Whether willfully or not, the Oscars are considered an important cultural event and a hallmark of success for actors, directors, and technical crews. Everyone’s gaudy outfits get articles devoted to them, coverage of the newscast fills social media, and these awards are considered to be granted to the best of the best in Hollywood.
When Leonardo Dicaprio goes decades without an Oscar nomination, the public outcries. When Moonlight beats La La Land, we gasp or cheer. It's hard to ignore how important these awards have become in public perception of actors and films, which both catapults unrecognized performances or directors into the limelight and makes or breaks careers. It's clear—actors with Oscars get more roles, not just recognition.
The 92nd Oscar nominations were released on Jan. 13 with the award ceremony scheduled for Feb. 9. Of the nominees, top contenders were Todd Phillips’ gritty drama Joker, which holds the most nominations at 11, and Martin Scorcese’s The Irishman, Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, and Sam Mendes’ 1917 following behind with ten nominations each. Scarlett Johansson has a shocking double nomination for acting, one for Best Supporting Actress and one for Best Actress, in Jojo Rabbit and Marriage Story, respectively. While a similar crowd to last month’s Golden Globes, the Oscars, predictably, caused more drama.
One of the most discussed outcomes of this year’s nominations is the shocking lack of women on the Best Director list. The majority of the outcry surrounded Greta Gerwig’s lack of recognition for directing, despite the fact that her second directorial venture, Little Women, garnered a total of eight nominations, one of which includes Best Picture. Gerwig, as well as stars Saoirse Ronan and Florence Pugh (nominated for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress, respectively) have responded to the apparent robbery.
However, while the media's response focuses solely on Gerwig’s alleged snub, it fails to realize precisely what Gerwig’s lack of nomination implies. She was previously nominated for Lady Bird in 2018, though she lost to Alfonso Cuarón for Roma, and is married to Noah Baumbach, a similarly established director who directed Best Picture nominee Marriage Story. Gerwig is also backed by critical acclaim and mentored by Steven Spielberg. Gerwig isn't some underdog in the film business—she created an Academy–adored film, and she still was not nominated. What does this mean for less privileged female directors, like The Farewell’s Lulu Wang or A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood’s Marielle Heller? It seems that they never had a chance.
In discussing this Best Director scuffle, however, Bong Joon–Ho’s nomination is often forgotten. As the first Korean to ever be nominated for the award, his inclusion is especially shocking, since the Academy often ignores non–English films, and his movie is the first Korean film to be nominated for both Best Foreign Picture and Best Picture. Bong’s masterpiece, Parasite, quickly became a worldwide sensation in spite of the American audience's aversion to subtitles. Its six nominations made history. However, Bong’s success is clouded by a hyper—focus on Gerwig's exclusion, whereas Bong should be celebrated for his historical nomination.
Other points of contention are the Best Acting categories, which, unsurprisingly, are full of white people. The trending hashtag #OscarsSoWhite, which began in January 2015, still holds relevant. Across all four acting categories, Cynthia Erivo is the only black person nominated this year, and Antonio Banderas the only Latinx actor.
In the same vein, criticism bubbled around two particular exclusions: Jennifer Lopez in Hustlers and Awkwafina for The Farewell—a performance which won her a Golden Globe. These snubs hurt particularly because of Johansson’s double nomination. Similarly, while Charlize Theron’s performance in Bombshell wasn’t the worst, the film is far from Oscar–worthy, and is premised on the racist white women of Fox News getting their story told. Renée Zellweger, in a career comeback, is nominated for Judy, where she plays Judy Garland—a career move which will cement her once again in the business after a six–year hiatus from acting. While it is impressive to see a 50–year–old woman whom many may consider “past her prime” get critical recognition, Judy, also, is not an Oscar–worthy film, and it is clear that Zellweger’s ability to get a second chance rests on her privilege.
Another notable snub was Lupita Nyong’o for her performance in Us, Jordan Peele’s second film following his critically adored Get Out. While Get Out received four nominations—including Best Picture and Best Director—Us has been ignored by the Academy, especially Nyong’o for Best Actress. The Academy has often disregarded the horror genre, and continues to do so this year. This is most frustrating because 2019 presented a collection of incredible horror films, including Us and Ari Aster’s similarly snubbed summer horror, Midsommar. The lack of Oscar recognition for the genre only becomes more and more outdated as the quantity of incredible horror movies grows.
Perhaps what is most worrying about the nominations is not just the lack of representation, but also the disdain for people of color or women in the films nominated. For Best Picture, only Little Women has a female–led cast, yet still features only white people. In fact, Parasite is the only film that prominently depicts nonwhite people in the entire list. Not only do many of these films not depict women or people of color—they actively build off of their silence or suffering. The Irishman and Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood both contain women barely speaking in their collective 6–hour runtimes, for supposedly poetic purposes, though fail to give these women any deeper analysis. Once Upon a Time also delights in violence committed against women. 1917, despite its large cast, only shows a single woman. Joker premises its white male lead’s oppression on the mistreatment of people around him, particularly black women.
But what does this mean for the Oscars? There is a shocking lack of timeliness in these nominations and a firm devotion to dated tradition. Tarantino and Scorsese, considered some of the greatest old–school auteurs, were clear ringers in almost every category. Horror films were, once again, shut out. Perhaps more than anything, this year’s ceremony will firmly cement the Academy as what it has been for a long time now: outdated, irrelevant, and in need of an overhaul—maybe this time representing women and people of color on its committee.