State Of The Oscars: Back To Blank Basics

Perhaps the best part about awards season is that no two years are ever the same. This year’s campaign to the Oscars has been remarkably different than the last, most notably in that there’s no frontrunner to win Best Picture. Last season saw 12 Years A Slave dominate the race, while Argo was the inevitable winner in 2013 even after Ben Affleck failed to get nominated for directing.

This year, the Academy has fallen under intense scrutiny for its failure to nominate a single non-white actor, director, or screenwriter, with the exception of Birdman’s director Alejandro Inarritu. In fact, there is not one woman nominated this year for directing or writing, as well. In a year fueled by racial tensions from Ferguson to Paris, the Academy’s choices fail to reflect the current state of the Academy’s prized nations.

The fact of the matter is that any movie nominated this year could have been made ten or even 20 years ago. There isn’t anything particularly progressive about the stories in any of the eight films nominated, almost all of which focus on white male leads with relatively conservative plots. Perhaps the trouble lies in the Academy’s vote base: Oscar voters are 93 percent white, 76 percent male, and have an average age of 63.

I don’t think, however, the old white guys are fully to blame here. Filmmakers hold a lot of the fault as well. The eight films nominated represent the best filmmaking of the year, without a doubt (besides Whiplash). The best filmmakers out there simply aren’t utilizing diversity in their films. Take Clint Eastwood, whose American Sniper is nominated six times this year. He has never cast a non-white actor as a lead in any of his films. Martin Scorsese, Christopher Nolan, and Steven Spielberg have all followed similar patterns in their career, yet they’re some of the greatest filmmakers alive today, so this absence can’t come as a complete shock.

But the most surprising snub this year has nothing to do with diversity. The Academy, in some mental lapse of judgment, did not recognize The Lego Movie, the highest-grossing animated movie of the year, which was widely considered to be the frontrunner to win. This snub reflects a theme within this Oscar season. The Lego Movie was innovative, captivating and original, but failed to garner the attention it deserved (see: Foxcatcher, Guardians of the Galaxy).

While many deserving films shamefully weren’t recognized, some unworthy nominations slipped through the cracks as well. Whiplash and The Theory of Everything weren’t really anything more than glorified festival darlings, but somehow made it to the big stage, while Bennett Miller’s meticulously and phenomenally directed Foxcatcher was omitted from the nomination list. Also, while no one denies the directing abilities of Clint Eastwood, American Sniper was little more than a generic, impersonal account of the Iraq War.

The show may also face some difficulty in viewership. The Academy Awards tend to look toward younger audiences for high ratings, but that will be a difficult feat this year. Last year’s nominees included four movies that grossed over $100 million, while this year’s nominees make up one of the least-commercial Best Picture categories yet. In total, before the nominations were announced, all eight movies had only grossed a combined $210 million so far. And without The Lego Movie, which grossed more than all eight films combined, odds are that most viewers won’t have seen any of the nominated films, with the exception of perhaps American Sniper, which went on to make a shocking $200 million after the announcement.

But it isn’t all bad. Julianne Moore is nominated for her portrayal of a woman diagnosed with early onset Alzheimers—certainly the year’s best woman’s role. And having Michael Keaton, Reese Witherspoon and Bradley Cooper all in attendance won’t hurt either (although nothing can really compare to last year’s Meryl Streep-Branjelina-Jennifer Lawrence selfie). With the singing, dancing and acting talents of host Neil Patrick Harris, we’re probably in for a solid two to three hours of entertainment.

And while the Best Picture noms lack diverse characters or relevant material, the race doesn’t lack talent. It was a great year to be from Texas, with native-born Richard Linklater and Wes Anderson’s films garnering rightful nominations in both film and directing categories. Linklater’s Boyhood took an astonishing twelve years to film, as he focused on the progression of a Texas youth as he grows up in a broken family. The Academy’s recognition of Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel with an astounding nine nominations came as a wonderful surprise to critics and moviegoers alike. Budapest Hotel was a critical darling back when it came out in early March, but movies released in the first quarter of the year are notoriously almost never recognized by the Academy.

While it may not be good for ratings, having a lineup of almost all indies this year is a great thing for movies. It’ll grow a wider audience for smaller filmmakers and studios, and get people out to see films that would have normally never been seen. Take The Artist, which won Best Picture back in 2012. How often is someone going to see a silent, French, black-and-white movie? Or The Imitation Game this year, which, in my opinion, is perhaps only outdone by Boyhood. Both films have hugely benefited from the Oscars, without which their niche stories would have gone almost entirely undiscovered.

All in all, it won’t be the most intriguing Oscar show—not by a long shot. Viewers in 2014 likely haven’t seen the nominated movies and have little interest in an industry that isn’t engaging them the way that it has in the past. Television has filled the void that filmmaking willingly vacated, bringing viewers original, engaging, and most importantly, culturally relevant content that wasn’t widely offered in theaters this year.

Featured Image Courtesy of Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

1 Comment

  1. “Take Clint Eastwood, whose American Sniper is nominated six times this year. He has never cast a non-white actor as a lead in any of his films.”

    This is blatantly false. You only have to go back to 2009’s Invictus (with Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela) to prove this wrong, but let’s not forget 1989’s Unforgiven (also starring Morgan Freeman), 2006’s Letters from Iwo Jima (which has an entirely Japanese cast), or Bird, his 1988 biopic starring Forrest Whittaker as Charlie Parker. Not to mention Gran Torino, which was the first mainstream movie to feature actual Hmong actors, explicitly addresses questions about ethnic minorities in America and is about an old white man coming to grips with his own racism. Eastwood’s films as a director are far more diverse than you give them credit for, and often meaningfully grapple with issues of race.

    As for your similar claims about Scorsese and Spielberg, I would direct your attention to Kundun and The Color Purple. Google is your friend.

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