It is difficult to argue that the winners of Academy Awards in a certain year still represent that year’s greatest achievements in cinema. Debates still rage about whether nominations are representative of the diversity of the film industry, both in terms of gender (it is a bleak truth that in 92 years only five women have ever received a Best Director nomination) and race (though the years following the inception of #OscarsSoWhite did show signs of progress, it is still too soon to know whether the hashtag will translate into lasting progress in diversifying the acting nominees, especially when only one 2020 nominee is a person of colour). Even with the steady diversification of the Academy’s voting body in the last few years, this step arguably does not tackle the deeper-set reasons for racial and gender bias in the film industry. Moreover, just last year, the forgettable Green Book managed to secure Best Picture, despite its racially sanitised fairytale narrative and the uncomfortable real-world controversies that surrounded it, and despite the presence in the nominations of auteur magnum opuses such as The Favourite and Roma and more acute political satires such as BlackkKlansman and Vice. These are not an indication of the industry’s best storytelling talent.
However, the Oscars may not be accurate or particularly meaningful, but this does not necessarily mean they are not relevant as a lens through which to examine current developments in Hollywood. If the two most influential events to happen in Western cinema in the last decade have been the #MeToo movement and the unstoppable rise of streaming services, then this year’s nominations can be meaningfully analysed in the light of these events. Regarding #MeToo, a pessimist might argue that the nominations cast doubt on whether the movement has led to greater respect for women in the industry, when films such as Joker and The Irishman that explore the extremes of male emotion (often at the expense of women) lead the nominations pack ahead of those such as Little Women that unapologetically tell the stories of women and particularly their desire for professional recognition and respect. Furthermore, should Once Upon a Time in Hollywood earn Quentin Tarantino his first Best Picture or Best Director win, this could be viewed as redemptive, given that the film is Tarantino’s first independent of the Weinstein Company and following the revelation that the director ‘knew enough to do more than [he] did’ about Harvey Weinstein’s abuse. With the advance of streaming, it has similarly been asked whether such a fundamental change in the way we consume films is heralding a change in what constitutes an award-worthy film; Roma’s origins on Netflix were commonly cited as a reason for its Best Picture snub last year, and thus it will be interesting to see whether The Irishman or Marriage Story can succeed where it failed (especially considering that the directors of those films, Martin Scorsese and Noah Baumbach respectively, are white Americans, unlike Roma director Alfonso Cuarón). With these ideas in mind, the traditional category-by-category Oscars analysis is still worth writing, even if artistic merit is not always the main factor being considered.
What’s striking upon first looking at the nominations for the night’s most prestigious award is just how male they all are. Once Upon A Time In Hollywood and 1917 take place in the respectively very male-dominated worlds of 1960s Hollywood and the WWI trenches (additionally, the latter film features only one, very brief, female role), and Joker and The Irishman both deal intimately with male anger and violence (to the extent that the Oscars were lampooned on SNL for their capacity to nominate ‘white male rage’ films) – even Taika Waititi’s tonally jarring dark comedy Jojo Rabbit has as a central theme the toxic masculinity of the Hitler Youth and Nazi militarism and a young boy’s attempts to make sense of it, though it also does tackle the experiences of ordinary Germans under Nazism more generally as well. The notable exceptions to this rule are Little Women and Marriage Story, with its unflinching depiction of both its male and its female lead as deeply flawed over the course of their divorce, but the lack of a Best Director nod for either of these films probably prevents them from winning the top prize (although this did not keep Green Book away from Best Picture last year). With regard to who will receive the accolade, at the start of the season, the money initially lay with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood; this is the ninth of the proposed ten films Tarantino will ever make, so the Academy’s desire to award him Best Picture before he retires may work in his favour, and moreover the film’s aesthetic homage to a bygone era of Hollywood seems designed to appeal to the Academy voting body. However, 1917, with its pathos and directorial splendour, also stands a chance, given its prestigious wins at the Producers Guild of America (PGA) and Directors Guild of America (DGA), both statistically strong indicators of Best Picture winners. Though these two films are probably the strongest contenders, it would nevertheless be an emphatic decision on the Academy’s part if Best Picture went to Parasite, the critically acclaimed (though not yet released in the UK) class satire and the first Korean film to gain a Best Picture nomination – a win for Parasite would not only indicate a more internationalist outlook from Academy voters, but would also redeem their failure to award last year’s only foreign-language Best Picture nominee, Roma.
