By Dan Albanese (Graphic by Chris Hunter)
With the Academy Awards airing Feb. 28, it’s important to acknowledge that the Oscars are not the end-all-be-all decision maker in the film industry. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has been giving awards to the wrong people for 88 years. The Academy Awards are hardly a recognition of greatness, but instead, a popularity contest, with great performances denied in favor of actors as a symbol of their experience.
Race and gender also play a bigger role in Academy voting than they should. For the second year in a row, no actors of color were recognized in the four major acting categories (Best Actor and Actress, Best Supporting Actor and Actress) causing some high-profile black actors to boycott the show. In response, the Academy made changes to help diversify selections.
It is important to recognize the following about the Academy: it consists only of people who are currently working in or used to work in film. It is also predominantly male (77 percent) and predominantly white (94 percent). That lack of diversity translates into the nominations. Of all the 1,668 actors and actresses ever nominated, only 6.7 percent have been minorities.
Last year marked the least diverse field of nominees since 1998. Not a single person of color was nominated in the four acting categories, and with the exception of Alejandro Iñárritu and Emmanuel Lubezki, every director, writer, and cinematographer nominated was a white man.
It’s not like it wasn’t a diverse year in film. “Selma” was both a critical and box-office success. It featured great acting by David Oyelowo and great direction by Ava DuVernay, but failed to capture Oscar glory. The only award that “Selma” won was for Best Original Song.
According to Eric Grode, director of the Goldring Arts Journalism program at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, it really doesn’t need to be this big of a problem.
“It would be terrible if worthwhile films and performances were being snubbed because of some racial situation like that, but that can kind of work in both directions,” he said. “Ideally, you would think just the five best performances would get nominated. It never works that way.”
This year was no exception as every nominee in the four acting categories were white. Jada Pinkett Smith, whose husband, Will Smith, was left out of the nominees for his well-acclaimed role in “Concussion,” and Spike Lee, who received an award from the Academy in November, said they won’t attend the ceremony this year.
On top of this, several critically-acclaimed films were left out of the Best Picture nominees, most notably “Carol,” though it still received six nominations.
Another movie that garnered discussion was “Creed,” which turned out to be better than anyone thought the seventh “Rocky” movie would be. Both Michael B. Jordan, who could have been one of the youngest black actors ever nominated for an Oscar, and director Ryan Coogler, who would have been the fourth black director ever nominated, were left out. Meanwhile, Sylvester Stallone, playing Rocky Balboa for the seventh time, was the only person nominated in a movie about Apollo Creed’s son.
Several critically-acclaimed movies were left out of the nominations entirely, including the Brian Wilson biopic “Love & Mercy,” the adaptation of David Lipsky’s novel about David Foster Wallace, “The End of the Tour,” a plethora of indie hits like “Tangerine” and “James White,” and, most notably, Cary Fukunaga’s gritty war drama, “Beasts of No Nation.”
Race and popularity aren’t the only Oscar controversies. Women are rarely recognized outside of acting. Just four women have ever been nominated for Best Director, and only Kathryn Bigelow has won for “The Hurt Locker.” Again, it’s not like there aren’t female directors worthy of nominations. Eight different women have directed Best Picture-nominated films without getting recognized, including DuVernay, Loveleen Tandan, who co-directed “Slumdog Millionaire” alongside Danny Boyle, who won Best Director that year.
This doesn’t even scratch the surface of the injustices served by the Academy.
One of the most infamous examples came in 1999, which was more of a popularity contest than recognition of greatness, when “Shakespeare In Love” won seven Oscars, including a Best Picture Award for Weinstein Company Executive Harvey Weinstein and a Best Supporting Actress award for Judi Dench, whose total screen time clocked in at just over eight minutes.
“Shakespeare In Love” would hardly be remembered today if not for what movies it beat. These included Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece war epic “Saving Private Ryan,” and Terrence Malick’s adaptation of James Jones’ 1962 autobiography “The Thin Red Line,” as well as the unnominated “The Truman Show” and “The Big Lebowski,” a movie that was so well-liked that it inspired a following known as “Dudeism” based on the movie’s main character, The Dude.
Another glaring example came in 1990, the year “Driving Miss Daisy” won four Oscars, including Best Picture in a field filled with nominations that were much more deserving, like Vietnam biopic “Born On The Fourth of July;” one of the best performances in the history of the film industry from Daniel Day-Lewis in “My Left Foot;” and the coming-of-age story “Dead Poets Society.”
But there was one big movie missing from the nominees that year: Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing,” which was arguably the year’s best movie. While “Driving Miss Daisy” suggested that racism was an artifact of the past, “Do the Right Thing” had the audacity to say that racism was still an issue. The movie was important for equality within the film industry, but Lee paid for his boldness. “Do the Right Thing” was only nominated for two awards, including Best Original Screenplay, which it lost.
Some choices make sense in the moment, but, according to Grode, that one didn’t.
“You’d be very hard-pressed to find someone who would say that “Driving Miss Daisy” is a more timeless, awardable, award-worthy film than “Do the Right Thing,”’ he said. “These things don’t always make sense in the moment, but they usually, if you look back at the historical currents and what was going on, they often make more sense if you plunk yourself down in that time and think what the context was. Then they make sense in retrospect. That said, I’m not sure that one made sense, even in the moment.”
The racial backlash seems to have finally inspired the Oscars toward change. The Academy announced in January that it is implementing measures to phase out inactive members and bring in more women and people of minority backgrounds.
In reality, the Academy Awards are a popularity contest designed by Hollywood to pat themselves on the back for a job well done. The Oscars may be interesting, but there can never be a true measure of greatness among the film industry because of the influence of the politics behind the screen.
An Oscar means short-term success for a film, but time will tell if it becomes a truly worthwhile film. “How Green Was My Valley” won best picture in 1942, beating “Citizen Kane,” which is often referred to as the greatest film of all time. One of the most well-loved American musicals of all time, “Singin’ In The Rain,” never even received a Best Picture Nomination.
In the words of famously snubbed director Quentin Tarantino, “The good ideas will survive.”