Sweet Relief

In years past, I looked forward to the Oscar nominations announcement the same was many kids look forward to Xmas morning. At its best, the Oscars are fun and gratifying, a chance to see the best films, filmmakers, and performances of the year garner just recognition. Often the Oscars fall short of that lofty goal, but even then it gives a chance for people like me to do what they love – debate movies.

Last year of course, I was in no mood to discuss the nominations. I was sick to my stomach that, for the second year in a row, the Academy did not recognize any minorities in the acting categories. It also had no predominantly minority films in the Best Picture nominees, after having one the year before. #OscarsSoWhite was back with a vengeance. I wrote a column about the Academy’s problems and the larger issue of Hollywood’s reluctance to offer opportunities to artists of color.

This year, I approached the nominations with trepidation. The past year had produced many fine films with minority casts and, in some cases, by minority filmmakers. The Oscar precursor awards had reflected this diversity. The Academy had made changes to its membership to have a broader group of voters. So there was reason for optimism, but we had been burned before.

Thankfully the promise turned into reality this year. Six of the 20 acting nominees are African-American, with seven minorities overall. Four of the nine Best Picture nominees have predominantly minority casts. African-Americans directed four of the five Best Documentary nominees. The best part of all of this is how the nominees are all deserving. No one can seriously argue that Academy voters bent too far the other way after last year’s travesty. It’s not as if they honored Tyler Perry.

Even beyond the diversity, there’s not much to complain about this year. While some of my favorites did not make it, the ones that did were, in general, solid picks. For the most part the Academy did its job: recognizing the best of what film had to offer this past year: So I can sit back, with a clear conscience, and hand out some grades:

Hacksaw Ridge
Hell or High Water
Hidden Figures
La La Land
Manchester by the Sea

Grade: B. It’s telling that Hidden Figures was included while Loving was not. These are two films about previously unsung civil rights pioneers, none whom were looking to lead a movement but simply wanted to lead their lives, whether it was reaching their full potential at NASA or marrying the person they loved. But Hidden Figures was more upfront about the film’s message and modified the story to be a crowd pleaser, while Loving stayed true to the real story and the low key characters at its core. I am not saying either approach is right or wrong, but I am disappointed that the Academy and audiences could not appreciate the subtlety in the storytelling of Loving. It would have been a better choice than Hacksaw Ridge, which features riveting battle scenes in its second half, but a clichéd story in its first half. It is telling that Hacksaw Ridge is the only Best Picture nominee to not also have a Screenplay nomination.

Damien Chazelle, La La Land
Mel Gibson, Hacksaw Ridge
Barry Jenkins, Moonlight
Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea
Denis Villeneuve, Arrival

Grade: B-. Gibson is the big surprise here. Much of the media focused on his anti-Semitic rants, but not as much on his domestic violence battery conviction in 2011. The conviction was later vacated after he completed his sentence. Certainly the Academy has forgiven other crimes, most notably Roman Polanski, who won Best Director 24 years after fleeing the U.S. to avoid serving jail time for a statutory rape conviction. The reason I am raising Gibson’s conviction is that many Academy voters refused to even consider Nate Parker for Best Director with Birth of a Nation, after the story broke about his arrest for rape. Parker had been acquitted. I am not arguing that Academy voters or audiences should necessarily judge filmmakers for their crimes. But, if we are to make these judgments, we should at least be consistent. Treating one man harsher for a crime for which he was found not guilty, than to other men who were convicted smacks of hypocrisy. The fact that Parker is black, young, and a relative newcomer, while both Gibson and Polanski are white, older and more accomplished reeks of very selective morality.

If the Academy would allow someone to be nominated for two films, Jeff Nichols would have been a lock. You could make a compelling case for him based on Loving alone. Earlier in 2016 he had Midnight Special, one of the most intelligent, moving sci-fi films of recent years. In both films, Nichols got fine, understated performances from his talented casts, in particular from Michael Shannon and Joel Edgerton. Nichols is still young, so I am hoping he will have many more chances for Academy recognition in the future.

Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea
Andrew Garfield, Hacksaw Ridge
Ryan Gosling, La La Land
Viggo Mortensen, Captain Fantastic
Denzel Washington, Fences

Grade: A. No issues at all with these selections. Garfield could have just as easily been nominated for Silence. Credit the Academy voters for remembering Mortensen’s complex performance in Captain Fantastic even though the film left theaters a while ago. As with Best Actress, I wish that this category could go up to nine nominees. Michael Shannon embodied Elvis Presley in Elvis & Nixon in addition to his exemplary work on Midnight Special. Joel Edgerton for Loving and Tom Hanks for Sully both delivered internalized performances that do not scream “Acting!” but are remarkable nonetheless.

Isabelle Huppert, Elle
Ruth Negga, Loving
Natalie Portman, Jackie
Emma Stone, La La Land
Meryl Streep, Florence Foster Jenkins

Grade: A-. Many critics harped on Streep’s inclusion ahead of other deserving choices such as Amy Adams for Arrival, Annette Bening for 20th Century Women, Sally Field for Hello, My Name is Doris, or Taraji P. Henson for Hidden Figures. Adams, Bening, Field or Henson would have been worthy nominees, and Streep may have garnered her 20th in part based on reputation. Still, she made what could have been a caricature into a full, identifiable human being. For a talented singer such as Streep to be convincing as someone who sings so badly is also tougher than it may seem. Streep belongs. So does Ruth Negga, who got what was unfortunately the only nomination for Loving. Negga perfectly embodied Mildred Loving’s soft-spoken dignity and determination. If there’s one nomination I could do without, it’s not Streep but Portman for her overly showy and stylized turn as Jackie Kennedy.