This category is surely Joaquin Phoenix’s to lose – critics were divided over the direction, story and social impact of Todd Haynes’ villain origin story Joker, but a uniting factor tended to be Phoenix’s unhinged, wildly oscillating central performance. Furthermore, voting for Phoenix would appeal to the Academy’s tendency to redeem themselves for failing to award the right person on earlier occasions (see Al Pacino losing for The Godfather Part II but later winning for Scent of a Woman); in this case, a win for Joker could be seen as making up for Phoenix’s performances in Gladiator and Walk the Line losing to much more forgettable performances. This being said, it would certainly be refreshing to see Antonio Banderas win and thus for the Academy to reward a subtitled performance in a foreign-language film (this has only ever happened on six occasions), while this reviewer is personally rooting for Adam Driver’s performance in Marriage Story, which ranges from excruciatingly awkward reunions with his estranged son, to the devastating release of pent-up fury at his wife, to an affecting eleventh-hour rendition of Being Alive from the musical Company.
Coverage of Cynthia Erivo’s Best Actress nomination have revolved around her status as the one person of colour nominated for an acting Oscar this year – while a shocking statistic when one considers the snubs to the likes of Lupita Nyong’o in Us and Constance Wu in Hustlers, this should not overshadow the fact that Erivo is a strong contender for the award, having stood out for a powerful performance as the abolitionist Harriet Tubman in a film that was otherwise criticised for being sentimental and formulaic. Also criminally underreported is a striking achievement of Erivo’s: should she win either this award or her other Oscar nomination (for Best Original Song), the Broadway actress will become the youngest person, and only the sixteenth ever, to win the prestigious EGOT award combination. In an ideal world, Erivo should have a strong chance, though doubt is cast upon the matter by Renée Zellweger’s nomination for her portrayal of Judy Garland, which should appeal to the Academy’s love affair both with a strong comeback story (Zellweger returned from a six year hiatus in 2016) and with portrayals of real-life showbiz figures (echoing Rami Malek’s win for portraying Freddie Mercury last year).
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
The nominations for this category read like an ode to a dying breed: the big-name, usually male, movie star. Whoever wins on the night will have done so because they have appealed to a sense of nostalgia in the (still mainly white and male) Academy voting body, but Pacino and Pesci perhaps exemplify this more than the others; The Irishman is essentially a celebration and culmination of the decade-long body of work in the ‘gangster’ genre of those two actors, along with co-star Robert de Niro and director Martin Scorsese, and its use of de-aging technology on septuagenarian actors is surely the epitome of nostalgically reviving a bygone cinematic age. However, Pacino and Pesci do have the curse of being nominated in the same category for the same film, so this award may just go to Brad Pitt. His role as a stunt double in 1960s LA and real-world status as one of the last ‘true’ movie stars will appeal to the same wistfulness about a bygone era of macho Hollywood as that which stands Once Upon a Time in Hollywood in good stead for many of its other nominations.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
With her career currently going through a renaissance with acclaimed turns in films such as Little Women and the series Big Little Lies, Laura Dern seems to be in the ‘right place’ to win an Oscar, and seems worthy of it, with her turn as a family lawyer in Marriage Story executed with a balance of tenderness, obsequiousness and vitriol, and climaxing in an impassioned monologue on the double standards to which mothers and fathers are respectively held. Some of Dern’s competition were nominated for slightly more predictable performances, notably Johansson and Robbie, but Florence Pugh deserves special mention – having shown her versatility over the last decade in films ranging from Lady Macbeth to Midsommar, she has finished the decade with her first Oscar nomination, and there certainly could be worse surprises on the night than her beating Dern for her reimagined depiction of the typically shallow Amy March as creatively repressed and living in her elder sister’s shadow.
In the words of Natalie Portman at the 2018 Golden Globes, ‘here are the all-male nominees’. This category’s nominations are deservedly overshadowed in most of the press coverage by Greta Gerwig’s snub for Little Women, despite the directorial ingenuity shown in the film’s use of a non-linear timeline and the new feminist meanings extracted from Alcott’s classic. It serves as an indication that merely diversifying the voting body is not enough, and that instead a deep-set bias about the necessity of women telling stories about women needs to be overturned – it is no coincidence that the only ever female-directed Best Picture winner was a male-led Iraq War epic, surely as typically masculine as films get. Furthermore, many may argue that Lorene Scafaria, Marielle Heller and Melina Matsoukas, directors of Hustlers, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood and Queen & Slim respectively, were snubbed both in this category and for Best Picture. With regard to which one of the male nominees will instead receive this award, Tarantino is again in the ‘last chance to win’ zone for his penultimate work, but in this reviewer’s mind, 1917 is the strongest film directorially, with its claustrophobic views of the trenches and intimate focus on its two leads, as well as its one-shot approach. There is also a possibility that Parasite’s fate will echo that of Roma from last year and win Best Director while losing Best Picture; while this would be a success for Korean cinema, it would indicate a concerning trend of Best Director being a ‘consolation prize’ for foreign-language cinema not deemed worthy of Best Picture. In any case, a man will win the Best Director Oscar in 2020, and the Academy will have proven that it has a long way to go in terms of being representative and respectful of women’s contributions to cinema.