3 takeaways from the 2020 Academy Awards (Oscars) nominations

Bernadette Bruu, Arts Editor

Most people outside the entertainment industry don’t follow awards show cycles. They may not even know the difference between the events, which is perfectly alright. Luckily, the Concordiensis Arts editors do keep up with these albethey frivolous affairs.

Last week the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (“the Academy”) released its nominations for the 2020 Academy Awards—the Oscars. Film culture in the West is arguably more streamlined than that of music or television, giving the show and its winners much more visibility than, for example, the Grammys, where nominees and victors can be completely unknown to the general public. As a result, the Oscars generally function as an indicator of social change or lack thereof. Questions of diversity and changing popular taste are always at the forefront of the annual Oscar discourse. This year is no different.

Here are three takeaways from the 2020 Oscar nominations:

1. “Joker” got the most nominations out of any film, which came as a surprise to some after such a mixed response to the film after its release.

Todd Phillips’ psychological thriller Joker made headlines this October with its notably sympathetic portrayal of the eponymous comic book villain. The prequel to the “Batman” series grossed $96.2 million its opening weekend and went on to a global box office total $1.069 billion. It was also the seventh-highest-grossing film of 2019.

Evidently, people all over the world flocked to see what quickly became a must-watch 2019 release, but was it worth the hype? Many critics suggested not. Dana Stevens of Slate effectively summarized this group’s attitude towards the film when she remarked that “Joker” was “predictable, clichéd, deeply derivative of other, better movies and overwritten to the point of self-parody.”

Other negative reviews (reported as such to the review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes) with similar conclusions came from the New York Times, The Guardian, The Wall Street Journal, NPR and the Associated Press (AP). How did it end up with the most Oscar nominations of any film this year?

It is worth mentioning that the profile of “Joker” on Rotten Tomatoes had a difference of 19 percentage points between the critics’ consensus and the audience score (69-88). This may be proof of a growing disparity between tastemakers and mainstream film audiences. What remains confusing in all this is the Academy’s alignment with this demographic, the “public,” rather than with the connoisseurs of film in some of the country’s most respected publications.

This is not a new phenomenon—last year’s Best Picture winner “Green Book” had an critic-audience difference of 13 points, but even that was 78 to 91 percent. If Joker wins Best Picture in 2020, it may be credited with the intensification of this trend.

2. The Best Director category included no women directors.

Not that there was any shortage, especially among the most critically-acclaimed films from the last year. The biggest surprise was the absence of cult favorite Greta Gerwig, director of Best Picture nominee “Little Women” (the only woman-directed film to make the list). Its lead actress Saoirse Ronan got a Best Actress nod, yet Gerwig herself was not nominated for directorial achievement.

Other women directors “snubbed” (that is, their films were for nominations for Best Director and Best Picture) were Rian Johnson for “Knives Out,” Lulu Wang for “The Farewell,” Marielle Heller for “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” Alma Har’el for “Honey Boy” and Lorene Scafaria for “Hustlers.”

3. Of the 20 people nominated across the four acting categories categories (Best and Best Supporting Actor & Actress), only one was a person of color.

It seems to be every year that the Academy is embroiled in an ugly PR crisis, one that would make even the most inexperienced publicist say “You’ve got to do something about this.” The recurrent hashtag #OscarsSoWhite sums up the general complaint: though films are released each year with nonwhite star players on-and- offscreen, few of them every show up in the Academy’s picks.

This year’s list of nominees drew the same critique. Zero nonwhite men were nominated for Best Actor in the leading or supporting category, despite widely celebrated performances from Eddie Murphy for “Dolemite Is My Name” and Song Kang-ho for “Parasite.” These two men are considered veteran actors, and Murphy even received a Lifetime Achievement Award following the release of “Dolemite.”

Cynthia Erivo was the only actress of color to receive a nomination, for her role as Harriet Tubman in Kasi Lemmons’ biopic “Harriet.” Even before production started, there was a backlash to the decision to cast Erivo, who is English, as the beloved American hero. It would not have been such an issue if Erivo’s public persona (on social media, etc.) was not so critical of Black American culture. Evidence of this is well-documented online.

Other surprising (perhaps unsurprising) Best Actress snubs were Jennifer Lopez and Awkwafina (Nora Lum) in “Hustlers” and Awkwafina and Zhao Shuzhen in “The Farewell.”