What a difference a year makes.
This time last year as the Oscar nominees rolled out, the Hollywood community was in a fiery rage over The Academy’s so-called whitewash – no a single African-American actor found a place on the final ballot. This year the only chief complaint is that Amy Adams didn’t get a Best Actress nomination for Arrival.
Nominations for the 89th Annual Academy Awards were rolled out Tuesday morning and, in a move that seems bound to prove that the voting Academy does have the potential to learn from its mistakes, diversity was the order of the day. Of the 20 nominees for acting, five were African-American, one was Ethiopian and one, Dev Patel, is Indian. Added to that Moonlight director Barry Jenkins becomes only the fourth black filmmaker to be nominated in the Best Director category. And the Documentary branch did its part by taking a break from the safer, more traditional waters of holocaust documentaries by nominating O.J. Made in America, 13th and the James Baldwin masterwork I Am Not Your Negro.
The move toward diversity comes from a call to action made one year ago when the Academy promised more diversity and a wider birth of Oscar rewards after the embrassing #oscarsowhite campaigned that marred the festivities last year. This year, it was a relief that such films as Hidden Figures, Fences, Lion and Moonlight were singled out as achievements and not apologies But the real test will come next year. Will the Academy keep it up? There’s always next year.
The other news was the massive sweep of La La Land, a sweet critical darling that rekindles the glory days of Hollywood’s romantic musicals. The picture, which may have been so lauded because it takes place in L.A., picked up a walloping 14 nominations, tying it with 1950s All About Eve and 1997’s Titanic. The acting nominees include Ryan Gosling, picking up his first bid for Best Actor and the year’s Best Actress front-runner Emma Stone.
The Best Picture category, which has been given an elastic status since 2009, meaning that voters can choose up to 10 nominees decided to stop just short of the limit with nine.
Besides the sugary confection of La La Land, the nominees are a pretty sober bunch, but none feel dusty or familiar. There are issues of family (Fences), issues of sexual identity (Moonlight), issues of personal identity (Lion), issues of human identity (Arrival), and also crime, war and a group of black women that you never knew worked for NASA in the 60s.
Over in the Best Actor category, Denzel Washington becomes the 18th director to direct himself to a Best Actor nomination although he did not receive a nomination for directing the adaptation of August Wilson’s play Fences. The 62 year-old actor/director faces competition from Viggo Mortensen in Captain Fantastic, Andrew Garfield in Hacksaw Ridge, Casey Affleck in Manchester By the Sea and Ryan Gosling in La La Land.
The news over in the Best Actress category is yet another record for Meryl Streep, whose nomination as a socialite with questionable singing skills in Florence Foster Jenkins pushes her record nominations up to twenty. Streep has been nominated for Best Actress in a Leading Role 16 times and 4 times for Supporting. The only two actors to trail her are Katharine Hepburn and Jack Nicholson, both of which had 12. Hepburn has the most wins with four, and Streep has won three starting with a Supporting Oscar for Kramer vs. Kramer in 1980, then for Sophie’s Choice in 1983 and most recently for The Iron Lady in 2012. It isn’t likely that she’ll win her fourth Oscar as the current trend seems to be leaning in the direction of Emma Stone as a struggling actress in La La Land – this is her second nomination. She faces Natalie Portman in Jackie, Ruth Negga in Loving and Isabelle Huppert in Elle.
The supporting nominees this year proved to be some of the best in many years. For the women, it is likely that Viola Davis might finally get some love as she is the frontrunner playing Denzel’s devoted wife in Fences. She faces Naomie Harris as a crack-addicted mother in Moonlight; Nichole Kidman as a loving adoptive mother in Lion, Michelle Williams as a haunted wife in Manchester by the Sea and the invaluable Octavia Spencer as a mathematician working for NASA in Hidden Figures.
For the men it is sobering as well. The frontrunner here is Mahershala Ali for his beautiful performance as a drug dealer and father figure in Moonlight. He faces Michael Shannon in Nocturnal Animals, Dev Patel in Lion, Lucas Hedges in Manchester by the Sea and Jeff Bridges in Hell or High Water.
Snubs were easier to deal with this year. 2016 was a soft year at the movies and so it’s easy to forgive the academy for overlooking Tom Hanks in Sully or any of the confections from Pixar, no Finding Dory. But it might have been nice to see a nomiantion for Hugh Grant’s lovely performance as Meryl Streep’s devoted husband in Florence Foster Jenkins or a supporting nod for Simon Helberg as her quietly amused musical accompanist. And where is Denzel’s nomination for Best Director for Fences? Having given him a nod for Best Actor and as producer of the film I suppose it is hard to complain. His slot is taken up by a comeback, of sorts, for Mel Gibson, who picks up his first directing nod since Braveheart 20 years ago.
Some issues remain:
1. So long and Thanks for All the Fish. Pixar walks away with a thanks but no thanks. The studio, which recently announced that it would be taking a break from sequels after 2019’s Incredibles sequel found itself on the sidelines. No nomination for Finding Dory in the Animated Feature category, the Disney computer-animation house does however, have a nomination in the Animated Short category for the realistic looking Piper.
2. Bringing Out the Dead. Nominees in the Best Adapted Screenplay category are going to have to fight for space with a dead man. The frontrunner August Wilson, who died in 2005 is nominated for his adaptation of his own play Fences.
3. Just Wear Jeans and a T-shirt. So why was La La Land nominated for Best Costume design when most of the actors just wore regular clothes? Was there no room for stellar work from Rogue One? Suicide Squad? Deadpool? Hail Caesar!? Pride and Prejudice and Zombies? The Magnificent Seven? Just sayin’
4. The Music of James Foley. It might have seemed a little more pertinent that Jim: The James Foley Story would find itself among the year’s Best Documentary Feature nominees, but in a real puzzler it instead found itself among the Best Original Song nominees for the melodic “The Empty Chair.”
5. Kubo and the Night of a Thousand Pixels. A Nomination in the Best Animated Feature category Best Animated Feature category was a foregone conclusion for Laika studio’s breathtakingly ambitious stop-motion adventure Kubo and the Two Strings but it is nice that the hard work of the animators was rewarded over in the Visual Effects category as well.
The 89th Annual Academy Awards air Sunday February 26th on ABC.