Oscar nominations reflect an industry in flux, from outside and within

25 Jan 2018

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ACTORS Richard Jenkins and Sally Hawkins in a scene from the film, The Shape of Water, which earned 13 Oscar nominations.—AP
ACTORS Richard Jenkins and Sally Hawkins in a scene from the film, The Shape of Water, which earned 13 Oscar nominations.—AP

EVERY crop of Oscar nominees tells a story. This year, the films selected by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to celebrate at its 90th Academy Awards ceremony on March 4 reflected an industry and art form in the midst of profound, sometimes confounding change, even while clinging to their most hidebound habits and tastes.

In many ways, the nine best picture nominees demonstrate the divide: The list includes such conventional Oscar-bait dramas as Darkest Hour and The Post.

But it also includes edgier fare with Get Out and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, both of which engage, with wildly differing degrees of authenticity, issues of white supremacy, liberal hypocrisy and our the current climate of unsettling anxiety and rage. Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan’s bold exercise in pure sound and image, defied genre expectations by radically deconstructing the traditional war movie, just as Get Out leverages the language of horror to deliver scathing social satire.

Guillermo del Toro’s fantasy The Shape of Water earned the most nominations — 13 in all — which felt appropriate for the moment: an affectionate homage to the B-movies and creature features of 1950s Hollywood, del Toro’s visionary love story between a mute cleaning woman and Amazonian fish-man is also a sincere if sentimentalised allegory for inclusion, tolerance and civility.

As both a fond look back and a plea for social progress, The Shape of Water has become a favourite on the awards circuit so far, along with Three Billboards, which earned the expected nominations for lead actress Frances McDormand, supporting actor Sam Rockwell and Martin McDonagh’s script, and Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig’s solo writing-directing debut for which she earned a nomination for best director and original screenplay.

It was a banner year for women writers, with three more women — Vanessa Taylor, Emily V Gordon and Dee Rees — earning nominations for co-writing The Shape of Water, The Big Sick, and the adaptation of Mudbound.

Although Rees was overlooked for her direction of Mudbound, and it didn’t make the cut for best picture, the World War II-era drama earned an impressive four nominations, including for supporting actress Mary J Blige, who became the first actor in a Netflix movie to be nominated for an Oscar.

Mudbound can boast another first: cinematographer Rachel Morrison made history as the first woman to be nominated in that category, which serves to point up how many of her colleagues — from Maryse Alberti and Ellen Kuras to Kirsten Johnson — should have been nominated in the past.

In a fitting reflection of the current vortex Hollywood finds itself in, this was a year when the first female cinematographer would be nominated in nearly a century, while Christopher Plummer was nominated for his role in All the Money in the World, just a few months after replacing Kevin Spacey, who was removed from the movie after he was accused of sexual abuse.

It was a year when such relative newcomers as Peele, Gerwig, Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani were honoured alongside the oldest nominee in the academy’s history, 89-year-old screenwriter James Ivory, who adapted Call Me by Your Name for the screen.

Such is the pace of flux and longevity in an industry that seems capable of two gears: neutral and, when incentivised, overdrive. It bears noting that The Post, which also earned a nomination for Meryl Streep’s performance as Katharine Graham, was an example of the latter, having been rushed into production as a clarion call for freedom of the press in the wake of last year’s presidential election.

By the time the film was released, it had become a stirring dramatisation of a woman overcoming sexism and invisibility to find her voice as a journalist and corporate leader — a narrative that fit perfectly with a period during which issues of sexual harassment and assault, as well as female representation in front of and behind the camera, that is still engulfing Hollywood.

In large part, that industry seems sensitive to the criticisms sparked by #OscarSoWhite and #TimesUp, but also mired in a you-can-have-one mind-set: you can have Greta, but not Greta and Dee — or, heaven forfend, Greta and Dee and Patty. (Patty, in this case, refers to Patty Jenkins, whose movie Wonder Woman — a superb technical and directorial achievement, as well as a bracing expression of the current social moment — didn’t earn any nominations.)

Still, the fact that Logan became the first superhero movie to receive an adapted screenplay nomination, along with the love for the genre-bending Get Out, indicate that the academy’s push for younger, more diverse members is yielding encouragingly open-minded results.

Even with conspicuous absence of Wonder Woman and Mudbound, female-led narratives also dominated the best picture finalists, with Lady Bird, The Post, The Shape of Water and Three Billboards (and, arguably, Phantom Thread) taking pride of place alongside Call Me by Your Name, Darkest Hour, Dunkirk and Get Out.

In a telling instance of symmetry, Peele and Gerwig became the fifth person of colour and fifth woman, respectively, to be nominated for best director; meanwhile, erstwhile shoo-in Spielberg came away empty-handed for his audacious attempt at movies-as-rapid-response.

If this year’s Oscars tell a story, it’s one of ferment and inexorable forward movement, despite a pace that can be glacial one moment and warp-speed the next.

By arrangement with The Washington Post

Published in Dawn, January 25th, 2018