The 95th Academy Awards are quickly approaching, amidst an awards season full of fresh and exciting films. Photo by Andrew Eccles for Variety.
LEAH OLLIE | CULTURE CO-EDITOR | firstname.lastname@example.org
From an industry reeling from institutional upheaval and post-pandemic adaptation came a jam-packed year for film, and the 2023 Academy Award nominations are evidence of that fact. Announced on Jan. 24 on Disney+ by Oscar Award winner Riz Ahmed and actress Allison Williams, the nominations have caused sufficient amounts of discourse from both the industry’s insiders and fervent onlookers. At the forefront of the “awards season” conversation has been the film industry’s efforts — or lack thereof — to surpass its often elitist and homogenous roots; many award institutions’ records reflect a refusal to acknowledge independent films or those depicting the vast and varying lives and experiences of people of color. Audiences and their film tastes reflect a changing world, and many hope the Academy Awards will as well.
Predictability and precedent
Over decades of innovation and cultural shifts, major awards ceremonies are no longer the sole dictators of entertainment success. Organizations such as the SAG-AFTRA union and Writers Guild of America host their own award ceremonies, decentralizing the former televised power of the “Big Four” awards: Oscars, Grammys, Emmys and Tonys.
Dr. Gary Edgerton, professor in the Eugene S. Pulliam School of Journalism and Creative Media, believes this decentralization indicates a broader cultural shift.
“The Academy Awards [used to be] the most important award show,” Edgerton said. “ … Now there’s about 30 award shows that are [television] and get lots of press and everything, [which] to some degree has oversaturated [awards] and taken the specialness away. I think a lot of that has to do with the changing of the culture, that we don’t necessarily have a monoculture anymore where everyone’s paying attention to the same things. When I look at the list of movies that were nominated this year, I think that there is a nice balance to it, [and] there isn’t one movie that is the movie that everybody in America is going to watch.”
In the 2023 awards race, many predecessors to the Oscars such as the Golden Globes and Critic’s Choice Awards may impact nominations; one prospective frontrunner may do very well with critic’s guilds, thus winning a greater number of Academy votes in the period leading up to nominations and winner voting. Many production studios and management companies lobby for their products and performers to receive a nod, often with extensively rigorous promotion and expensive campaigns.
Academy and audience favorites
Much discussion has erupted in the film industry regarding the “Oscar-bait film” as an archetype for commonly nominated: more often independent and artsy films that draw niche audiences but cater to the tastes of the Academy in order to receive acknowledgement. Certain blogs and publications such as Oscars Central dedicate months-long beats to predicting which select films will appease the Academy the most, as well as online communities of critics and fans contributing to the season’s discourse.
Edgerton notes that this definition of “Oscar-bait” is expanding as new generations of movie goers impact the success of any given nominated film.
“In the 21st century, [the] Oscar movie has become a genre: movies that come out from September to December, and are just there for award season… and it probably won’t make a lot of money,” Edgerton said. “[These movies] tend to do a lot better [with] voting [bodies] than the big budget films [that are] referred to in the industry as ‘popcorn movies’ such as ‘Top Gun: Maverick’ and ‘Avatar: The Way of Water.’”
The current slate of nominees for Best Picture this year at the Oscars represents a variety of genres, franchises and audiences — a variety that may indicate diversity in an industry many consider insular or elitist. Fan favorites such as “Everything Everywhere All At Once” and “Tár” have developed fervent cult followings and online fandoms that reflect the resonance of the cultural moment the films exist within, while franchise follow-ups such as “Top Gun: Maverick” and “Avatar: The Way of Water” bring both box office success and nostalgia to the table. With a formerly expanded ten-slot lineup, there is sure to be something for everyone in the 2023 Best Picture race.
After an unexpected Best Supporting Actress push for Jamie Lee Curtis for “Everything Everywhere All At Once” from A24 in the last few months, both Curtis and co-star Stephanie Hsu garnered nominations in the major category. Hsu’s performance has been lauded by both critics and fans, and plays the daughter of Michelle Yeoh’s Evelyn Wang. Hsu’s role was critical to the film’s narrative, but seemed to be overlooked in favor of Curtis in major awards circuits. In both a year and a film that has marked historic milestones for significant Asian-American representation in Hollywood, Hsu’s nomination is a major step forward and recognition of a deserving performance.
Nolan Sonnenberg, a junior economics and sociology double major, admires the unique nature of “Everything Everywhere All At Once” and looks forward to its recognition from the Academy.
“For [Best Supporting Actor], I’d really like to see Ke Huy Kwan win; he seems like the nicest guy ever,” Sonnenberg said. “For [Best Picture] I think it [would] be awesome to see a movie like ‘Everything Everywhere All At Once’ win this kind of award, [which] I just think in past years probably wouldn’t even gotten nominated. I think [the cast and crew] will definitely be taking some major awards home.”
