Oscars are a time capsule, reflecting both the industry and the year’s audiences. As such, nominations for the 94th Academy Awards detail progressive and surprising transition across several categories.
To the surprise of no one, streamers have been a powerhouse. For the first 50 years, Oscars were dominated by the major studios (plus United Artists, which had no physical lot, but had a lofty heritage). In the 1980s, “outsiders” began winning best picture, including indies Orion (“Amadeus”), Miramax (“The English Patient”) and DreamWorks (“American Beauty”). This year, Netflix and Warner Bros. each have two best picture contenders, and there is one from streamer Apple TV Plus; also one each for studios Focus Features, 20th Century, MGM and Searchlight, plus indie Janus (“Drive My Car”). Only four of the 10 were exclusively big screen, since WB gave simultaneous release for its two films (“Dune” and “King Richard”). In 2015, Idris Elba was great in “Beasts of No Nation,” but wasn’t nominated; many felt Netflix was not making “real” movies. This year, Netflix led the pack with 27 nominations. Is 2021 an exception or the shape of the future? With marketing costs soaring, many of these films would never have been made if not for streaming. WB’s simultaneous launches further blurred the lines, so studios have helped break down the division between “pure” movies and streaming fare.
After challenging the status quo in 2015, #OscarsSoWhite is still having an effect. That’s partly because of the movies that are being greenlit and the movies that studios are promoting. It’s likely that some of this year’s contenders would not have been made a decade ago and would not have been considered “Oscar bait.” The movement has had wide-ranging effect, as Hollywood creatives and execs realized that there were many groups that had no voice. For Oscar’s first 75 years, only three Black actresses won: Hattie McDaniel (1939), Whoopi Goldberg (1990) and Halle Berry (2001), while 13 other actresses were nominated. Many protested that the Academy was racist, but the problem was the studios, which didn’t give many roles to Black actresses, and failed to give them Oscar campaigns. It’s not just Black talent, as this year, Latinos, Asians and disabled people are at the center of films nominated for the 94th Academy Awards. Troy Katsur (“CODA”) becomes only the second deaf actor to ever be nominated (after the nom and win in 1986 for his co-star, Marlee Matlin). So there is still a long way to go.
Biopics are strong in the actors’ races, with eight of the 20 noms going to depictions of real people. But the best picture tally is much lower. Only “King Richard” is a true biopic; “Belfast” and “Licorice Pizza” are loosely inspired by real people and events. In Oscar history, more than 75 actors have won for playing a real person. What’s more, in the 21st century, every year has featured at least one fact-based portrayal and in each of the past two years, nine of the 20 were playing real individuals.
The COVID Effect
Two years into the pandemic, news reports have centered on masks, vaccinations, laws and work statistics. More difficult to gauge is COVID-19’s effects on artists and the collective psyche. But the 2021 Oscars offer clues. There was a 10-month eligibility period for the 94th event, since COVID extended the 2020 eligibility to 14 months. Some films, including “West Side Story,” were delayed a year. Now many awards pundits have fixated on that film’s B.O., as if the 2019 yardstick were still valid. Also, safety regulations challenged filmmakers during production and COVID even affected running times. As streamers gained prominence, they were competing for bigname talent. Hoping to be seen as talent-friendly, nobody wants to say no to a director and, as a result, many films were 20-30 minutes too long. As a time-capsule movie, “Nightmare Alley” (though set in the mid-20th century) embodies the world of 2021, with hucksters capitalizing on people’s confusion and the public in the film desperately wanting to believe the endless lies they’re being told.
No Love for Actors
Though all 10 best-picture nominees feature terrific performances, half of them got no acting bids: “Don’t Look Up,” “Drive My Car” “Dune,” “Licorice Pizza” and “Nightmare Alley.” Those stats are striking because in Oscar’s 93 years, only 12 films won the top prize without any acting nominations. The four noms for “Drive My Car” also raise the question of whether subtitles will be more prevalent in the future. Did “Parasite,” with four wins including best picture, open doors?