The 92nd Academy Award nods shows Hollywood can't quit its habit of valuing derivative and self-referential works by established white men above all else.
The films that racked up the most Academy Award nominations on Monday morning have remarkable qualities worthy of praise and attention. But taken as a group, particularly when so many films with vital new voices and perspectives were overlooked, they highlight the Academy’s worst habit: celebrating derivative and self-referential works by established white men above all else.
Once again, we can see that the best ways to garner gold statues for your bookcase are: make a showily shot drama about a world war (“1917”) or something else American dads love to study; turn your movie into a loving paean to the glory of Old Hollywood (“Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood”); or either be Martin Scorsese (“The Irishman”) or emulate Martin Scorsese, as director Todd Phillips (“Joker”) did. His grimly dark origin story of Batman’s most famous nemesis scored the highest number of Oscar nods, with 11.
Not that emulating Scorsese was enough for directors who can’t emulate his gender. While Phillips is being celebrated for the way “Joker” lovingly referenced Scorsese’s many early-era New York dramas, such as “Taxi Driver” and “The King of Comedy,” no amount of Scorsese-esque flair was enough to get Lorene Scafaria acknowledged by the Academy— despite the fact that her work directing and screenwriting “Hustlers” was more nuanced and impressive.
Phillips’s approach to Scorsese’s oeuvre is reverent nearly to the point of pastiche, evoking the prestige and grit of the filmmaker’s early work to give gravitas to a genre — superhero movies — Scorsese himself feels is fundamentally unserious. Scafaria, on the other hand, engages with Scorsese’s work much more ambitiously. Her radically delightful movie about a group of strippers-turned-scammers and the sense of family that blossoms among them while they drug and steal from their repellent customers places itself in conversation with such Scorsese films as “Goodfellas” and “The Wolf of Wall Street” but demands respect on its own merits.
Instead of imitating Scorsese, Scafaria dares to ask what one of the 77-year-old nominee’s male-centric narratives might look like if the story followed the women doing the dance instead of the men throwing the money at them, and the resulting film is innately compelling, regardless of your familiarity with the older director’s work. Yet Scafaria and her female peers in directing, including Greta Gerwig (“Little Women”), Lulu Wang (“The Farewell”) and Melina Matsoukas (“Queen & Slim”), received no regard from the Academy.
Then there’s the Academy’s continual disregard for racially diverse performers and stories. It’s an undeniable pleasure to see the universally praised “Parasite” become both the first Korean-language movie to receive a nomination for Best Picture and the first Korean movie to secure a nod in Best International Feature (previously known as Best Foreign Language Film), with director Bong Joon-ho picking up a nomination for directing. On the other hand, it’s galling that the Academy’s voters didn’t feel that even one performance in this phenomenal movie was worthy of a nomination in any of the four acting categories.
In fact,five years after the viral #OscarsSoWhite campaign took the Academy to task for its all-white slate of acting nominations in 2015, 2020’s nominations show infuriatingly little change: Out of 20 slots, twice as many went to Scarlett Johansson (nominated for both lead actress for “Marriage Story” and supporting actress for “Jojo Rabbit”) as went to any person of color. The only non-white person to turn in an acting performance worthy in the eyes of the Academy was apparently Cynthia Erivo, who played the lead role of Harriet Tubman in the biopic “Harriet” (Best lead actor nominee Antonio Banderas, though often cast in Latinx roles, is white and Spanish.)
While Brad Pitt leaning on his movie-star charisma is understood to be an Oscar-worthy supporting performance (as Cliff Booth in “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood”), Jennifer Lopez’s similarly magnetic performance in “Hustlers” apparently is not. While Charlize Theron’s uncanny ability to look just like another famous blonde woman (as Megyn Kelly in “Bombshell”) merits Oscar recognition, Awkwafina’s star-making dramatic performance in the similarly snubbed female-written and -directed film “The Farewell” gets overlooked.
Individually, these are subjective decisions, and each one can be justified. But taken as a whole, they are deeply discouraging. Watching movies like “Hustlers,”“The Farewell” and “Little Women,” all beloved by critics and audiences alike, is a revelatory experience. These films are beautiful and inventive, whether they are bringing new insight to familiar material (as Gerwig does with “Little Women”) or telling stories that are themselves new, like the challenges of being a second-generation immigrant (Lulu Wang’s “The Farewell”).
It had seemed like Hollywood studios finally understood the value of perspectives they’ve long ignored. So it’s crushing to now feel like the Academy doesn’t know how to celebrate the bounty it’s been given. And it’s maddening to be told that, despite these seismic changes in what’s being made, what was thought best in 1997 will still be considered best today.
Like many sports-averse pop culture nerds, I often say that the Academy Awards are my Super Bowl. Yet on the morning nominations are announced, I am often forced to ask myself something I have asked my sports-loving friends as they tie themselves in knots during decisive games: Why do you invest so much energy in something that mostly makes you miserable?
My best answer is this: because, every once in a while — just like a sports team — the Academy can surprise you. Sometimes, as happened in 2017, it resists the conventional choice of rewarding a film by a white wunderkind celebrating Hollywood’s bygone glory and instead rewards a novel, moving film about a young black man coming of age in the projects of Miami and falling in love with his male best friend, and it feels like I’ve won the lottery. The joy when they get it right is only heightened by how rarely it occurs.
With this slate of nominees, there’s not a lot of space for surprises. But, come February, I will be on my couch praying for them just the same.
- Margaret H. Willison is a librarian, podcaster and culture writer based in Boston
This piece was first published by NBC Think.
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