You might still be mad about the Oscar nominations yesterday. Hey, we get it. People have a love/hate relationship with award shows because, in theory, they are supposed to represent the “best” of us. Isn’t that what entertainment is? A reflection of our society? And when it seems these honors don’t, when it seems like they are ignoring a particular group, sex or nationality, it hurts. And it’s justified. Throw in the social media spotlight and whether you’re the Oscars or BAFTA or the Golden Globes or the Grammys or the Emmys, every announcement, nomination, choice or omission is scrutinized with a fine-tooth comb. And it probably goes without saying that when The Academy brass saw the results of the 92nd Academy Awards nomination voting hours before the announcement they knew the reaction overall wasn’t going to be pretty.
The Academy recruited two PoC for the announcement, John Cho and Issa Rae, only to have them on hand to reveal just one non-white acting nominee, “Harriet’s” Cynthia Erivo. No Jennifer Lopez (“Hustlers”), no Lupita Nyong’o (“Us”), no Zhao Shuzhen (“The Farewell”), and no Song Kang Ho (“Parasite”). Granted, the latter two were always going to be tough to make the cut for markedly different reasons, but JLo? Former winner Nyong’o? Honestly, considering how bad that looked, Beyonce being snubbed in the Original Song category was probably more disappointing for telecast producers Lynette Howell Taylor and Stephanie Allain and the ceremony’s broadcast partner, ABC. And then there was Greta Gerwig‘s omission and the fact that no other woman was nominated for Best Director.
In a year where there were a number of deserving candidates including Lulu Wang, Marielle Heller, Lorene Scafaria, and Alma Ha’rel five men were once again nominated (and you could easily justify those four names were more worthy of a directing nomination than Gerwig or Todd Phillips for that matter). But if you’re the leadership of The Academy, who has tried to drag the organization into the 21st Century (with some significant success, mind you), you must start to wonder “Will anyone ever be happy?” The answer is, of course, “No,” but when you take those positions of power that’s the hand you’re dealt with. It’s part of the job. (Just wait till the Academy Museum opens. That’ll be fun.) The more important question on everyone’s mind should be “Was there progress?” And, while many are justifiably upset with the results, look, there was some progress. It just wasn’t in the categories many hoped it would be
Let’s start with the obvious. “Parasite,” a South Korean film not in the English language earned six nominations including Best Picture. Before this year South Korea had been routinely snubbed in the International Film category (formerly Foreign Language Film). And, more accurately, famously snubbed. “Burning,” one of the most critically acclaimed films of 2018 (it won LAFCA Best Film honor) did not earn an International Film nomination (The Playlist even named it the film of the decade). In fact, critical darlings such as “Secret Sunshine,” “Mother” and “The Age of Shadows” didn’t even make the shortlist (we’re talking shortlist). That’s how overlooked this major Asian market and nation was by Academy voters. What a difference a year makes. Bong Joon Ho is now the first South Korean filmmaker nominated for either a Best Director or Screenplay Oscar. “Parasite” earned Editing and Production Design nominations. Campaigning for that would have been considered laughable by many just five years ago. Moreover, this is the second year in a row that a non-English language film earned a Best Picture nomination. Before “Roma” and “Parasite” only 10 non-English language films had ever been nominated for Best Picture. This is massive progress for an Academy with, thankfully, increasingly international membership.
But wait, there’s more.
Four of the five nominated Documentary Films, “American Factory,” “The Cave,” “The Edge of Democracy” and “Honeyland,” were either produced or directed by a woman. Ladj Ly is the first French African filmmaker to earn an International Film Oscar nomination. Six of the 10 nominated Short Subject Oscar-nominated filmmakers are women. Two of the Short Subject Live Action Oscar-nominated films were directed by women. Three of the Animated Feature Films were produced by women. Four of the Live-Action Animated Films were directed by women and two were directed by PoC (“Hair Love” and “Sister”). Hildur Guðnadóttir earned an insanely rare Original Score nomination for “Joker” (only two other female nominees in this category since 2000). After 40 years in the business, production designer Barbara Ling earned her first Oscar nomination for “Once Upon A Time In Hollywood” alongside set decorator Nancy Haigh. Seven women were nominated for Best Picture as producers and one of them – Emma Tillinger Koskoff – twice (“Joker” and “The Irishman”).
Studies on gender and diversity in Hollywood show minimal growth for female filmmakers and filmmakers of color in the movie business (the television business a slightly rosier picture). But progress needs to be everywhere. In all aspects of the industry. No one is going to give the acting or directing branches a pass if they continue to ignore talent who are neither white or male year after year. But there is progress. Sometimes it’s “two steps forward, one step back” or simply the status quo. Despite best efforts, change often doesn’t arrive quickly enough in an era when everything is accelerating at massive speeds thanks to the demanding madness of social media.
And, of course, not everyone sees beauty, emotion or creativity in the same piece of art. The truth is, some members of the Academy simply didn’t like [insert whatever film, performance, song, etc.] that you happened to love. It pains me to say it, but even after its critical and blockbuster art-house run, AMPAS members were not passionate about “The Farewell” at the beginning of the season. Some of us took it that the more members who watched the Sundance breakout, the more that would be overcome by its charms. That clearly wasn’t the case. On the other hand, Academy members were blown away by “Joker.” Personally, I didn’t get the love, but a Todd Phillips directing nomination wasn’t so surprising in hindsight. And let’s be honest, there are a lot of men and women who liked “Joker.” Oscar names and respected actors and directors, even (Greta Gerwig, Kathy Bates, both gave it praise, look it up). It earned $1 billion across the globe. Those aren’t just old white men rewarding it with its 11 nominations. It also came out in October. Would Gerwig have a better shot for a nomination if “Little Women” was in theaters earlier? Who knows? Outside of issues of diversity, awards season is complicated. It’s not rocket science, but it is akin to a political campaign and even the “right” nominees can take a wrong turn.
If anything, this year has shown that the Academy should consider expanding the directing and acting categories to up to seven nominees each like the Emmy Awards (something I suggested a number of years ago). Will that be a magical elixir? Not even close, but it will help and it will widen the field for contending performances and work. Will The Academy take that step? Chances are they are hoping this all fades away in the throes of an election year, but if people push it’s possible. But the push just can’t be blanket anger. A solution to address the issue outside a general industry turnaround (which can only happen so fast) needs to be championed like expanding the categories.
The major silver lining was something that Carlos Aguilar wrote about in an Op-Ed for the New York Times. Often, #OscarsSoWhite only focuses on African-American contenders. Aguilar notes that Jennifer Lopez’s snub was heartbreaking for many because in the history of the Oscars only three American-born Latinx actors have been nominated for an Academy Award: Rosie Perez, José Ferrer and Edward James Olmos. We’re not sure why Puerto Rican born and American Benecio Del Toro, an Oscar winner, Mercedes Ruehl, another Oscar winner, or Susanna Kohner were not included, but the lack of representation for Latinx actors is a gigantic problem. If this brings more attention to Latinx actors given significant roles in feature films? Maybe Lopez’s snub was can help bring about even more progress. But there are signs of change. And let’s hope there are more giant steps forward down the road.