Here’s the sad truth about the set of actors who comprised last year’s set of Oscar nominees, stirring the Oscars So White hashtag lament: it was less a reflection of Academy voters’ collective prejudice and more an ailment brought on by the entertainment industry’s general lack of commitment to diverse voices. In traditional Oscar fodder films, including the independent features that crossed over thanks to celebration among the critics, there were ultimately few viable options that would have corrected the lamentably lily white band of contenders. (Two years ago, when the Academy failed to nominate David Oyelowo’s powerhouse performance as Martin Luther King Jr. in Ava DuVernay’s masterful Selma, it was an altogether different matter.) That there are six nominees who can be identified as black actors (and, let’s not forget, another of Indian descent) isn’t some case of affirmative action on the part of voters. It can be attribute to the fact that movies such as Fences, Hidden Figures, and Moonlight got made, and — importantly in the equations of Oscar affection — became solid successes in the second half of the year.
Caveats offered, the shifts in skin color across the honored performers is worth celebrating, especially in Best Actress in a Supporting Role, where three-fifths of the nominees are women of color, and one of them even played a groundbreaking NASA mathematician instead of a nobly beleaguered wife or drug-addicted mother. (This is a problem of gender more than a problem of color. At least it seems we may have finally progressed past annual celebrations of hookers with hearts of gold.) The long Oscar season will undoubtedly provide additional moments that justifiably stir cynicism, but today may be a good time to simply allow the Academy’s diversity efforts in recent years to take a respectful victory lap.
Onto other thoughts:
–In joining Titanic and All About Eve in the Academy records book with its fourteen nominations, La La Land shifts from prohibitive favorite to stone cold lock for the top prize. Assuming that’s how this plays out, Damien Chazelle’s film will become the fourth Best Picture winner in six years to have some sort of plot connection to the entertainment industry. Maybe it’s time for them to shake up the voting rolls to combat this trend.
–If La La Land winds up collecting trophies with the same near-exhaustive thoroughness of its two notable predecessors, it will wipe away a couple of moments that I think Academy voters would have otherwise found irresistible. Certainly, it is long overdue for a black director to claim the prize in that category, but, no matter how wonderful Moonlight might be, it’s almost inconceivable that Chazelle watches someone else win. And the longstanding suspicion that Kenneth Lonergan’s reward would come in the screenplay category can probably be set aside. Finally, how the Academy must long to give Lin-Manuel Miranda an Oscar while Hamilton is still the hottest ticket in the world. Any other year, his Moana song would win. That’s not going to happen during the extended coronation of an original musical as this year’s pinnacle of cinema.
–At least the Academy rejected studio reasoning and moved Moonlight into the Adapted Screenplay category (correctly, I think). Jenkins will undoubtedly become an Oscar-winner there.
–The strength of La La Land also probably settles the one acting category that still held some suspense, especially the nomination list sadly omits both Annette Bening (it would have been her fifth nod without a prior win) and Amy Adams (also thus far unrewarded, it would have been her sixth time contending). I never completely bought into Natalie Portman’s chances to become a two-time winner for her strong work in Jackie, and the film’s meager showing today (three nominations total) suggests she won’t be much of a factor. Meryl Streep will probably get her fourth statues someday, but it won’t be for the froth of Florence Foster Jenkins. For both Ruth Negga and Isabelle Huppert, the nomination is the accomplishment. The fool who dreams is winning this one.
–So Leonardo DiCaprio will hand Emma Stone an Oscar. Elsewhere that evening, expect Alicia Vikander to present Best Actor in a Supporting Role to Mahershala Ali, Mark Rylance to present Best Actress in a Supporting Role to his fellow multiple Tony-winner Viola Davis, and, perhaps to her dismay, Brie Larson will welcome Casey Affleck into the ranks of Best Actor in Leading Role winners.
–Streep is now up to twenty career acting nominations, a record no one is likely to catch. With today’s announcement, both Denzel Washington and Jeff Bridges have reached seven acting nominations, and Michelle Williams and Nicole Kidman have each achieved their fourth (though it sure feels like the latter two have more than that).
–I’m still grouchy that Ava DuVernay’s striking direction of Selma was overlooked a couple of years ago, but I take some consolation that her exemplary 13th is among the Best Documentary (Feature) nominees. I’d place my chips on her winning, too, though in doing so I’m counting on enough voters to agree with me that O.J.: Made in America — which fantastic — is a television nonfiction limited series masquerading as a feature film. That may not be the safest bet.
–Mel Gibson? Really, Directors Branch? It’s like they’re trying to give Casey Affleck cover. For those upset about the continuing presence of Ben’s little brother as a front-runner on this year’s award’s circuit, don’t worry, Constance Wu has got your back.