The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences covered a lot of ground with this year’s Oscar nominations announcement, toppling records, smashing glass ceilings and making it quite clear that a few years of actively seeking out international and diverse voices to add to the membership can make a difference.
Nominations for Daniel Kaluuya (“Get Out”), Denzel Washington (“Roman J. Israel, Esq.”), Mary J. Blige (“Mudbound”) and Octavia Spencer (“The Shape of Water”) no doubt yielded a sigh of relief from Academy brass, desperate not to face another #OscarsSoWhite backlash. It’s fascinating, as well, to note that “Call Me by Your Name” star Timothée Chalamet, 22, is the youngest lead acting nominee in 80 years, while “All the Money in the World” savior Christopher Plummer, 88, became the oldest actor ever nominated. (“Faces Places” director Agnès Varda, 89, meanwhile, is the oldest nominee ever, period.)
Four of the five lead actress nominees come from best picture rivals, which is a rarity. It’s possible — perhaps even likely — that the best picture prize will ultimately go to a film featuring a lead actress nominee for the first time in 13 years, since “Million Dollar Baby.” The possibilities are “Lady Bird,” “The Shape of Water,” “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” and, less probably, “The Post.”
Washington and Spencer, meanwhile, became the first black actors to receive nominations in back-to-back years (“Fences” and “Hidden Figures,” respectively), suggesting ongoing support, rather than a boom-bust cycle, for people of color among actors branch voters.
Indeed, a lineup that includes somewhat traditional “Oscar bait” titles like “Darkest Hour” and “The Post” nominated alongside a bold film from an exciting new voice, like “Get Out,” tells the year’s story: The Academy is evolving right before our eyes.
That was the X-factor going into this year’s race: How does a membership boost of 1,400 names in two years impact the nominations? In many ways, it’s hard to really and truly know. Who can say, for instance, how many of the new members actually cast ballots; many are far-flung globally and don’t necessarily gauge their Oscar voter role as an important one. But it’s clear that a tide is inexorably turning.
Another unknowable was how Netflix would fare with its finest slate of contenders yet. While the nominations for “Mudbound” are groundbreaking — Rachel Morrison becoming the first-ever female cinematography nominee, Mary J. Blige the first person ever nominated for acting and songwriting in the same year, Dee Rees only the second black woman nominated for writing — the nominees betrayed a lack of general enthusiasm for those firsts. The fact that the film couldn’t score a best picture nomination despite being the kind of critically acclaimed period-piece catnip that voters love speaks volumes about Netflix’s weight (or lack thereof).
“The X-factor going into this year’s race was how a membership boost of 1,400 names in two years would impact the nominations.”
Noah Baumbach’s “The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected),” meanwhile, went nowhere after a promising start in Cannes, while “Bright” and “Okja” were ignored in key crafts categories in which they easily could have received nominations.
Two sources confided in the fall that a concern over possible Academy ambivalence to the streaming company figured into the decision to sell their film elsewhere. If awards attention is going to be part of Netflix’s business model, questions of Academy acceptance can be ominous. It will be interesting to see how this figures into potential Netflix acquisitions going forward.
For those actually still in the race, however, it’s time to pivot toward securing a win. How will the messaging shift in phase two? Nearly every best picture nominee, save perhaps “Phantom Thread,” has an obvious angle on tapping the zeitgeist and declaring itself the most relevant film in the lineup. Whichever one does that most successfully is likely to walk away with the gold.