The Oscars are out of touch. This statement isn’t new, nor should it be controversial. There are ways in which things have improved as changes have become increasingly demanded, but the Academy Awards are still far from properly representing and rewarding genuine quality filmmaking. As many others have noted and documented in-depth, the ceremony still favors films that fit into well-established, traditional molds of quality — namely, they are made by white men and their stories often push others to the periphery.
This, of course, doesn’t mean that films made by white men can’t be good, or that they can’t properly engage with narratives outside of their own experiences. Nor does it mean that films by people of color or films by women are inherently better. It means that as a wider variety of filmmakers are afforded opportunities in the American film industry, American awards ceremonies need to keep up.
There are many ways to improve the Oscars, and these ideas can sound radical, but they really aren’t. There are precedents for the types of changes that people are calling for; they just need to be implemented with consistency. As an avid Oscar-viewer, my long-held belief is that the way forward comes from understanding the history of the awards. No one needs to dig their heels in over tradition, and no one needs to call for a complete overhaul and revamping of every category. There’s a happy medium — or at least an adequately content medium.
While anyone who follows awards season can tell you that the Oscars often get it wrong, the fact is that they can get it right. Not always, maybe not even often, but enough that we can’t throw the whole thing away. The best way to improve is to recognize when and why they got it right, to pay attention to these moments and understand how they can be replicated. So without further ado, let’s dig into a few examples of how a few swaps in each category could improve the overall ceremony.
In the acting categories, it’s true that there is often a certain type of performance that is recognized. Actors who portray real people or who go through intense physical transformations are primed for awards attention. Both of these qualifiers have produced immensely impressive performances, but they’ve also produced easily forgotten Oscar bait. If we do away with a few of these, some spots open up in the acting nominees. And to fill them, we don’t even need to look that far outside of the box.
One of the types of performances that the Academy has traditionally gravitated towards is comedic actors going for more dramatic roles. Think Whoopi Goldberg in The Color Purple, Tom Hanks in Philadelphia, and Mo’Nique in Precious. There are two standout performances from 2019 that would have fit this bill and are especially worth highlighting: Adam Sandler and Awkwafina. Neither was nominated, both deserved to be. They were somewhat longshots, but their potential nominations wouldn’t have been without precedent.
The past decade has also produced some memorable acting wins from young nominees that were in competition with older, more esteemed actors. Examples include 22-year-old Jennifer Lawrence winning over the legendary Emmanuelle Riva, and Eddie Redmayne disrupting what many saw as a sure-fire win for Michael Keaton. This year saw many opportunities for newcomers to dominate the spotlight, and some, like Florence Pugh, found success. However, with young actors like Kelvin Harrison Jr., Honor Swinton Byrne, and Julia Fox delivering standout performances, it’s a shame that none of these three were able to land what would have been a well-deserved nom.
A major talking point has been the lack of nominations for the Parasite cast. It’s true that the majority of acting noms tend to be English speaking roles in American films, but each year tends to see at least one or two exceptions. Think Marion Cotillard, Isabelle Huppert, and, this year, Antonio Banderas. However, look at any list of foreign-language performances that have garnered nominations and a very European pattern emerges. The vast majority of the time, the nominees are white, and the foreign language is French or Spanish, occasionally Italian. No one, in any acting category, has ever been nominated for a performance in which they spoke Korean. This oversight needs to be fixed, and 2019 would have been the perfect year for at least one of Parasite‘s excellent performances to mend this problem.
Although Parasite missed out on what would have been well-deserved acting nominations, its success beyond the International Feature Film category is a step in the right direction. It’s not unheard of for foreign-language films to find success in other categories, but it’s rarer than it should be. One film sadly missing from this year’s nominations was Mati Diop‘s astonishing feature debut, Atlantics, despite being Senegal’s submission. It would have been a welcome addition to multiple categories and although it makes sense that Netflix’s push for nominations was directed towards The Irishman and Marriage Story, Atlantics is one that will go down in history as a regrettable snub.
