On the surface, it looks like the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences doesn’t have a lot of apologizing to do for a change.
Fears of a return to #OscarsSoWhite were dashed. The LGBTQ community was pleased with lots of inclusion. Women, both in individual achievement and stories of female empowerment, triumphed in numerous areas, while James Franco didn’t. Oscar dodged a bullet, but in the end it was a glorious, movie-soaked love story between a mute cleaning woman and an amphibian man that shaped the list of contenders for the Academy’s 90th anniversary.
With its 13 nominations, Guillermo del Toro’s wondrous fable The Shape of Water is one of only 13 movies to achieve to such a high number in Academy history. That might be because it really hits Oscar’s sweet spot: a movie that is in love with the movies, as was last year’s La La Land, which got 14 nominations. It’s the one to beat in a race that could still take some surprising turns, especially since SAG and Globes champ Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri was a snubee in the all-important Best Director category for Martin McDonagh, who still managed writing and Best Picture nominations.
Don’t count his film out, though. The same thing happened to Argo with Ben Affleck’s directing snub and it went on to win Best Picture anyway. Still, it is an odd omission from the directors branch, which threw a surprise, but welcome, eighth nom for Oscar fave Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread. That film got nearly the same number of nominations as the more heralded Three Billboards, ranking as the big stunner of the day and making a very happy distributor of Focus Features, which also had Darkest Hour do exceedingly well, earning them another Best Picture nomination for the day.
Certainly people will do the usual complaining about who got in and who was left out, but there was strong diversity in today’s Oscar nominations in acting, directing and writing categories. Just for starters, Jordan Peele became only the third person in Oscar history — after Warren Beatty (Heaven Can Wait) and James L. Brooks (Terms of Endearment) — to be personally nominated in three categories for their first directing effort. And in this year of the woman, they too were strongly represented outside of acting categories with a first-timer in such male-dominated categories as cinematography (Rachel Morrison, Mudbound) and sound mixing (Mary H. Ellis, Baby Driver), a black female screenwriting nominee for only the second time (Dee Rees, Mudbound), as well as seven female producers up for Best Picture and across the board in other areas — not to mention Greta Gerwig’s directing nomination, only the fifth ever for a woman in that category (Kathryn Bigelow is the only winner, for The Hurt Locker). This all was achieved in a year in which Wonder Woman was completely snubbed, but that is more likely due to the fact that the Academy voters still can’t wrap their heads around nominating a comic book movie as Best Picture. Sorry, Wonder Woman, but there were still a lot of wonder women invited to Oscar’s party to take up the cause on March 4.
The Academy’s recruitment efforts for more diversity among its members seems to be slowly paying off, even if the type of movies nominated today still fall into the category of what we traditionally might regard as “Oscar bait.” Look, AMPAS is making strides to be inclusive, but this is still a list that has Meryl Streep’s 21st and John Williams’ 51st nominations. There is still a lot of love for Brits too. Just witness all those nominations for the likes of Dunkirk and Darkest Hour. And even though he was bypassed for directing, Steven Spielberg’s brand is alive and well with The Post, representing his record-breaking 10th personal Best Picture nomination, and 11th Best Pic he directed, second only to William Wyler’s 13 in Academy archives.
It is interesting to note that The Post received only one other nomination (Streep’s), a low number that is a rarity for Best Pic nominees. Like it did a couple of years ago with Selma (a Best Pic nominee with only one other nom), the Academy seems to be acknowledging the importance of what The Post is about without fully embracing the movie itself. Still, out of 341 eligible films this year, it is one of the chosen nine. Perhaps it also suffered from the curse of being a major-studio release, and not from the specialty division. The Academy, in recent years has resembled the Independent Spirit Awards more than anything else, with the two closely aligned on Best Picture quite often, including last year with Moonlight.
It is no end of frustration for those who dwell in making bigger studio pictures. Universal got in the game this year, but it was with Get Out, a movie that was more independent-feeling than most indies. That film was released way back on February 23, making it the first Feb release to make the Best Picture cut since The Silence of the Lambs won 26 years ago. Only Warner’s Dunkirk — representing Christopher Nolan’s first-ever directing nomination — was a true major-studio project on the Best Picture list. One studio veteran and Oscar voter told me this morning: “Thank f*****g God we didn’t nominate Florida Project. That would have sent me over the edge!” Based on that sentiment, seems there still are limits to Oscar’s brand of indie spirit.
Still Universal, through its specialty division Focus Features, landed two other Best Picture slots with Darkest Hour and Phantom Thread; Sony got in through Sony Pictures Classics’ Call Me by Your Name; in addition to The Post, Fox had much stronger showings, as usual, with its Searchlight division’s Three Billboards and Shape of Water. Reigning Best Picture champ distributor A24’s Lady Bird was the only film to get in without some sort of studio connection in the new post-Weinstein era. Other possibilities such as Amazon’s The Big Sick and Neon/30WEST’s I, Tonya had to settle for recognition outside of the Best Picture race.
In terms of independent breakthroughs, though, it was a company that didn’t land a Best Picture nomination that should be dancing in its conference room this morning. Netflix finally broke through with Oscar voters, landing four key nominations for Mudbound, a first-ever Foreign Language nom for Hungary’s On Body and Soul and documentary features Icarus and Strong Island. The streamer had been unable to break out of the Documentary area, and many blamed Academy resistance to “letting the wolf into the hen house” kind of thinking for that. But especially with Mudbound, Netflix has broken the curse and now can tell major filmmakers it is safe to play in Netflix’s sandbox and still get Oscar glory.
Overall, the list of 2017 nominees strongly represents what most pundits expected, save the stellar showing for Phantom Thread, and indicates the importance of precursor awards in giving direction to Academy voters who didn’t deviate much from the films that have been in the conversation all along. It is a shame that there had to be so many great performances from leading actresses this year. In any other season the likes of Jessica Chastain, Annette Bening, Judi Dench, Michelle Williams and Diane Kruger could have filled the category all on their own, with even the equal-pay controversy over All the Money in the World reshoots not enough to land a sympathy slot for Williams. Instead they were all overlooked — not for being undeserving, but simply lack of room.
And I also have no doubt that sometime Tom Hanks, who hasn’t been nominated in 17 years, will once again get some Oscar love after being snubbed for such great work in Captain Phillips, Bridge of Spies, Sully, and now The Post. Maybe it was winning those back-to-back Best Actor Oscars in the mid-’90s for Philadelphia and Forrest Gump that cursed him. Oh well. And what about the unique Oscar oddity that sees two exes up in the same year> Gary Oldman (Darkest Hour) and his ex-wife Lesley Manville (his first of five) of Phantom Thread both landed acting nods, so it begs the question: which parent will son Alfie Oldman be going to the Oscars with?
And finally, congratulations to the great Christopher Plummer, who not only owns the record as oldest acting Oscar winner for Beginners when he was 82, now has set another for oldest acting nominee ever at 88. It is also safe to say he holds the speed record for an Oscar nomination: shooting his entire role in November; attending the opening of the film in December and getting nominated in January. That might be the greatest achievement of all on a day of very great achievements. Well done to all the nominees. Enjoy the moment.