It’s been a notably rocky year for the the most hallowed of entertainment honors, so it’s fitting that the announcement of this year’s Academy Award nominees was a mix of the woefully predictable with gleaming bursts of the daring. In truth, that’s long been the case, but there are intriguing signs in this year’s batch of honorees that the Academy’s mighty efforts to improve the diversity of its membership are yielding the desire results. Netflix has steam-shoveled money into the campaign to get Roma Oscar love at levels unseen since the heyday of Miramax’s game-changing promotional assaults of the nineteen-nineties, but it still takes an Academy membership with a more adventurous gaze for talent to earn acting nods for both Yalitza Aparicio and Marina de Tavira.
Much of the Oscar season narrative to date has centered on the ways in which the Academy will inevitably pivot to the safest of safe zones, the films that remind seasoned observers of the dullest and most lamentable of past winners. The recent victory of Green Book at the Producers Guild of America’s awards ceremony coupled with its haul of Golden Globes had people invoking Crash through tightly gritted teeth. Green Book did well today, including nominations for leading actor and screenplay despite ugly controversies that surely dissuades plenty of voters from penciling them in. Even so, director Peter Farrelly didn’t make the cut in his category, which isn’t a good sign for the film’s prospects in turning nominations into wins. Similarly, there was a resolute band of Oscar prognosticators that kept insisting A Star is Born would eventually muscle its way to the front of the pack. Once again, its the directing category shifting the story, with Bradley Cooper forced to be content with only three nominations (for producing, acting, and writing) for his passion project.
I’ve complained at length in recent years about the predictability of the award dispersal — in the major categories, anyway — by the time the Academy weighs in. It can seem as though they’re anointing picks that have been made by others rather than selecting new members in most elite of showbiz clubs. With rare exceptions, I don’t look at this year’s tally of nominees and see a lot of sure bets. Even the presumed front-runners could fall prey to the strange dynamics of this year, which includes a Best Picture nominee so messy that its director was fired mid-shoot (and reviews that largely reflect the compromised nature of its production). Likely preferences could solidify in the month between the nomination announcement and the ceremony, but the counterarguments of entertainment business politics could just as easily keep the races uncertain. In the acting categories, Glenn Close is the only person I’d confidently lay a bet on right now, and I’d still slide a couple chips onto Olivia Colman’s square, just in case.
Following the debacle of the announced then retracted popular films category, the lineup for Best Picture includes Black Panther, the top domestic grosser of 2018, and two other films (A Star is Born and Bohemian Rhapsody) that raked in more than two hundred million dollars at the U.S. box office. That’s more than one-third of the contenders for the top prize that can be considered popular films. If a dearth of titles familiar to the general populace has been the cause of the Oscar telecast’s declining ratings (I don’t believe it has been, but that’s a furiously typed diatribe for another day), then it’s up to the Academy to capitalize on the presence of these hits. This morning’s nominations announcement doesn’t bode well. Kumail Nanjiani and Tracee Ellis Ross (who I think is wonderful, but who also hasn’t appeared in a feature film in the last ten years) recited the honorees with a measured restraint that lapsed into blandness, engaging in asides about the early hour and what they had for breakfast. All the while, the nominees emerged in onscreen chryons that had all the excitement of a PowerPoint hastily assembled by the least imaginative person in an accounting office.
The Academy’s fumbled attempts to secure a host for the Oscars have been an embarrassment, but the institution’s corresponding inability to muster enthusiasm for its own yearly celebration of the finest film has to offer is a far bigger problem. Recent years have suggested the Academy powers that be have no feel for the true treasure of their centerpiece, the one entertainment prize that carries the weight of canonization. It’s time for them to stop implicitly apologizing for all the things the Oscars are not and start taking visible pride in the
—I think Close is finally going to become an Oscar-winner because it’s her seventh nomination and continued futility would be downright cruel. At least she’s in good company if she loses again. Richard Burton was nominated seven times without winning and Peter O’Toole reached eight swinging strikes.
—Amy Adams earns her sixth nomination, five of which have come in the supporting category. If my quick research is correct, only Thelma Ritter had more lifetime nominations in the supporting category. Adams has never won, and I think there’s a good chance she’s passed over again. Ritter also went Oscar-less. She didn’t even get an honorary trophy.
—Over thirty years after his debut feature, well after he was skittishly bypassed for worthy fare Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X, and three years after his well-deserved “lifetime achievement” Oscar, Spike Lee gets his first nomination in the Best Achievement in Directing category. It’s especially nice that his longtime musical collaborator, Terence Blanchard, breaks through in the same year and for the same film.
—Songwriter Diane Warren is up to ten lifetime nominations, and she’d never won. Up against “Shallow,” the night’s more certain trophy recipient, she’ll be clapping for someone else again. Of course, many of the songs she’s been nominated for are hideous and the rest are merely forgettable, so adjust sympathy levels accordingly.
—On the other hand, it’s pretty great that the now routine Academy affection for the brothers Coen helped make Gillian Welch and David Rawling into Academy Award nominees. Hopefully, they get to perform at the ceremony, preferably with Tim Blake Nelson seated and singing between them.