The Oscar nominations have only been out for about two hours and, already, the outrage is piling up. Inspiring the loudest outcries of disapproval are the remarkably homogeneous acting nominees. Not a single acting nod went to a performer of color. One more time: The 2015 Academy Awards did not recognize a single actor of color. No female directors or screenwriters or cinematographers, either.
This would be a problem even in a year in which the pickings were slim. An all-white acting slate does little to address the Academy’s increasing irrelevance among moviegoers. Ignoring the work of women and people of color is bad for business. But it is particularly appalling this year, when there are obvious contenders of color for all major categories — people not just in good movies, but in great movies, and in Oscar-bait-y movies at that — and not one was recognized.
Why does this keep happening? Why does it feel like, for every one step forward (12 Years a Slave won three Oscars last year) the Academy takes five steps back?
It would be a mistake to chalk the whole thing up to overt, intentional racism. But a list of nominees like this year’s is the result of a specific kind of thinking, one that rewards comfort over daring, the old over the new. If the Academy is aiming to be a bastion of tradition and excellence, it is going to look to the past: what are the movies that have stood the test of time? Keep in mind, the overall membership of the Academy is still 93 percent white and 76 percent male. What kind of people, what kind of narratives, what kind of experiences, will that group of people gravitate toward? What are the stories they want to be told about themselves?
By definition, looking to the past will mean looking to a time when women and people of color were systematically excluded from the film industry. And by definition, members of the Academy (like all humans) feel safer being told stories they already know, stories that confirm the vision they have of themselves as inherently good, triumphant people. That’s why World War II movies get nominated so often. That’s why it’s easier to celebrate 12 Years a Slave, a movie about what feels like America’s ancient past and on a subject about which we can all agree — slavery = bad — than it is to acknowledge the tremendous feat of filmmaking that is this year’s Selma, a movie about America’s all-too-recent past that includes scenes of bloodshed at peaceful protests that look just like footage from Ferguson.
Take, for example, the worst nominee of the bunch: The Imitation Game, which landed eight nominations, including Best Picture. The Imitation Game is classic Oscar-bait: a biopic set in World War II about a misunderstood intellectual powerhouse. Alan Turing built one of the world’s first computers; a machine of his design cracked a Nazi code that was believed to be unbreakable. Some historians estimate that the codebreaking operation Turing oversaw shortened the war on the Western front by as many as two to four years. But after the war, Turing was charged with “gross indecency” for having a sexual relationship with a man; homosexuality was illegal in the United Kingdom at the time. He died of cyanide poisoning and is widely believed to have killed himself using a poisoned apple — something that would have been a beautiful, moving thing to include in the movie but, inexplicably, is absent from The Imitation Game — after undergoing chemical castration via mandatory hormone treatment for a year, the punishment he chose over imprisonment.
The Imitation Game had the opportunity to be a complicated story about moral ambiguity: about how Britain failed a war hero, about how the war, and all wars, are more than just good guys versus bad guys. Instead, the gist of the movie is: “You know what’s great? Computers! You know what’s really bad? Nazis! Let’s focus on what we can agree on: we’re all super-happy that we have computers now, and also, it’s so cool that we don’t have Nazis anymore. Britain was bad, but Hitler was worse, and good triumphed over evil. You know, for the most part.”
The film fails on cinematic levels, too. It is possible to convey genius in such a way that an audience will appreciate and understand it without simplifying things so much that the genius doesn’t look particularly genius at all. (A film that does this, and masterfully so, is The Theory of Everything. But honestly, Good Will Hunting did a better job of convincing me the protagonist was brilliant than The Imitation Game did, as the latter relied on, I kid you not, crossword-puzzle-completion-speed.) But in an attempt to translate Turing’s brilliant feat into layman’s speak, Turing and his band of merry smart men (and the requisite chick who can hang) take approximately half of the movie to figure out they should only utilize messages that include the signoff, “Heil Hitler.” That just occurred to you? To look for the word “Hitler”? Obviously, it was more complicated than that — it must have been more complicated than that — and yet, the film doesn’t convey that complexity.
All of that said, it’s a fine production. It’s the kind of movie you can see with your parents or your grandparents and leave having learned some very basic facts about history. It is an overdue appreciation for an unsung hero who sacrificed everything for a country that ultimately tortured him and, in so doing, sentenced him to death by his own hand. But the Oscars should not be about rewarding competence; they should reward excellence. Degree of difficulty matters; complexity matters; scope and scale and insight matter. And The Imitation Game does not deliver in any of those categories.
I bring this up because it’s not enough to say any person got “snubbed” unless you’re willing to also say who was undeservedly honored. There aren’t going to be seven Best Actor nominees. Putting someone on the list means kicking someone off of it. It’s all very Hunger Games. So, for instance, much as I think Jennifer Aniston is (one assumes) devastated that her strange, deadpan and wonderful performance in Cake was overlooked, it’s hard to argue with the people holding those five slots instead: Marion Cotillard (Two Days, One Night), Julianne Moore (Still Alice), Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl), Reese Witherspoon (Wild) and Felicity Jones (The Theory of Everything). Jones is the only option there to swap out for Aniston, I think, and it’s just not surprising that Cake was too weird and vaguely depressing to earn its lead a spot. That said, it passed the Bechdel Test with flying colors and rests entirely on Aniston and the relationship her character has with Silvana (played by Adriana Barraza); Jones doesn’t “carry” her movie in the same way.
The actor pool, though, is another story. The exclusion of David Oyelowo, whose portrayal of Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma is haunting and astonishing and just so damn good, is a mind-boggling choice. And what about Chris Rock’s fantastic Top Five? Maybe it would have been too much to hope a comedian who appeared to be playing a role so natural it didn’t feel like acting could be nominated for Best Actor — comic actors are generally overlooked unless they switch to the drama team, as Steve Carrell did in Foxcatcher — but no recognition for his original screenplay or his direction?
I found Foxcatcher to be so boring not even extended shots of Channing Tatum in a singlet could keep things interesting. It certainly seems to me that the Best Director spot held by Bennett Miller could have gone to someone else; same for the just-fine work of Morten Tyldum on The Imitation Game. Neither could go head-to-head with Ava DuVernay’s outstanding direction of Selma or Rock’s smooth, surprising command of Top Five and come out on top.
I would weigh in here on Bradley Cooper’s nod for American Sniper but, like most of the moviegoing public, I have not seen it, because it doesn’t come out in wide release until tomorrow. Great call, Academy! How are people supposed to get excited for the Oscars telecast if we haven’t even had the chance to see the movies?
Another disappointing list is the Supporting Actress nominees. This may be blasphemy, but does Meryl Streep really do anything spectacular with her witchcraft in Into the Woods? Knightley does what is asked of her in The Imitation Game, but that’s not saying much, because she’s really only asked to stare at machines and then look, longingly but with compassion, at Cumberbatch. Is either performance more notable than, say, Carmen Ejogo’s regal embodiment of Coretta Scott King in Selma, or Barraza’s quiet humor in Cake?
The Academy wants to be relevant and has demonstrated an ability, sometimes, to make changes in the hopes of being more aligned with the tastes of the moviegoing public; after the outcry around the Oscar’s exclusion of The Dark Knight Rises, they upped the number of possible Best Picture nominees from five to ten. But unless there is a concerted effort to diversify the Academy itself, or on the part of those already enmeshed in that establishment to think outside the genre, style and subject matter of movies they already know they’ll like, the divide between what the Academy deems important and what an increasingly diverse American audience values will only grow.