“Congratulations to those men,” Issa Rae said pointedly and gracefully this morning, immediately after listing the five contenders in the directing category for this year’s Academy Awards.
The annual announcement of new nominations is always going to be a hash of delightful surprises and miserable injustices for anyone who puts emotional investment into ongoing cinema history as it’s made and realizes that, for good or bad, Academy Award distribution is automatically the first draft of the enduring canon. That draft is often erased and rewritten, but no matter how forcefully different titles and performances are pressed into the page, the faint impressions of Academy-anointed work remains on the books forever. I’ve little doubt that Greta Gerwig’s Little Women will be considered a classic decades from now, but her omission from the Best Directing category is still painful. She made an utterly marvelous movie that’s staunchly Academy-friendly (the rules have change a bit in recent years, but period pieces based on classic literature have usually fallen solidly into the voters’ favor) and yet they couldn’t find room for her. Instead the directing category is a slate of films largely unified by their macho posturing.
I also find it incredibly bizarre that we now live in a cultural ecosystem where The New York Times can accurately run their Oscar nominations story with the subhead “‘Joker’ led the Academy Award contenders with 11 nominations, including best picture.” The director of Starsky & Hutch and Due Date can now claim chief creative responsibility for a movie that led the Oscar nominations, and not because he dropped his previous veneer in favor of serious-minded, deeply personal filmmaking. He took an overly familiar pop culture character and told his story with an ostentatious grittiness and a lazy cribbing of decades-old Martin Scorsese films. And I type that out as someone who believes Joker is a significantly flawed but interesting film. But I’m utterly perplexed by its elevation into a powerhouse awards contender, with the same number of nominations once earned by The Godfather Part II, Gandhi, and Amadeus.
At least in Best Picture and Best Directing, where the Academy voters go from here is a mystery, especially given this year’s truncated timeline and the different tabulating methodology for the top prize throwing things into further disarray. I can’t quite believe the Academy voters are going to give Phillips a major award for making an approximation of a Scorsese film when Scorsese is right there, but I’ve given up on believing I can figure out the course this unwieldy voting body is going to take. Whatever problems there were with the Academy’s past staid choices, guided by sentiment joined with a belief that the trophies belonged in the hands of creators who’d demonstrated a capacity for consistency over the years, I’m reaching the point when I’d welcome that shaky wisdom. For many years, I longed for the Academy to make more daring choices, to celebrate darker films. Joker, somewhat appropriately, could be be the universe’s cruel, cunning response to my previous bellyaching.
—Let’s start with Scorsese, because there’s a lot to marvel at. Scorsese’s ninth nomination in the directing category pushes him past Billy Wilder. Only William Wyler has more. And if Scorsese wins, which remains a real possibility, he becomes the oldest winner ever, besting the record set by Clint Eastwood when he took the award for Million Dollar Baby. That year, Eastwood beat out, among other, Scorsese (who was nominated for The Aviator).
—Scorsese’s The Irishman also scored two acting nominations, for Al Pacino and Joe Pesci, in the supporting category. A total of twenty-two performances have been nominated from Scorsese’s films over the years, putting him third on that particular list, behind Elia Kazan (who directed actor to nominations twenty-four times) and all-time, likely unbeatable champ William Wyler (who oversaw thirty-six acting nominations over the course of his career). The only other living director who’s remotely close to Scorsese on the list is Woody Allen, with sixteen, and I wouldn’t bet on any more nominations stemming from him films.
—While we’re still in Scorsese-land, Thelma Schoonmaker got her eighth nomination in the editing category, tying her with Michael Kahn for the career lead. Like Kahn, she’s won three times. Kahn is currently editing Steven Spielberg’s remake of West Side Story, so there’s a decent chance he retake the top spot next year.
—I had an inkling that Joaquin Phoenix’s uncomfortable acceptance speech at the Golden Globes might put a dent in his chance at the equivalent Oscar, but the over-performance of Joker in today’s nominations today buffs out that ding. Phoenix is sure to prevail, making him the second actor in the span of eleven years to win an Oscar for playing the Joker. The role is the Vito Corleone of this generation!
—Scarlett Johansson presumably came close to Oscar nominations with Match Point and Lost in Translation, but couldn’t quick muster the support needed to crack the acting quintets those years. Her breakthrough comes in a big way, with two nominations, for Marriage Story and Jojo Rabbit. She’s one of twelve actors to pull off that trick and the first since Cate Blanchett, in 2007. Like Blanchett — and Julianne Moore, Emma Thompson, and Sigourney Weaver before her — I suspect Johansson loses twice on Oscar night, but she has an outside chance of pushing past consensus front-runner Renée Zellweger in the lead actress category.
—Checking the counting stats of other actors, Al Pacino earns his ninth acting nomination, tying him with Paul Newman and Spencer Tracy on the all-time list. Tom Hanks and Leonardo DiCaprio each collect their sixth acting nomination. As much is Hanks is thought of as an Academy favorite, this is his first time competing for film’s top award in nearly twenty years. His last nomination came for Cast Away, released in 2000. Similarly, Anthony Hopkins is an Academy Award contender for the first time in two decades. Before this year’s nomination, for The Two Popes, Hopkins hadn’t received a nod since Amistad, released in 1997. And, at the age of twenty-five, Saoirse Ronan is already up to her fourth acting nomination.
—In the supporting categories, Laura Dern and Brad Pitt are almost certain to duplicate their recent Golden Globe wins. I am mighty relieved that Florence Pugh made the cut in the supporting actress category for her fantastic turn in Little Women.
—With nod in both music categories, Randy Newman is up to twenty-two total Oscar nominations. His cousin Thomas Newman hits fifteen nominations. Randy has won a couple Oscars in the song category. Thomas has never won. They’re competing against each other in the category for original score. It’s the first time they’ve been nominated in the same category since the awards for the 1995 year in film, when Randy was nominated for the Toy Story score and Thomas was nominated for the Unsung Heroes score.
—If nothing else, the Parasite nominations are a wonderful thing that I wouldn’t have legitimately expected a few months ago. It’s a shame they couldn’t also find their way to including Song Kang-ho, though.