Mahershala Ali, Moonlight
Jeff Bridges, Hell or High Water
Lucas Hedges, Manchester by the Sea
Dev Patel, Lion
Michael Shannon, Nocturnal Animals

Grade: A. Yet another very competitive category, where all five performances were critical to their films. Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s work in Nocturnal Animals as a psychopathic rapist could have easily been cited along with Shannon’s. Shannon may have won out due to his total body of work for the year, with Midnight Special and Elvis & Nixon along with Nocturnal Animals. Ralph Fiennes in A Bigger Splash and Hugh Grant in Florence Foster Jenkins would also have been strong choices, but with only five slots, I cannot complain about the selections.

Viola Davis, Fences
Naomie Harris, Moonlight
Nicole Kidman, Lion
Octavia Spencer, Hidden Figures
Michelle Williams, Manchester by the Sea

Grade: A-. The only possible issue here is that Davis won a Tony for Best Actress for the same role a few years ago. She is a lead in Fences, not a supporting player. Still, I can’t fault her reps and the studio for moving her to this category, which is less competitive than Best Actress. Janelle Monáe also delivered some exquisite work in Hidden Figures, but it is tough getting two nominations from the same film in the same category. Greta Gerwig did some of the best acting in her career in 20th Century Women, but the film was largely overlooked. As with the other acting categories, smart selections all around.

Luke Davies, Lion
Eric Heisserer, Arrival
Barry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney, Moonlight
Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi, Hidden Figures
August Wilson, Fences

Grade: A. All five of the screenplays were for Best Picture nominees, so there are no surprises. While the Oscars have had their share of posthumous nominations it’s unusual to honor a man more than 11 years after his death. It is a testament to the timelessness of Wilson’s work that a screenplay he wrote in 1987 adapted from a play he wrote in 1985 still rings true today. I wish there was a way for the Academy to honor Jeff Nichols’s quietly moving screenplay for Loving, which was based on the 2011 documentary The Loving Story. He painstakingly depicted the characters in a way that you really got to know them as real people aside from their landmark struggle.

Damien Chazelle, La La Land
Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou, The Lobster
Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea
Mike Mills, 20th Century Women
Taylor Sheridan, Hell or High Water

Grade: A-. If you are looking for the most original screenplay of the year, it would be tough to beat The Lobster. A man needs to find a mate so he doesn’t get turned into an animal, and this is not an animated film. Somehow it works, due to the right level of absurdity and deadpan humor. I was disappointed 20th Century Women did not fare better in other categories. The distributor, A24, released the film too late and really did not seem to know how to market the film. So the screenplay nomination, as it has historically done, serves as a consolation prize. Two other original screenplays, The Edge of Seventeen by Kelly Fremon Craig, and Sing Street by John Carney, were fresh and funny while also poignant takes on teenage life. Some critics compared these films, particularly The Edge of Seventeen, to John Hughes’s work, and rightly so.

While we can and should celebrate the Academy’s step forward in honoring African-American talent, the diversity picture is not rosy by any means. One example is that in the seven years since Kathryn Bigelow became the first female to win Best Director, not a single woman has been nominated in that category. You can’t place much blame on the Academy for this one. Sure, Bigelow herself was snubbed for Zero Dark Thirty in 2013, and Ava DuVernay was passed over for Selma in 2015, but they are the exceptions. For the most part, opportunities for women filmmakers are still relatively scarce.

According to the 9th annual Celluloid Ceiling report, released by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University, opportunities for women working in top behind-the-camera roles haven't improved in nearly 20 years. The percentage of women directors in 2016 — seven percent — was down by two percentage points from 1998, the first year of the study, and the percentage of women who held various behind-the-camera roles on films — 17 percent — was even with the percentage achieved in 1998. Of the top 250 grossing films in 2016, only seven percent were directed by women, down from nine percent in 2015.

Last year I cited a 2015 report by UCLA’s Ralph Bunche Center, which found that:

  • “Film studio heads were 100 percent male.”
  • “Film studio senior management was 83 percent male.”
  • “Film studio unit heads were 61 percent male.”

    More women in management would likely lead to more opportunities for women filmmakers. No one would support a quota, but are women even interviewed when studio openings occur, or is it the good old Fboy system, where people continue to hire others who look like themselves? Some luminaries such as Lucasfilm President Kathleen Kennedy and The Force Awakens director JJ Abrams, have vowed to address this problem. But it can’t be one or two people working on it. After all people like me have been griping about this for years, but the problems seem to be growing worse. Some argue that female movie stars should use their visibility to advocate for women filmmakers. Maybe so, but the men shouldn’t be let off the hook. If Hollywood can celebrate a film about three African-American women succeeding in a male dominated culture (NASA) in the 1960s, can’t it try to help women succeed in a male dominated culture in 2017? I know how to get it greenlighted: Pitch it as a sequel. First there was the Women’s March on Washington. Coming soon, the Women’s March on Hollywood!

    Adam Spector
    February 1, 2017

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