Why Stuck at Five?

A quick glance of this year’s Academy Award nominations reveals the same films over and over again. That’s no coincidence. In an article for Grantland, Mark Harris explained that this year’s “top eight” nominations (Picture, Director, Acting and Screenplay) covered only 12 different films, the fewest number in 30 years. Harris explains “What’s more, the second-lowest number of films represented in the major nominations in the last 30 years — 14 — happened just one year ago. And the third-lowest also happened in the five years since the rule change.” The rule change Harris refers to is the Academy initially raising the number of Best Picture nominees from five to ten, and then allowing them to go anywhere between five and ten.

Harris logically concludes that Academy voters now have to see a larger number of major contenders to arrive at their Best Picture nominees. He then theorizes that these voters, with limited time on their hands, don’t look much further than the likely Best Picture nominees for any of the major categories. The backloaded Oscar contender release schedule, (this year all of the Best Picture nominees came out in 2013’s last quarter), exacerbates the problem. The voters increasingly rely on the well-funded Oscar campaigns to whittle down the field.

Everything Harris wrote about the problem makes perfect sense, except the solution – going back to the five Best Picture nominees. Conceivably this would make Academy voters have to look harder for nominees in other categories. Maybe, or maybe we would be talking about only seven films among the major nominees. The exception, of course, would be the screenplay nominees, because there have to be ten (five original and five adapted). Unfortunately, there’s little anyone can do about the backloaded release schedule. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle. The more distributors see the late releases snagging the nominations, the more they will continue to schedule the movies that way. The same goes for Oscar campaigns. Harris’s solution could only mean that even less deserving pictures would be honored.

So if Harris’s solution won’t work, than what would? Why not open the other major categories in a similar manner done to Best Picture. Require all voters to submit ten picks in the major categories. If there’s enough support for more than five contenders, have more nominees. There’s nothing magic about the number five. It would be much more difficult for Academy voters to stick on a limited number of films if, they had to submit ten Best Actor and Best Actress nominees. For example, among this year’s Best Picture nominees only American Hustle and Philomena could arguably have both possibilities for Best Actor and Best Actress. If voters had to go up to 10, they could not stick to such a limited number of films.

Could this change lead to an undeserving nomination? Possibly, but that can happen anyway. The fundamental question is which is worse: An underserving honor granted or a deserving honor not granted? I choose the latter, and would rather err on the side of inclusion.

Finally, please excuse me for having little sympathy for Academy voters. If voting is a burden for them, let them not vote. I’d rather have a smaller number of ballots from those who have taken the time to see a wide range of films than a larger number from those who can’t be bothered. Yes, Academy voters have full-time jobs, but so do I and many of my fellow film lovers. And we don’t have distributors mailing us screeners we can see at our convenience. If we can see films such as All Is Lost, Blue Is the Warmest Color, Lee Daniels’ The Butler, Enough Said, Fruitvale Station, Inside Llewyn Davis, Prisoners, and Rush then Academy voters can see them too.

Now that I’ve finally stepped off my soapbox, let’s look at this year’s nominees and hand out some grades:

American Hustle
Captain Phillips
Dallas Buyers Club
12 Years a Slave
The Wolf of Wall Street

Grade: A. Eight of these were among the best films of the year, and the ninth, The Wolf of Wall Street, suffered only from having a few too many extra scenes. The Academy wisely left out August: Osage County, the case study proving that fine performances do not always make a fine film.

Alfonso Cuarón – Gravity
Steve McQueen – 12 Years a Slave
Alexander Payne – Nebraska
David O. Russell – American Hustle
Martin Scorsese – The Wolf of Wall Street

Grade: A-. The Wolf of Wall Street is hardly Scorsese’s best work, but you can still see the craft and energy in very frame. It’s a shame to leave out Spike Jonze for Her, Paul Greengrass for Captain Phillips, Stephen Frears for Philomena, and Ryan Coogler for Fruitvale Station. Here’s Exhibit A for why we need more nominees.

Christian Bale – American Hustle
Bruce Dern – Nebraska
Leonardo DiCaprio – The Wolf of Wall Street
Chiwetel Ejiofor – 12 Years a Slave
Matthew McConaughey – Dallas Buyers Club

Grade: B+. I enjoyed Dern’s work, and it’s gratifying to see of one Hollywood’s great underappreciated character actors earn some long overdue recognition. Still, Will Forte’s character is the real center of Nebraska, and Dern has more of a supporting role. It’s tough to see Hanks getting snubbed, especially since enough Academy voters clearly saw Captain Phillips or Barkhad Abdi would not have received a Best Supporting Actor nod. Maybe Hanks just makes his acting look too easy, although Captain Phillips is his best performance since Cast Away. Here’s Exhibit B for why we need more nominees. Look at this group and tell me they aren’t just as worthy as the five the Academy chose:

Tom Hanks – CaptainPhillips
Oscar Isaac – Inside Llewyn Davis
Michael B. Jordan – Fruitvale Station
Joaquin Phoenix – Her
Robert Redford – All is Lost

And that list doesn’t even include Forest Whitaker for Lee Daniels’ The Butler or Idris Elba for Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. Even I understand that deserving actors are left out every year, but when there’s this many, we need a change.

