Oscar Voters Break New Ground With This Year’s Ballot

If last year’s Oscar race revolved around genre-bending movies (stick with me on this), this year’s contest has a decidedly international flavor.

Alfonso Cuaron used his clout after winning two Oscars for “Gravity” to make “Roma,” a deeply personal story about his childhood maid in Mexico City. He figured the movie, shot in black and white using Spanish and the Mixtec language, might be so small in scale that few people would see it. Instead, the Netflix release scored 10 Oscar nominations, a tie for the most this year. It is the streamer’s first movie to get a best picture nomination and newcomer Yalitza Aparicio became the first indigenous Mexican woman to receive an Oscar nomination for her performance. Cuaron alone received four noms.

From the start with “Roma,” he has touted audience hunger for diversity in cinema. Academy voters seemingly backed up that claim.

Fellow top nom-getter “The Favourite” is an English-language production, but director Yorgos Lanthimos brought a decidedly European perspective to it. Born in Greece, he made that country’s 2011 foreign-language nominee (“Dogtooth”) before moving on to English-language features, originally planning to make “The Favourite” before “The Killing of a Sacred Deer.”

The Fox Searchlight release revolves around a trio of women in the early 18th century British royal court: Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), her childhood friend Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz) and Lady Sarah’s cousin Abigail (Emma Stone), the latter not quite as innocent as she initially seems. U.K. producer Ceci Dempsey got the original script for the project in 1998 and over the years ran into potential backers that
shied away from its three leading female characters. But Lanthimos saw the project’s potential and enlisted Tony McNamara to write a new draft playing up the story’s political intrigue.

“It took a lot of guts to make this film in the first place, with three really complicated female protagonists,” supporting actress nominee Weisz told Variety. “Things are usually more in the male domain. It was ballsy to do, and it took a tortured 20 years to get made.”

For his part, Lanthimos invoked his outsider status while thanking his collaborators on nomination morning: “Having felt a bit like an outsider looking in, I am truly humbled,” he told Variety.

Lanthimos will be competing against Cuaron, Polish helmer Pawel Pawlikowski (“Cold War”) and Americans Spike Lee (“BlacKkKlansman”) and Adam McKay (“Vice”) in the directing category. Pawlikowski’s “Cold War” story is loosely based on his parents and primarily shot in Polish language. This marks the first time since 1977 that two nominees in the directing category were recognized for their work in non-English language movies.

The cinematography category goes one better. Three nominees were recognized for work in non-English language films: Cuaron for “Roma”; Caleb Deschanel for German film “Never Look Away,” released in the U.S. by Sony Classics; and Lukasz Zal for Amazon’s “Cold War,” shot in black and white, as was “Roma.” They will compete against “The Favourite” cinematographer Robbie Ryan and Matthew Libatique, who did the honors on “A Star Is Born.” It’s the first time a majority of the cinematography nominees were recognized for work on non-English language films.

Part of this year’s international tilt can be attributed to Cuaron and Pawlikowski’s accomplishments, but it goes beyond that. The movie business overall has grown more international and the Motion Picture Academy is making aggressive moves to diversify its membership.

Although Hollywood has long been a mecca for filmmakers from around the world, in recent years the Academy has been criticized as too white and too male. Three years ago, the org began a big diversity push to double the number of female and non-white members by 2020 from their then-paltry levels. According to the organization, there are now nearly 8,000 voting members.

This expanded membership has displayed a willingness to deviate from old Oscar voting patterns. Notably, Disney’s “Black Panther” became the first superhero movie to land a best picture nomination, picking up six more noms in craft categories.

This strong showing comes a decade after “The Dark Knight” failed to land a best picture nomination, an omission that helped pave the way for the expansion of that category. (Heath Ledger did win the supporting actor trophy for “The Dark Knight” posthumously in the first major Oscar victory for a superhero movie.)

Marvel and Disney’s accomplishment with “Black Panther,” a blockbuster superhero movie set in fictional African country called Wakanda, only added to sense that the Academy is broadening its horizons. For years, filmmakers and talent have railed against the notion that black movies have limited business potential; “Black Panther” made $ 700 million at the domestic box office and $1.3 billion worldwide, laying waste to that particular argument. And the movie got a further vote of confidence when it received a SAG ensemble trophy late last month.

Fellow best picture nominees “BlacKkKlansman” and “Green Book” tackle race relations from distinctly American settings. Lee’s movie is set in the 1970s but provocatively includes footage of deadly 2017 protests against a white supremacy rally in Charlottesville, Va. The Focus film picked up six nominations overall, including the first directing recognition for Lee, which comes three decades after “Do the Right Thing” hit theaters.

“I’ve come to understand more and more that timing is everything,” Lee told Variety. “It was the right time for this film.”

Peter Farrelly directed Universal’s “Green Book,” based on the story of an Italian-American bouncer driving a black musician around the South during segregation. Nick Vallelonga co-wrote the script based on stories his father, “Tony the Lip,” told him about his experiences with Don Shirley; it is up for five Oscars, including lead actor (Viggo Mortensen) and supporting actor (Mahershala Ali). Winner of the Golden Globe for musical comedy and the PGA Award, it has come under fire for what critics say is an old-fashioned, “Driving Miss Daisy” view of race relations, but has nonetheless struck a chord with audiences going all the way back to its Toronto festival debut.

These movies will be competing with “Bohemian Rhapsody,” a rocker biopic about the late Freddie Mercury, Bradley Cooper’s “A Star Is Born” remake and Adam McKay’s “Vice,” about George W. Bush’s second in commade, Dick Cheney, for the best picture. Even without grosses for Netflix’s “Roma,” the eight best-picture nominees dwarf the box office take of the nine films nominated last year; that group had the dubious distinction of the lowest grosses in six years.

There were other strides this year: Hannah Beachler became the first African-American nominated for a production design Oscar. And seventysomething industry veterans Paul Schrader and Sam Elliott both received their first nominations this year; Schrader got his “First Reformed” screenplay nomination more than four decades after he wrote “Taxi Driver.” Elliott, nominated in the supporting actor category for “A Star Is Born,” has credits that stretch back into the 1960s.

Missing: a female directing nomination in the main category. Last year, “Lady Bird” helmer Greta Gerwig became the fifth woman to receive such recognition, but no woman made it in the final five this year, prompting some to dub this year’s race #OscarSoMale. Female helmers were recognized in the foreign-language and documentary categories, however.

One thing’s for certain: If “Roma” does win the Oscar, it will be another first. Ten foreign-language films have been nominated for the trophy before, but none have brought that particular trophy home.

“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” which now shares the record for most nominations for a foreign-language movie with “Roma,” went on to win four Oscars, including the foreign-language trophy that year, but lost best picture to “Gladiator.” The other three films to have received nominations in both categories (“Z,” “Life Is Beautiful” and “Amour”) also won the foreign-language Oscar their respective years.

Last year’s key Oscar race narrowed down to trio of genre-bending films: “The Shape of Water,” a Hollywood sci-fi movie mashup with a Cold War thriller; “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” a revenge Western starring Frances McDormand with John Wayne swagger; and “Get Out,” a horror satire about race relations. In the end, Guillermo del Toro’s “Shape of Water” won the top best picture prize in addition to directing. “Three Billboards” picked up key acting trophies, while Jordan Peele won original screenplay for “Get Out.”

This year, he’s part of the producing team behind “BlacKkKlansman.”

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