Promising Young Directors — Thoughts on the Oscar Nominations

In this upside-down movie year that sprawled beyond the boundaries actually set by the calendar, it makes sense that the Oscar nominations would bring their own unique set of surprises. What makes the morning especially discombobulating for this long-time Oscar obsessive is that the surprises are mostly positive. Maybe stripping away months of clanking awards-season pageantry helps. Or maybe, just maybe, there’s a benefit to be had from repositioning movie release schedules to be relatively free of blockbuster-budget spectacles that suck up all the oxygen. Does an excellent, smaller film like Sound of Metal claim six highly deserved nominations, including in major categories, if it has to compete with Dune and West Side Story for attention?

And maybe the modifications to the film year helped Academy voters pay attention to voices and creators they would have previously zipped past on their way to the latest exercise in earnest cinematic importance by a serious-minded white male. Six years after the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag was launched, the acting slate is the most diverse it’s ever been. The directing nominees include two women for the first time, and also an Asian-American and a Danish director. David Fincher is the only white, American male on the list. His film, Mank, might decisively lead in total nominations, with ten, but it feels like an afterthought, a last gasp of celebrating the old and traditional as most voters look ahead to the new and innovative.

From my opinionated perspective, the nominations are imperfect. That’s inevitable. But if I think Judas and the Black Messiah isn’t a particularly strong movie, I can still take some satisfaction that the inevitable drama drawn from history that is overrepresented in the Oscar nominations is telling a story of the Black Panther Party instead of white people expressing their chin-forward nobility. (That Lakeith Stanfield joins Daniel Kaluuya in the supporting actor category perplexingly suggests that Judas and the Black Messiah has no lead role, but that’s another matter.) I can — and will — grouse about the omissions that are most upsetting to me, but for today I’m more inclined to be impressed about the names I do see on the list that could have easily been overlooked: Steven Yuen, Yuh-jung Youn, Paul Raci, and Emerald Fennell among them.

Over the years, I’ve been disappointed by Academy Awards plenty. I’m please, for the moment, to be satisfied instead.

Other thoughts:

—Given a voting history that exposes the directors branch as the portion of Academy membership most likely to consult the bylaws of the He-Man Woman Haters Club before making their selections, I was fully prepared to see some egregious male chauvinism this morning. Instead, Chloé Zhao and Emerald Fennell both made the cut. (Regina King, who joined them among the Globes nominees in the same category, seemed to lose out because the Academy largely lost interest in her One Night in Miami, probably because it lacked the scope of Judas and the Black Messiah, which deals with similar issues and was set in roughly the same era.) In the ninety-third year of these awards, this is the first time two women have been include among the directing nominees, and Zhao and Fennell are only the sixth and seventh women to be nominated in the category overall.

—As the writer, editor, and producer of Nomadland, Zhao also becomes the first woman to be nominated for four Oscars in a single year. At this point, she seems likely to become only the second woman to prevail in the directing category, after Kathryn Bigelow. I think the film takes Best Picture, too.

—Anthony Hopkins and Frances McDormand both reach six career acting nominations. The more impressive landmark is Glenn Close notching her eighth nomination. Of course, she’s never won. The only other person with that many acting nominations without a competitive win is Peter O’Toole, who was bestowed with a honorary Oscar a couple years before his ninth and final nomination. She would seem to be a shoo-in to win, except that it’s a film and a performance no one seems to like all that much. Using Oscar algebra, none of the other four performances looks like a typical winner either, so enough voters will likely decide Close has waiting long enough already and finally give her a statuette.

—Chadwick Bosemen seems certain to become the third actor to win an Oscar posthumously (after Peter Finch and Heath Ledger). His turn in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is ferocious and deserving, so it’s not mere sympathy.

—The other two acting categories have very uncertain outcomes, which is downright thrilling in this era of repetitive precursor wins on the long carpet to the Oscar stage. If they hadn’t already given McDormand a second trophy for that lousy movie about creative use of outdoor advertising spaces, she’d be the obvious choice for lead actress. Instead, I suspect the ample appreciation for Promising Young Woman will channel into a win for Carey Mulligan. Of the supporting actors, my instinct has long been that Sacha Baron Cohen will win for The Trial of the Chicago 7. His Borat Subsequent Moviefilm costar Maria Bakalova earning a spot on the supporting actress side — and the sequel’s place among the screenplay nominees, for that matter — suggests Baron Cohen has a lot of admirers within the voting membership.

—Four years ago, Mary J. Blige became the first person to earn an acting nomination and a songwriting nomination in the same year. Now it’s happened four years in a row. Leslie Odom Jr. joins Blige, Lady Gaga, and Cynthia Erivo in this odd little club.

—That song category is weak enough that it could revive the occasional talk about scrapping the category altogether. Diane Warren, now on her twelfth nomination without a win, might triumph by default.

—Trent Reznor, with his cohort Atticus Ross, accounts for two of the five nominated original scores. Ten years after winning for The Social Network, the gentlemen who penned the lyric “I want to fuck you like an animal” in one of his biggest alternative-rock hits seems poised to round out his music career as a highly respected score composer.

You deserved better, Delroy Lindo.

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