I was recently reminded that progress rarely travels in a straight line. Indeed, Gloria Steinem has noted that progress and backlash tend to travel together. She suggested that we learn to embrace backlash, as it affirms that we’ve made some significant progress.
This year’s Oscar nominations may not represent a deliberate backlash, per se. But for those of us who noticed and welcomed the diversity of recent years, it is disheartening. Not only are women conspicuously absent from the Best Director nominations (despite the inclusion of two films directed and written by women in the Best Picture category), but the entire awards evening threatens to be a celebration of white people making movies with, for, and about white people.
Last year, feminist Hollywood watchers rejoiced as Kathryn Bigelow won the Academy Award for Best Director for The Hurt Locker, an historic first for a woman director. The same evening, the industry celebrated Precious, a powerful film about a distinctly disenfranchised young woman: poor, black, illiterate, pregnant. And within the last decade, we’ve seen actors of color win Best Actress (Halle Berry for Monster’s Ball) and Best Actor (Denzel Washington for Training Day, Jamie Foxx for Ray, and Forest Whitaker for The Last King of Scotland).
This week’s Oscar nominations seem to be announcing that Hollywood is back to old-fashioned business as usual. I don’t think the issue is prejudice in the Academy’s award nomination process. Rather, it’s a more systemic problem with regard to the movies and directors that are greenlighted and bankrolled by Hollywood’s movie machine. That machine is about making money as much as – arguably more than – making movies. And clearly there remains a perception that movies about white men (with or without superhero costumes) blowing things up equal box office gold. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Throw enough star power, special effects, and promotional budget against a property and it can’t help but attract attention. And that makes it harder for smaller movies – many proposed by women, African-American, Latino, or Asian-American filmmakers – to be made. And so it goes.
I don’t mean to sound bitter and humorless. I really do love the movies, and I appreciate the people who make them. There are some wonderful films nominated this year, and some powerful performances being recognized.
For the second year in a row, the Best Picture category includes ten rather than five nominated films. I have mixed feelings about this trend. It reminds me of a debate I’m often engaged in as a mother. Should everyone get a medal? Should all the soccer teams walk away with a trophy? Or do we need to get a little tougher and say, “There are winners and losers. Deal with it.”
Surely, expanding the list was a business decision; I doubt the Academy did so to avoid hurt feelings. But it brings up some interesting issues. What is the prospect for a movie nominated for Best Picture but not Best Director? (Not very good, I’m afraid.) On the positive side, it has broadened the field and improved the odds for nominations of smaller or independent films. Two examples this year include Winter’s Bone and The Kids Are All Right – both directed by women.
The complete list of Best Picture nominations also includes Black Swan, The Fighter, Inception, The King’s Speech, 127 Hours, The Social Network, Toy Story 3, and True Grit. It is a remarkable list of movie genres, if not a model of diversity in terms of moviemakers. We’ve covered animation, Westerns, and triumph of the human spirit, as well as horror, history, and high tech. Well done.
Notably absent from the Best Director category are Lisa Cholodenko for The Kids Are All Right and Debra Granik for Winter’s Bone. These talented and visionary women may, however, be awarded for their original and adapted screenplays respectively. Despite Kathryn Bigelow’s beating the odds last year, the Best Director category continues to elude Hollywood’s top women.
In the acting categories, Annette Bening was nominated but her The Kids Are All Right costar Julianne Moore was not. Helen Mirren was passed over for The Tempest. Another surprising omission was Mila Kunis for her role as Natalie Portman’s sensuous alter ego in Black Swan. Newcomers and critics’ darlings Jennifer Lawrence (Winter’s Bone) and Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit) made the cut, but it’s doubtful they will win. At ages 20 and 14, they will have many more opportunities. Two contenders for Best Supporting Actress, Melissa Leo (The Fighter) and Jacki Weaver (Animal Kingdom) attest to the Academy’s appreciation for fine performances from “working actors,” as opposed to “movie stars.”
The 83rd annual Academy Awards ceremony will take place on February 27. Co-hosted by Anne Hathaway and James Franco, it will no doubt provide us with entertainment, glamour, and plenty of water cooler buzz for the next day. But it will not be an historic event; there will not be any exceptions. This is unfortunate, but not the core of the problem for Hollywood’s marginalized women and minority filmmakers.
Exceptions tend to muddy the waters. If a person complains about the lack of diversity at the Oscars or in any situation, exceptions enable the establishment to discount their discontent: “You can’t say that women aren’t recognized for Best Director – look at Kathryn Bigelow.”
When Hattie McDaniel became the first African-American actress to win the statuette for Gone With the Wind, it took another 24 years before another actor of color was recognized (Sidney Poitier for Lilies of the Field). And it was over 50 years before we saw another black actress winner, Whoopi Goldberg for Ghost.
Let’s hope that Granik, Cholodenko, and thousands of other women directors don’t have to wait that long.