me. (*Flashes business card*)
Okay, onto the nominations themselves.
It was, as predicted, a La La Land kind of morning, with Damien Chazelle’s film joining a club of which the only other members are All About Eve and Titanic. It might go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: that both of those films went on to win Best Picture and much more. That’s the kind of company La La Land now keeps, but that now also represents the steep road it must surmount to maintain that esteem. The seasonal parlance of “Phase One” and “Phase Two” are more than simple time numerical time stamps – they also represent different gears in each film’s campaign. La La Land enters Phase Two with, for lack of a better term, a target on its back. As I mentioned last week, Lionsgate is nurturing a thoroughbred. Phase Two is where they put the apparatus in place to push it across the finish line.
Breaking the stats down, the 14 nods for La La Land place the film in every top tier category except the Supporting acting categories, and every below-the-line category except Visual Effects and Makeup/Hairstyling. One could refer to that as across-the-board dominance, but another way to reference La La’s performance is “across-the-board love.” It’s the latter designation that should frighten the competition.
Behind the frontrunner, Moonlight and Arrival tied with eight nominations apiece, also very impressive hauls that demonstrate broad Academy support. For Moonlight, it was as sterling a performance as the team could’ve expected, maxing out its nomination potential. However, for Arrival perhaps the biggest takeaway was the one nomination it didn’t get: a Best Actress nod for Amy Adams. A common theme on Film Twitter this morning was something to the effect of: “so the Academy loved everything about Arrival but failed to nominate the performance that held it all together?!” Yes, apparently such a contradictory scenario has occurred. Supplanting Adams, theoretically, was Ruth Negga, whose performance in Loving was extraordinary. One could refer to Meryl Streep’s nominated performance in Florence Foster Jenkins as lightweight, but we all know how rightfully revered Meryl is in this industry. And filling out the remainder of the category are the three contenders who have consistently been at the top of every precursor nominee list: Emma Stone, Natalie Portman, and Isabelle Huppert. Hard to find a weak spot among them, and there are only five slots. As I’ve noted all season, this year’s Best Actress field was as deep as we’ve ever seen. Something had to give, and now we know what that something was.
Another would-be “surprise” is Mel Gibson’s Best Director nomination for Hacksaw Ridge, which garnered a total of six nominations (in a three-way tie with Manchester by the Sea and Lion for third-most overall). After Hollywood’s prodigal son was left off last weeks’ DGA nominations, common logic was that he wouldn’t find a reprieve from the more insular AMPAS Directing Branch. But, alas, he did. There is plenty of to hash out regarding Gibson, whose links to anti-Semitism and very public instances of sexism and spousal abuse are even more disturbing than the fact that Hacksaw Ridge just isn’t very good. But the old, white, male core of AMPAS membership is referred to as “Steak-Eaters” for a reason. Hacksaw Ridge is bloody rare steak.
Let’s pivot from a validation of the masculine to a denigration of the feminine. Surveying the Best Picture nominees, only two of them – Arrival and Hidden Figures – feature standalone female leads. One could be generous and add La La Land if you add a caveat that the female shares equally with a male counterpart. So, three at best…more like two-and-a-half. No woman Best Director nominees. Out of the 10 films nominated in the Screenplay categories, there was only one woman nominee: Allison Schroeder for Hidden Figures. And even in that case, she shared the nomination with the film’s male director, Theodore Melfi. In a year being hailed as a progressive rebuke against last year’s #OscarsSoWhite travesty, it’s easy to forget the many avenues by which true diversity and equality must be achieved.
While we’re on the subject of #OscarsSoWhite, I think three specific actions are necessary. First, let’s celebrate the wondrous year of progressive films made by diverse crews, starring diverse casts, and telling diverse stories. Second, let’s rejoice in their broad Academy embrace. And third, let’s remember that true progress is steady, slow, and marked by fits and starts. This one year alone does not end #OscarsSoWhite. If anything, this it’s just a one-year respite from its clutches. We have to stay vigilant, hold Hollywood accountable, and seek, finance, produce, and promote diverse works of art consistently, always. There were a significant amount of great works from people of color in 2016. Glorious. But the Academy, in spite of its earnest and positive efforts to diversify, remains disproportionately old, white, and male. Only way those numbers can change is time and a concerted, thoughtful, persistent effort. 2016 was a great year for cinematic diversity…let’s hope we don’t rest on the laurels of simply acknowledging it as such.
And with that, Phase Two has begun. The final sprint commences. Final voting does not open until February 13th, meaning we have a few weeks of celebrating and schmoozing to surmount. We also have nearly all of the major industry precursor announcements happening pre-balloting, starting this very weekend with the Producers Guild on Saturday, followed by the SAG ceremony Sunday.
My first shot at winner predictions will drop later today. Spoiler Alert: it will feature several La La Land wins.