Along with Atlantics, there are a number of incredible films that were entirely shut out. Movies like Uncut Gems, The Last Black Man In San Francisco, Honey Boy, and A Hidden Life are among 2019’s best and are sadly missing from the list of nominees in all categories. It’s great that excellent films like Parasite, Little Women, and Once Upon A Time…in Hollywood secured multiple nominations (though these three were deserving of more, including acting, directing, and editing, respectively), but there’s an unfortunate number of films that were left out.
And, most frustrating of all, there didn’t have to be. One of the best decisions the Academy has made in a long time was opening Best Picture up from five nominees to potentially 10. It’s a brilliant move that has invited unexpected gems into consideration for Hollywood’s highest honor.
But this change won’t work best until it’s employed to its full potential. This year there are nine nominees, many of which are deserving, but the selection could be better. More than anything, though, the selection should be wider. Personal taste can color how one feels about what should win, but we should be able to find common ground with the idea that nothing is lost in nominating 10 films. If the potential is there to honor an additional film, why not take it?
Fighting over who should win and who was most harshly snubbed is a time-honored tradition among Oscar viewers. The thing that is most easily agreed on is that the Academy’s selection needs to improve. What those improvements are can depend on personal opinion, but one step forward is to recognize that many fixes aren’t unprecedented. We don’t need to radically alter the Oscars. We need to recognize the good changes that have already been made, take full advantage of them, and understand why they worked in order to implement more steps like them.
Ten Best Picture Nominees works because it allows the ceremony to honor quality films that exist outside of the traditional notions of Oscar bait. The lesson here isn’t that we need 10 nominees in each category; it’s that we need quality. It’s a simple thing to strive for, and perhaps harder to always bring to fruition, but, now more than ever, it’s worth trying for.
The following is an incomplete but hopefully helpful attempt to demonstrate how relatively minor changes, most of them with a strong precedent, could improve this year’s nominations. The changes are bolded.
Antonio Banderas, Pain and Glory
Leonardo DiCaprio, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Adam Driver, Marriage Story
Kelvin Harrison Jr., Luce
Adam Sandler, Uncut Gems
Saoirse Ronan, Little Women
Renee Zellweger, Judy
Awkwafina, The Farewell
Lupita Nyong’o, Us
Honor Swinton Byrne, The Souvenir
Best Supporting Actor
Al Pacino, The Irishman
Joe Pesci, The Irishman
Brad Pitt, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Shia LaBeouf, Honey Boy
Song Kang-ho, Parasite
Best Supporting Actress
Florence Pugh, Little Women
Margot Robbie, Bombshell
Julia Fox, Uncut Gems
Park So-dam, Parasite
Jennifer Lopez, Hustlers
Best Original Screenplay
Marriage Story, Noah Baumbach
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Quentin Tarantino
Parasite, Bong Joon-ho, Jin Won Han
Atlantics, Mati Diop and Olivier Demangel
Uncut Gems, Josh and Benny Safdie
Best Adapted Screenplay
The Irishman, Steven Zaillian
Little Women, Greta Gerwig
A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood, Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster
The Farewell, Lulu Wang
Dark Waters, Mario Correa and Matthew Michael Carnahan
The Irishman, Rodrigo Prieto
The Lighthouse, Jarin Blaschke
1917, Roger Deakins
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Robert Richardson
The Last Black Man in San Francisco, Adam Newport-Berra
Ford v Ferrari, Michael McCusker, Andrew Buckland
The Irishman, Thelma Schoonmaker
Parasite, Jinmo Yang
Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, Fred Raskin
Uncut Gems, Benny Safdie and Ronald Bronstein
Martin Scorsese, The Irishman
Quentin Tarantino, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Bong Joon-ho, Parasite
Greta Gerwig, Little Women
Terrence Malick, A Hidden Life
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
The Last Black Man In San Francisco
A Hidden Life