In the chilly dawn of Jan. 23, a week from Tuesday, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will pass judgment on the weighty issues and trends of the day. Ostensibly, the group will be announcing nominations by its 8,000-plus members for achievement in the making of motion pictures. But this year’s Oscar nominations will widely be read as a statement in support of, or opposition to, the various interest groups, identities and causes that have become deeply embedded in the Oscar process.
If Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird scoops up an armload of nominations, that will be seen as a victory for women; a first-time female director will have overcome the obstacles and decades of dismissiveness that kept those of her gender on the sidelines. But if Jordan Peele’s Get Out comes up short, the slight may be read as resistance to the Academy’s aggressive, five-year diversity program.
Should Hong Chau be nominated for her role in Downsizing, the chattering class will call it a breakthrough for Asian actors, never mind that her performance was brilliant. Nominations for The Post will meanwhile signal admiration for Meryl Streep’s portrayal of a strong woman, Katharine Graham, who squared off with men as powerful as Richard Nixon, and a sly endorsement of the contemporary press in its ongoing battles with Donald Trump.
Few serious contenders fall outside this political matrix. Call Me By Your Name stands for gay men; Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, strikes a blow for rape victims; The Shape Of Water is positioned as a film for oppressed outsiders (i.e., almost everyone but Winston Churchill, in Darkest Hour, and J. Paul Getty, in All The Money In The World).
That film awards should now routinely be viewed through filters of politics and identity became inevitable two years ago, when the Academy, panicked by the backlash to an unusual, two-year run of white acting nominees, redefined itself as a change agent. Newly recruited members—diverse, inclusive, and global—were to amend the ways of an industry that was judged too white, too male, and too old.
The measure of success, of course, is change in the nominees. If this year’s Oscar crop is peppered with female directors, actors of color, and stories of resistance to Trumpian authority figures, the shift from mere craft to a higher consciousness will be on display. Ticket sales might suffer: So far, some of the strongest contenders, like Three Billboards and The Shape Of Water, are stuck at around 3 million viewers. And the awards-night audience might fall. If the March 4 Oscar ceremony were to match a five-percent decline in viewers for this year’s black-clad, politically conscious Golden Globes show, it would have about 31.3 million viewers, an all-time low. But relevance will have been achieved.