Amy Adams – American Hustle
Cate Blanchett – Blue Jasmine
Sandra Bullock – Gravity
Judi Dench – Philomena
Meryl Streep – August: Osage County

Grade: A. Can you believe this is Adams’s fifth Oscar nomination in the past eight years? Not too long ago, she would generally play the naïve, goodhearted girl. She’s expanded her range, and as her characters became tougher, she showed more edginess and vulnerability. Emma Thompson, for Saving Mr. Banks, is certainly the biggest snub here. While I would have loved to have seen Shailene Woodley recognized for The Spectacular Now, or Onata Aprile for What Maisie Knew, neither film was on the Academy’s radar.

Barkhad Abdi – Captain Phillips
Bradley Cooper – American Hustle
Michael Fassbender – 12 Years a Slave
Jonah Hill – The Wolf of Wall Street
Jared Leto – Dallas Buyers Club

Grade: B-. Jonah Hill was certainly convincing in The Wolf of Wall Street, but his one-note performance had little depth. By including him, the Academy blew a chance to honor the late James Gandolfini for Enough Said. Not only would a nomination have been a timely tribute to a career cut short, but it would have been deserving on its own merits. Gandolfini infused his role as a lonely divorced dad with tenderness and humor. The scene in the car where his character, stung by his girlfriend’s criticism, asks her, “Don’t you like me?” is heartbreaking. So is his reaction when he realizes he’s been duped. You could see a man struggling to come out of his shell. Unlike Hill, Gandolfini had subtlety and grace. What a shame we will not see more of that this man had to offer.

Sally Hawkins – Blue Jasmine
Jennifer Lawrence – American Hustle
Lupita Nyong'o – 12 Years a Slave
Julia Roberts – August: Osage County
June Squibb – Nebraska

Grade: B-. Squibb steals very scene she’s in and proved that, at age 84, it’s never too late to have a breakout role. She and Nyong'o are two of those “Where did she come from” stories that make the Oscars gratifying. But why is Julia Roberts in this category? She has as much screen time as the ostensible lead, Meryl Streep. They are both the center of August: Osage County.

I’m convinced that many Academy voters simply did not see Fruitvale Station. That’s the only reason I can comprehend why Octavia Spencer is not on this list. She won this category a couple of years ago for The Help, but is even more worthy this time around. As Oscar Grant’s mother, Spencer imbued the woman with weariness and concern. Through small looks, she makes you see how this woman loves her son, but has been hurt and let down by him. See the sadness and disappointment in her eyes in the flashback visit to Oscar in jail. As Harris noted in an earlier Grantland article, “A hysterical, grieving hospital sequence would almost certainly have secured her a nomination this year, but it’s to her and the movie’s considerable credit that absolutely nothing in her big scenes is shaped or played to make them feel like big scenes. In a category that sometimes reward histrionics, she may be penalized for good taste.” Unfortunately, Harris was right.

Woody Allen – Blue Jasmine
Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack – Dallas Buyers Club
Spike Jonze – Her
Bob Nelson – Nebraska
Eric Singer and David O. Russell – American Hustle

Grade: A. Some have dismissed Allen’s screenplay by citing similarities with A Streetcar Named Desire. But Allen has shown an underappreciated talent for taking themes and characters from earlier fiction and updating them from modern times. Maybe he’s in the wrong screenplay category. You could make the same claim about Eric Singer and David O. Russell, whose script for American Hustle openly borrows plot points and characters from works about the Abscam scandals. The lines between original and adapted become very blurry. Still, I wish the Academy would have found room for Ryan Coogler, whose brilliant script for Fruitvale Station gives us a compelling and full picture of Oscar Grant through the last 24 hours of Grant’s life.

Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope – Philomena
Richard Linklater – Before Midnight
Billy Ray – Captain Phillips
John Ridley – 12 Years a Slave
Terence Winter – The Wolf of Wall Street

Grade: B+. The lines between an original and adapted screenplay may be blurry, but they shouldn’t be imaginary. Before Midnight the same two characters as Linklater’s Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, but the story was entirely new. It was not adapted from anything. Compare that to What Maisie Knew. Nancy Doyne and Carroll Cartwright took characters and a story from an 1897 Henry James novel and successfully transformed it into a present-day story. They kept the themes but made it relevant and fresh. If you want to truly honor the finest adaptation work, What Maisie Knew would have been a more fitting selection than Before Midnight.

Last year the Academy only included two minorities in its 20 acting nominees. 2013 offered 42, Fruitvale Station, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, Lee Daniels’s The Butler, and 12 Years a Slave, among others. National Public Radio reported that in 2013 eleven major films had a black director and a predominantly black cast, more than double the 2012 total. So now, a year later, the Academy’s minority acting nominees skyrocket from two to ... three (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Barkhad Abdi, and Lupita Nyong'o). You get the sinking feeling that Academy voters believed that honoring 12 Years a Slave checked the diversity box. I’ll quote Mark Harris one last time: “In theaters, 2013 may have been, in some ways, ‘the year of the black movie,’ but in the Academy, it turned out to be ‘the year of a black movie’ ... This does not mean that the Academy is racist, but it’s certainly a reminder, as if any were needed, that the Academy is white.”

A year ago I wrote that “the nation is changing but, all too often, you’d never know that in a movie theater.” Now I will amend that statement: You may know the nation is changing in the movie theater, but you won’t know it from the Academy.

Adam Spector
February 1, 2014

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