Perhaps the greatest controversy of the 2023 Oscar nominations thus far is the sudden and ubiquitous campaign for Andrea Riseborough’s Best Actress nominated performance in “To Leslie,” an independent drama film depicting the life of an alcoholic single mother in Texas. Days after the Academy voting period for nominees began, a number of A-list celebrities and Hollywood figures began to post uniform, synchronized social media messages encouraging Academy voters to consider Riseborough’s performance in a “grassroots campaign” for a “small film with a big heart.” Amy Adams, Ben Stiller, Sarah Paulson, Edward Norton and Kate Winslet each took to their platforms to share their high regard for their peer and host private screenings of the film. Such a mass scale social media campaign is not entirely unprecedented, but unexpected in its success in securing Riseborough the nomination and — coincidentally or not —- edging out highly favored Black actresses Viola Davis and Danielle Deadwyler.
Currently, the Academy is investigating the conditions of Riseborough’s campaign — which turned out to be fueled by private appeals to voters in the Acting Branch of the Academy and in violation of lobbying rules. Posts such as those of actress Frances Fisher encouraged Academy voters to disregard the performances of “Michelle [Yeoh], Cate [Blanchett], Danielle [Deadwyler] and Viola [Davis]” in order to vote for Riseborough because the former three were considered “locks” for their spots in the Best Actress race. These comments are suspected to be a violation of Academy guidelines in that they call out the “competition” by name to disparage Academy voters from directing their votes towards Blanchett, Yeoh, Deadwyler and Davis.
Critics and audiences have criticized the fact that Riseborough’s connections to the tenets of white A-lister power and wealth rapidly gained her a nomination at the top of her industry while masquerading as “authentic,” but Davis and Deadwyler received no acknowledgment of their performances which had already proven successful at preceding major critic’s guilds and awards ceremonies and were both backed by major production studios for their FYC — For Your Consideration — campaigns.
Dr. Allison Harthcock, associate professor of communication and media studies, acknowledges that awards lobbying is used as a purely strategic endeavor.
“I do think people within the industry absolutely view it as an honor to be nominated and to win, but they’re largely promotional,” Harthcock said. “[The Oscars] are a really great way to make some money and to raise the profile of films, especially over the last few years as theater-going has suffered as a byproduct of [the COVID-19 pandemic.] There’s a lot of marketing and promotion that goes into who even [gets screened] as a potential nominee.”
Edgerton notes that mass lobbying campaigns have taken on a new form in the digital age.
“[Besides having friends in the film industry,] I would say the power of online lobbying [has shifted]; [in the past] a lot of the lobbying was ads in The Hollywood Reporter and Variety and studios put lots of money into that,” Edgerton said. “Now [voting bodies consider] what went viral and who [went viral], and the timing of [Riseborough’s campaign] was in the last three weeks before voting occurred. I’m sure because of that success, [Riseborough] basically, I think took Viola Davis’s spot. But this [lobbying] technique, I think we’ll probably see more of it next year.”
In a 2023 nominee lineup that includes no female directors and only two Black performers, the contrast between standards and expectations for marginalized creatives and those in dominant and well-networked groups is more exaggerated than ever.
Snubs left behind
Some of the most disappointing missing names on the 2023 Oscar nominee list were those of Black creatives who excelled in 2022. Jordan Peele’s “Nope” was highly praised by critics and fans alike, bringing Peele’s signature eye to a supernatural horror epic that criticized the spectacle of fame; the film did not receive a single nomination.
Sonnenberg believes the Academy missed a chance for a milestone nomination by snubbing “Nope.”
“One example [of lack of inclusivity] I could give from this year in particular is ‘Nope,’” Sonnenberg said. “When you have an Academy Award-winning director [who directed] a movie that both critics and fans loved and have it get zero nominations, [especially] with the expansion to ten [Best Picture] nominees, [there were still] no Black directors [nominated] for Best Picture. I think that was definitely a misstep by [the Academy].”
Gina Prince Bythewood’s “The Woman King” also received zero nominations, while pundits noted Viola Davis’ leading performance and the film’s costuming, hair and makeup and production design were standouts of the season. In a close race for Best Director, Sarah Polley was snubbed for “Women Talking,” a somber drama detailing the adapted story of a group of Mennonite women fighting to escape sexual and emotional abuse in their colony. These films tell the stories of difficult humanity and complex female characters in groundbreaking ways, but did not garner enough attention from Academy voters to reach the pinnacle of awards recognition.
Many audiences are still waiting for the Academy to shape up to its commitment to inclusion and diversity, and acknowledge that internal progress has still occurred with much more to be done. As the film industry hurtles towards a new and exciting future, fans desire an Oscars lineup that leaves room for all.
The 95th Academy Awards will take place on Mar. 12, 2023 at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles, hosted by Jimmy Kimmel and televised by ABC.