Arts & Culture · Film & Television

Oscar Nominations, 2015: Changing the Odds


When the 2015 Oscar nominations were announced last Thursday, there was the usual shaking of heads when a favorite was overlooked, as well as the annual tallying to see how many nods Meryl Streep has racked up now. But, if you’ve been following along via Twitter, what has surfaced as the biggest story—and greatest controversy—is the Academy’s snub of the movie Selma.

Selma is the chronicle of Martin Luther King’s campaign to secure equal voting rights, which triggered an epic march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965. In the opening of the recent Golden Globes, co-host Tina Fey introduced Selma by explaining, “In the 1960s thousands of black people from all over America came together with one common goal: to form Sly and the Family Stone. But the movie Selma is about the American civil rights movement, that totally worked and now everything is fine.”

Of course, it’s not.

In the area of race relations, 2014 was a particularly disturbing year. It became painfully obvious that all men in this country are not equal when it comes to day-to-day law enforcement and justice. The lack of nominations for Selma, a critical success and assumed Oscar front-runner, has made many connect the dots between the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, and Hollywood’s greatest honor. Not a single actor of color was nominated this year.

Sadly, this isn’t really news. Since Hattie McDaniel made history by winning an Oscar in 1940 for Gone With the Wind, few black actors have been honored (just 15 of a potential 300 awards). A black director has never won; Steve McQueen lost to Alfonso Cuarón for Gravity, although McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave did win Best Picture.

According to data from the U.S. Census, the University of Southern California, and the Los Angeles Times, 63 percent of the nation’s citizens are white, and 74 percent of all film roles go to white actors. But the Academy’s stats are more extreme: 94 percent of Academy judges are white, and 93 percent of all Oscar nominations have gone to whites. Add to this the fact that 76 percent of Academy members are men, and Selma director and co-writer Ava DuVernay faced challenging odds indeed.

DuVernay is the ninth woman to be passed over for a Best Director nomination, despite her film’s being recognized for Best Picture. Several film industry luminaries, including Spike Lee and George Lucas, have publicly criticized the Academy for her exclusion.

With all the negative reaction surrounding the nominations, the Academy’s Cheryl Boone Isaacs—interestingly, the Academy’s first black president—made a statement to the Associated Press. “In the last two years, we’ve made greater strides than we ever have in the past toward becoming a more diverse and inclusive organization through admitting new members and more inclusive classes of members, and, personally, I would love to see and look forward to see a greater cultural diversity among all our nominees in all of our categories.”

She continued, telling The New York Times, “Selma is an exceptional film, which is why I believe that the Academy nominated it for best picture.”

In addition to Selma, Best Picture nominees include American Sniper, Birdman, Boyhood, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Imitation Game, The Theory of Everything, and Whiplash.

There are no women directors nominated (or women screenwriters or cinematographers either, for that matter), but there are two categories in which women are guaranteed recognition: Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress.

In the Best Actress category, the biggest surprise was not who was included, but who was missing. Jennifer Aniston was considered a good bet for her role in Cake, a movie about a woman struggling with chronic pain and considering suicide. But the actresses who were nominated, while not a particularly diverse group in terms of age or ethnicity, delivered excellent performances. Reese Witherspoon, who previously won for Walk the Line, in 2005, was recognized for her intensely personal turn in Wild. Another Oscar winner, Marion Cotillard (La Vie en Rose, 2007) is up for Two Days, One Night, a story about a woman forced to play a game of beat-the-clock to keep her job. Felicity Jones has already proven herself as a young actress to watch; she is particularly moving as Jane Hawking in The Theory of Everything. And another first-time nominee, Rosamund Pike, was recognized for her work in the high-profile psychological mystery Gone Girl.

If I were a betting woman, though, I’d put my money on Julianne Moore and her role as a brilliant professional faced with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Her fearless work in Still Alice has already won Moore a Golden Globe. It follows prior Oscar nominations for Far From Heaven (2002), The Hours (2002), The End of the Affair (1999), and Boogie Nights (1997). I predict that this will be her year—and the honor will be well deserved.

The lineup for Best Supporting Actress is equally impressive (and just as Caucasian). Keira Knightley and Laura Dern each earned their second Oscar nomination for The Imitation Game and Wild, respectively. Emma Stone was riveting as Michael Keaton’s ex–addict daughter in Birdman. And then there’s Meryl Streep, of course. I did enjoy Into the Woods, and Streep chewed the scenery with relish as the Witch. But I wouldn’t say it was her best work or the best work in the category. Still, what would an awards show be without her? Streep holds the record for most Academy Award nominations, with 19 (she’s followed by Katharine Hepburn and Jack Nicholson, tied at 12). Should she win this year, which I think is unlikely, she’ll have four statuettes on her mantel.

My hope is that, despite the wonderful performances I’ve outlined above, Patricia Arquette will walk away with the Oscar itself. Her role as the mother in Boyhood was the best part of Richard Linklater’s marvelous 12-year filmic experiment.

There will be much to celebrate at this year’s Academy Awards, and a lot to think about. The issues that the Selma controversy raises are not unique to that movie, no matter how fine it is. The film industry puts out hundreds of titles each year. If only a minute number of these are directed by women or revolve around issues in black history, we can’t expect them to beat the odds. We need to change the odds.

Yesterday we celebrated Martin Luther King Day. It seems an appropriate time to stop and reflect on the racism we’re still—50 years later—trying to overcome. It might also be a good time to go see the movie Selma.

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  • ellen sue jacobson January 20, 2015 at 8:58 am

    Excellent review! Thanx for all the relevant info.

  • Lysa Rohan January 20, 2015 at 8:48 am

    What I’ve seen and understood, is the Academy really doesn’t like Oprah. I don’t get it, but that’s the word on the street.