Thoughts on the Academy Award Nominations

The big story for me is still the Academy Award nominations and what they actually mean for the state of entertainment.

Spoiler alert: We still have a LONG way to go.

This is the first time since I began writing about film professionally over ten years ago that I face a specific dilemma about the Oscar nominations. There are two major contenders for Best Picture and other big ticket categories I refuse to watch. 

I firmly believe that we, as a cinema viewing audience, need to take a stand with our wallets. If we blindly support films helmed by problematic people, we continue their careers far longer than they should last.

It's not that I have no interest in the plots or subject of Manchester by the Sea and Hacksaw Ridge; I have no interest in supporting the careers of Casey Affleck and Mel Gibson.

Mel Gibson's circumstances are better known. I haven't supported his work since his aggressive, anti-semitic and incredibly sexist tirade against the police. "Sugar tits" is iconic for being such an absurd attempt at getting out of trouble, but it points to greater issues with his level of respect for women; Passion of the Christ told you everything you needed to know about his attitude towards Jewish people.

Casey Affleck's issue is, sadly, not as well-publicized and points to major issues with attitudes in Hollywood and the Academy Awards. He was accused of sexually and verbally harassing women on the set of I'm Still Here, that awful Joaquin Phoenix not-documentary from 2010. That's not okay and should give people pause on supporting his work as more reports of a continued pattern of behavior emerge.

Now this is hardly the first time the Academy Awards looked past terrible behavior from privileged white men to reward work in film; Roman Polanski didn't win his Best Director Oscar until decades after her fled the United States to escape jail time for statutory rape charges. What is troubling is another could-be Oscar contender that became DOA because of similar abuse allegations.

Sundance buzz does not always equate to Oscar gold; it's not a common occurrence. Yet, the rapturous reviews for writer/director/star Nate Parker's The Birth of a Nation seemed guaranteed to set up momentum for awards season. The quality of the film is pretty inconsequential when the narrative is right and Parker had it all in the bag. 

Then his court record from the 1990s emerged and destroyed his career before the film's wide release. Parker and a teammate were accused of raping an intoxicated student while they were in college. Parker claimed the sex was consensual, while his victim said she was drunk and therefore couldn't consent. Non-consensual sex is rape, period. Parker was acquitted on the charges while his teammate was found guilty (and appealed the decision and had the case thrown out by prosecutors).

How is it that Nate Parker, a black actor, had his career destroyed by decades old charges while Casey Affleck, a white actor, had much more recent charges ignored to lead him to potential Oscar gold? 

It's not just the abuse narrative and Oscar campaigns that connect these two stories. Parker and Affleck both were incredibly dismissive and said tone deaf things about the allegations against them while promoting their films. The difference is entertainment writers actively pursued the story for Parker and largely let it slide away for Affleck. That's an interesting choice.

It seems writers weren't, as a whole, really willing to go after Casey Affleck until after Mel Gibson got his big Hollywood redemption arc with six nominations for his war movie Hacksaw Ridge. The one-two punch of sexist, problematic behavior lit a fire under a much more docile-to-white-people narrative to create more clickbait stories.

I'll leave it for you to put together the pieces. Race appears to play a role in awards season even when the work could be a contender. Just think back to how much crap Mo'nique got for not campaigning for Precious and how many interviewers just assumed Gabourey Sidibe was an innercity nobody with below average intelligence to play the lead in the same film. Now compare it to the typical white actress questions related to fashion, the challenge of playing someone SO DIFFERENT from themselves, and blanket praise for actresses like Brie Larson and Jennifer Lawrence who roll their eyes at the traditional awards campaigns and appearances.

The Oscar nominations aren't all bad. I'm quite fond of most of these lineups, even if they don't come close to lining up with my own ballot. Arrival, Fences, and Hell or High Water, and Moonlight are excellent nominees. I don't mind Hidden Figures or Lion, either. La La Land is the likely Best Picture winner, which is unfortunate but easily explained by Hollywood's fondness for films that wink and nod at Hollywood and entertainment culture. 

I'm a huge fan of Original Screenplay where should-be Best Picture nominees The Lobster and 20th Century Woman earned the right to say "Academy Award Nominee" in their marketing. Visual Effects recognized the consistently magnificent work of Studio Laika as well as the best new character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe: Doctor Strange's cape. Documentary feature is incredibly strong (even if you accept made for TV documentary O.J. Made in America as a film) and Costume Design is the most contemporary crop of nominees we've seen in a long time (the oldest entries are set in the 1920s, followed by 1940s, 1960s, and modern). And it's always worth celebrating when the Academy goes all in on a queer film like Moonlight, especially a queer film from a non-white perspective. 

As for my own lineup, I literally have only one shared nominee, Moonlight, though my top choice The Lobster snuck in for Original Screenplay and Zootopia snagged its obvious nod for Animated Feature. 

Running down the list, I'm pulling for:

  • Moonlight in Best Picture,

  • Denzel Washington (Fences) or Viggo Mortenson (Captain Fantastic) for Best Actor,

  • Ruth Negga (Loving) or Isabelle Huppert (Elle) for Best Actress, 

  • Mahersala Ali in Supporting Actor,

  • Naomie Harris in Supporting Actress (both from Moonlight),

  • Barry Jenkins (Moonlight) for Best Director, 

  • Yorgos Lanthimos and  Efthymis Filippou (The Lobster) for Original Screenplay,

  • Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi (Hidden Figures) for Adapted Screenplay,

  • Bradford Young (Arrival) for Cinematography,

  • Madeline Fontaine (Jackie) for Costumes,

  • Steve EmersonOliver JonesBrian McLean, and Brad Schiff (Kubo and the Two Strings) for Visual Effects,

  • Eva Von Bahr and Love Larson (A Man Called Ove) for Makeup and Hairstyling,

  • Mica Levi (Jackie) for Original Score,

  • Lyn Manuel Miranda's "How Far I'll Go" from Moana for Original Song, 

  • 13th for Documentary Feature,

  • My Life as a Zucchini for Animated Feature

  • Jess Gonchor and Nancy Haigh (Hail, Ceasar!) for Production Design, 

  • Sylvain Bellemare for Sound Editing,

  • Bernard Gariépy Strobl and Claude La Haye Sound Mixing,

  • Joe Walker for Editing, all from Arrival.

I haven't seen enough of the short and Foreign Language nominees to form opinions.

But then we go back to my initial issue. Since I won't see Hacksaw Ridge or Manchester by the Sea, I can't REALLY judge the categories they appear in. The films exist and are supported despite the issues with the main men behind the campaigns. They could split all their shared categories in a tie and sweep everything else and I wouldn't be able to form an opinion one way or the other. 

I still won't see them, though. I'm not backing down from that. Vote with your wallet and the entertainment industry will learn.