When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences begins its eight-day Oscar nomination voting blitz on January 5, it will test a question that was floating around even before the group began its panic-push for member diversity in 2016. That is, has a growing foreign factor changed the Oscar choices?
The issue is muddier than it might seem. For one thing, the Academy has never been crystal clear about the foreign/domestic breakdown of its expanding membership, which now appears to approach 8,500. It can be hard to pin down film people, as they’re notoriously cosmopolitan, hopping from one place to another, and often adopting the tastes and habits of countries that are not originally their own. Russell Crowe at this point may be more American than Australian or New Zealand-ish; meanwhile, Gwyneth Paltrow, a California girl, has become increasingly British.
More, it is impossible to draw a hard connection between national origin and voting choices. Earlier this year, the British film academy gave its best picture award not to Lion, with its roots in the old Empire, but to the very American La La Land.
But with that said, the American film academy has clearly been pushing to internationalize at least since Sidney Ganis, a cultural globalist, was elected president back in 2005. And the pressure to add foreign members has only increased since. Just this month, in fact, the diversity sub-committee of the Academy’s public relations branch sent a fairly blunt instruction to publicist-members, telling them: “It is important to increase the number of executives who are outside the United States.”
Overall, a more heavily international Academy membership is bound to bring a foreign accent to the awards. In 2016, for instance, fully half of the acting nominees—that notoriously “So White” roster—came from the former British Commonwealth countries. It was only the second time that had happened in fifty years (the other was 2002, when Crowe was nominated for A Beautiful Mind), and a far cry from 1986, when all of the nominated actors were domestic.
By and large, the Academy’s pendulum swung toward Americans in the last cycle. But that best picture surprise, which found Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight knocking off Damien Chazelle’s La La Land, may have owed a little something to Moonlight’s distinctly European sensibility. Jenkins made it clear that he had studied the British film journal Sight & Sound, and had immersed himself in New Wave and Asian cinema before devising a film that found three different actors playing the lead character.
This season, a seemingly chaotic Oscar race might find its organizing principle in the foreign factor. Dunkirk and Darkest Hour could find an edge with the Brits; Lady Bird, set in Sacramento, perhaps not so much. For Taylor Sheridan’s Wind River, with a Native American theme, this may not be the year; but Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape Of Water, which seems to look at American society from the outside, could connect with foreign voters. African-American stories—Mudbound, Marshall, Detroit—will have to earn their way with international voters who haven’t lived in the crucible of domestic racial politics. But Call Me By Your Name, in three languages, and grounded in European sexual mores, may find it easier going.
Who knows? Maybe that slightly foreign picaresque structure, Hong Chau’s Vietnamese antecedents, and all those Norwegians will even gain some global points for Downsizing. The nominations, to be announced around the world on January 23, will tell.