When the story is written about this year’s pandemic-afflicted Oscar nominations, the lede may not be about the effects of Covid at all. And it may not be that the only theaters Oscar voters saw the contenders in were drive-ins. And it may not be that three of the Best Picture nominees actually qualified through streaming. And it may not be that two women are competing against each other for Best Director and that between them they have seven nominations. Or it may not be that a record 70 different women took a huge 76 noms.
No, it is going to be about diversity, a word not heard much at the Oscars in the past five years since #OscarsSoWhite started trending in 2015 and 2016, when all acting nominees were white; the hashtag nearly made a comeback last year but Cynthia Erivo in Harriet singlehandedly saved the day. But this year, the year of Covid, was a landmark for actors of color with almost half of all 20 acting nominees making the cut. That’s right. The Academy’s widely publicized push for diversity paid off handsomely with nine actors of color including six who are Black (the late Chadwick Boseman, Viola Davis, Andra Day, Leslie Odom Jr, Lakeith Stanfield, Daniel Kaluuya); the first Korean ever (Yuh-Jung Youn); Riz Ahmed, who is the first of Pakistani descent and first Muslim up for Best Actor; and Steven Yeun, the first Asian American Best Actor nominee ever. The Academy has to be feeling good about all of this.
However, as I pointed out last week when the BAFTA nominations shut out all the Black ensemble movies for Best Film (it has been an exceptionally strong year for Black-themed movies, but BAFTA instead nominated five films driven by white actors and stories), Oscar nearly did the same thing today save for Warner Bros Judas and the Black Messiah. Although they had scattered nominations elsewhere, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Da 5 Bloods and One Night In Miami were all passed over for Best Picture, and that is on a list with eight, not five slots like BAFTA. In the case of One Night In Miami, the directors branch also passed up the opportunity to nominate Regina King, who would have been the first Black woman ever in the category. Still, with significant Black artisans also named throughout today’s nominations this has to be looked at as a banner year for Oscar and the drive for inclusion in membership, and in nominations. Don’t you long for the day when diversity isn’t the lede? Today’s overall results make me hope that day is coming sooner than later.
Of course, in a year where we had to stay home and see movies made for the big screen in less than ideal circumstances, it was the streamers’ time to shine. Netflix with 35 nominations and Amazon with 12, in addition to a few for Hulu and Apple, may be further proof of a new era in terms of playing for Oscar, even if the traditional studios still managed to find their way into the Best Picture race in one way or another. Warner Bros has Judas and the Black Messiah, Disney has Nomadland via Searchlight, Sony has The Father via Sony Pictures Classics, and Universal may have missed out on News of the World (which still landed four crafts noms) but is represented by Focus Features’ Promising Young Woman. And then there is Paramount among the last of the surviving majors, which sold off Best Picture nominee The Trial of the Chicago 7 to Netflix and The United States vs Billie Holiday (Best Actress nominee Andra Day) to Hulu but still managed to get a nomination under its own venerable name with a visual effects mention for Love and Monsters.
In terms of the kind of strength pundits look for in predicting the eventual winners, Oscar giveth and taketh away. Mank was certainly strong for Netflix and has a leading 10 nominations including picture, directing, and two acting for Gary Oldman and Amanda Seyfried. But it was overlooked by the writers branch for its screenplay by the late Jack Fincher, who died in 2003 and never got to see the film his son David finally made. The last time a movie won Best Picture without a corresponding nomination for its screenplay was 1997’s Titanic, and before that 1965’s The Sound of Music. That is a tall mountain to climb for the leader in this morning’s nominations. Adding to Mank’s statistical woes, it also received no film editing nomination. Only one movie in the past 40 years overcame that hurdle to win Best Picture and that was Birdman, a film whose whole hook was that it was one continuous shot and didn’t appear to be edited.
Netflix also felt the giveth and taketh away with The Trial of the Chicago 7, which has picture, screenplay, film editing and acting nominations but sadly saw Aaron Sorkin snubbed for director — one of four films up for Best Picture without a corresponding directing nom. It happens every year. Sorkin, nominated for a DGA Award last week, saw his spot taken by International Film nominee Another Round’s Thomas Vinterberg, perhaps a result of the Academy’s strong global push in membership, although frequently in Oscar history we have seen much-lauded foreign directors find a spot and spoil the party for American helmers otherwise looking good in the Best Picture contest. Sorkin did score a nomination for his original screenplay and will be a strong contender there. Florian Zeller is also strong for adapted screenplay, even if he too was bypassed for directing The Father, which nonetheless had a strong showing with picture, acting and editing nominations. The same is true of Amazon’s surprisingly strong Sound of Metal. Minari also makes a case for its chances with picture, acting, screenplay and directing, but still not the crucial editing. Judas and the Black Messiah joined the latter four mentioned Best Picture nominees (all with six noms overall) but was overlooked in both directing and editing, thus lessening its chances to win if you go by the aforementioned historical signs of strength.
So there are only two films this year that have all it takes to traditionally win a Best Picture Oscar. Nomadland came into this morning as the presumed frontrunner having swept most of the key precursor awards, and it landed picture, actress, directing, screenplay, cinematography and yes film editing. Joining it in all those categories except cinematography is Promising Young Woman, a very promising performance indeed. Still, if I were The Trial of the Chicago 7, The Father or Sound Of Metal I would take heart that missing out on a directing nomination but still getting named in editing, acting and writing categories doesn’t necessarily mean you are out of this at all. And as for Judas and the Black Messiah, it has some unique distinctions all its own including being the first all-Black-produced Best Picture nominee, the first to have two Black males nominated, and the new record holder for a single picture’s number of Black nominees with 10 (The Color Purple had seven).
This seems to be a highly unusual year where surprises can happen. I think the pandemic has made a difference in that those who were engaged found the time to watch a movie like, say, Sound of Metal, that otherwise they never would have seen. Voters might want to spread the wealth and even split the riches between the winner of Best Picture and Best Director, something that has actually happened quite frequently of late; in fact, five times it has split in the past 10 Oscars, most recently for 2018’s Green Book. The Academy’s unique preferential voting system where your favorites must be ranked in order from No. 1 being best has contributed to that greatly. Sometimes it seems it might be even better for your Best Picture chances if you get more No. 2 votes than No. 1’s — just ask Argo, 12 Years a Slave, Spotlight, Moonlight or Green Book. This race may just be getting started, especially as many Academy members are just catching up with a lot of these films.
As for records, so critics be damned, Hillbilly Elegy’s Glenn Close just broke her own with her eighth nomination without a win. That ties Peter O’Toole among all actors, but at least he got an Honorary Oscar to show for all the losses he had to endure. Close, ironically, must compete again with Olivia Colman in The Father after Colman beat her on her first time out for The Favourite, a year every pundit predicted would belong to Close. Shades of Annette Bening who lost twice to Hilary Swank? Still, even though she has won three times, no actor has ever lost the Oscar as often as Meryl Streep who failed to win a record 18 times. I doubt anyone will ever catch up to that statistic.
I’m rooting for you Glenn. And while we are at it, let’s throw some luck toward a couple of composers. Isn’t about time James Newton Howard took home an Oscar? He just received his ninth nomination for his score to News of the World, in my opinion his finest ever. And congratulations to Diane Warren on her 12th nomination, this time for her Golden Globe-winning song from The Life Ahead, “Io Si (Seen).” After being nominated six of the past seven years including the last four in a row, will this finally be her year? We can only hope. As I said before, Oscar giveth and Oscar taketh away.,