Oscars 2020: Fewer Movies (and Nonwhite Actors) Get More Nominations, and That’s No Joke

Even as the Academy tries hard to create a more diverse body of voters, awards season itself automatically and perhaps unfairly narrows the field of movies that are seen as contenders

One step up, two steps back. That’s what the Academy took when it announced nominations for the 92nd Oscars on Monday morning.

On the plus side, “Parasite” received five nominations, making it the first Korean film to be nominated in any of its categories, which included Best Picture and Best Director.

The North Macedonian documentary “Honeyland” became the first film ever nominated for both Best Documentary Feature and Best International Feature Film (or its predecessor category, Best Foreign Language Film), a welcome expansion of voters’ ideas of where movies can fit.

And by leading the field with 11 nominations, “Joker” reinforced what “Black Panther” suggested last year — that Academy voters no longer write off films simply because they have some connection to the comic-book universe.

These can be seen as positive, forward-thinking developments for the Oscars — and the fact that the most-nominated film also happens to be the one that has made the most money at the box office among all the Best Picture nominees won’t hurt when it comes to ratings for the Feb. 9 show on ABC. (But not nominating Jennifer Lopez for Best Supporting Acress or Beyoncé for her “The Lion King” original song won’t help.)

And yet this year’s nominations may also cause a new round of #OscarsSoWhite protests, with “Harriet” star Cynthia Erivo the only person of color among the 20 acting nominees. Others will single out the all-male slate of Best Director nominees, which “Little Women” director Greta Gerwig couldn’t crack.

You can argue that voters didn’t have enough worthy films by women to choose from; that they shouldn’t vote on the basis of gender and race; that the films that were nominated are all deserving; and that it would have been silly for the Directors Branch to vote for Gerwig if they didn’t think that “Little Women” was one of the five best directorial achievements of the year, or the Actors Branch to vote for “Just Mercy” supporting player -Jamie Foxx if they didn’t think he was better, whatever that means, than Brad Pitt, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Tom Hanks and Anthony Hopkins.

I have made arguments like that myself in the past, and to a degree that’s true. But it also obscures the unavoidable fact that more nominations went to fewer movies this year, that the past few months have selected awards contenders in a way that is to some degree biased and that the Academy’s decision to shorten this awards season by two weeks has only exacerbated the problem.

Even as the Academy tries hard to create a more diverse and international body of voters, awards season itself — particularly a time-crunched awards season like this one — automatically and perhaps unfairly narrows the field of movies that are seen as contenders. Voters who are short on time to see everything before voting may focus on the films that are getting the most attention and seem to be the year’s “awards” movies — and before long, a large field of worthy movies is narrowed down to a couple dozen.

And in that narrowing, maybe Jordan Peele’s “Us” falls by the wayside because it came out early in the year and is a genre movie, not a prestige movie — meaning that Lupita Nyong’o’s complicated, nuanced performance gets overlooked in favor of the usual biopics and emotional fireworks. Maybe Celine Sciamma’s luminous “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” gets lost because France submitted “Les Misérables” to the Oscars’ international race, so a moving film from a female director simply isn’t seen by enough voters.

And so it goes: If voters don’t have the time to see everything, they see what they think they’re supposed to see. But the process that determines what they’re supposed to see is one loaded with biases and shortsighted visions of what’s awards-worthy.

In a year in which they had less time to see the films than ever before, in which the voting began immediately after New Year’s Day and ended only six days later, Academy voters for the most part stuck with the tried and true. It was a surprise that Jennifer Lopez was left out in the Best Supporting Actress category, but let’s face it: “Hustlers” was never an Oscar-style movie, and voters are more comfortable with Kathy Bates — a past winner and past governor of the Actors Branch — as a worried mother than with a pole-dancing J-Lo as a stripper.

One sign that voters may not have had time to watch as many films as usual came in the fact that an unprecedented four movies hit double digits in nominations: “Joker” with 11 and “The Irishman,” “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” and “1917” with 10 each. This has never happened before, with the previous high being three films that did it in 1965 and 1978.

The nominations left us with a field in which the top four all have legitimate claims to being potential winners, though the first of those may be too divisive to flourish under the ranked-choice voting system used in the final Best Picture count.

Still, “Joker” got all the nominations it needed and then some. In addition, Todd Phillips’ film and “The Irishman” are the only films nominated for picture, directing, acting, writing and film editing, all categories that are thought to be crucial for a Best Picture win. (“Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” and “1917” didn’t get editing, and the latter film not surprisingly missed out on acting nominations as well.)

With nominations for picture, directing, writing and editing, “Parasite” could emerge as a potential compromise candidate, though its strength would have been even more apparent if Actors Branch voters had learned the names of its actors and nominated at least one of them.

Essentially, the nominations have created a landscape in which at least five films will be jockeying for the big win, with no clear frontrunner until the Producers Guild and Directors Guild chime in over the next couple of weeks.

And they’ve created a landscape is which every little gain is undercut by the feeling that they could have done better, that there ought to be a way for awards like these to be more inclusive and more far-reaching.

One step up, two steps back and a rocky 27 days to go.

Steve Pond

Steve Pond

Awards Editor • steve@thewrap.com • Twitter: @stevepond


The news
you need now,
more than ever.

See Subscription Options
Try PRO today