Let me start by saying that I love the Oscars. I love them more than the Olympics. More than watching the ball drop in Times Square on New Year’s Eve. Only slightly more than the Golden Globes. I’ve hosted countless Oscar viewing parties. Participated in, and won, multiple betting pools. Spent hours watching red carpet coverage and cried at every “In Memoriam” tribute. It is the one live television event that I truly care about. The only thing that kept me from watching last year’s live broadcast was the fact that I spent the night in the hospital with my husband because he had fractured his jaw. And when we returned to our apartment the next evening—even though I already knew who had won and which of Ellen DeGeneres’s jokes had flopped—I still watched the whole damn thing on Hulu.
Ever since I was a little girl, Oscar night held a glamour and excitement that I can only compare to Christmas Eve. In my family, we didn’t watch the Superbowl; we went out to our favorite pizza place because it would be empty and my parents hate waiting to be seated. But staying up late to watch the Oscars was tradition. Billy Crystal was like a God to us and we still talk about his big opening numbers. Like that time Billy arrived on horseback! The time when he was wheeled onstage Hannibal Lector-style! Even today I could watch his various “It’s a wonderful night for Oscar! Oscar, Oscar! Who will win?” medleys on YouTube for hours. My mother and I played a game during every thematic movie montage to see who could name as many of the films as possible. I even loved the ridiculous choreographed dance numbers. After the last award was given, I would return to my bedroom and practice my own heartfelt acceptance speech while standing on my bed in my nightgown.
I fucking LOVE the Oscars.
Then, this past Thursday morning, my excitement to read the list of nominees quickly soured when I slowly realized the dirth of diverse talent among those being recognized. I mean, when it comes to the Oscars there’s always been a dirth, but this year is dirthier than anybody was expecting.
Ava DuVernay, who might have made history as the first African American woman to be nominated in the Best Director field, did not receive a nomination for Selma. DuVernay is an example of a woman of color who has made her own opportunities. A native of Compton, she founded her own public relations agency at the age of 27 that specialized in marketing film and television to niche audiences. When she wanted to begin directing feature films, she self-financed her first documentary This Is the Life (2008) about the hip hop and the arts community in East L.A. For her follow-up, DuVernay took the $50,000 that she had been saving for the down payment on a house to produce I Will Follow (2011). When that movie brought in revenue for her, she invested the proceeds into Middle of Nowhere (2012), which was selected for the Sundance Film Festival and earned her the Independent Spirit John Cassavetes Award. Regarding the film industry, DuVernay has famously said, “It’s not about knocking on closed doors. It’s about building our own house and having our own door.”
David Oyelowo, the lifeblood of Selma and the person who pushed for producers to hire DuVernay, similarly did not receive a nod despite getting rave reviews for his portrayal of Martin Luther King, Jr. He had been nominated for a Golden Globe, along with writer Gillian Flynn, who had successfully adapted her bestselling novel Gone Girl for the screen. The result of her work was a film that will most likely outperformed all of this year’s Best Picture nominees with a worldwide box office gross of $369.2 million.
Because of these omissions, among the 20 actors nominated, there is not one person of color. Among the 5 directors and 15 screenwriters nominated, there is not one woman. According to the new study released by the Women’s Media Center, this year 149 men were nominated for Oscars as opposed to just 35 women. That’s a margin of 5 to 1. Women also made up only 19% of those nominated in non-actor categories.
These disheartening demographics are amplified when we look at the stories being told by the films nominated for Best Picture. Many critics have already pointed out that, with the exception of Selma, these movies are all about white male heroes or antiheroes. Only one of the eight nominated films even features a “lead actress” role: The Theory of Everything, for which Felicity Jones is nominated for playing the wife of the film’s central lead, scientist Stephen Hawking.
I went back and analyzed the data myself, beginning in 2010, the year when the Best Picture category was expanded to include as many as ten films. From there I assessed how many films from the list of nominees told a story from a female perspective, and how many films also received a nomination for Best Actress in a Leading Role. All in all, the numbers tend to line up with a couple of exceptions. Last year, Amy Adams was nominated for American Hustle, however one could certainly argue that film’s true protagonist was the con man played by Christian Bale. And while Jennifer Lawrence won the award for Best Actress in a Leading Role for Silver Linings Playbook in 2013, this film did not tell her story—it was primarily about the emotional meltdown and rehabilitation of Bradley Cooper’s character. It’s interesting to note that what could arguably be Lawrence’s best performance to date was Winter’s Bone, for which she received a nomination in 2011. Winter’s Bone was also nominated for Best Picture, and filmmaker Debra Granick was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay, but she was not on the Best Director shortlist.
As you can see, the numbers are pretty terrible. The last time that the numbers were so low was 2012, when the sole film that told a woman’s story was The Help, and let’s not even go there right now. Reporter Joe Reid has crunched the numbers even further with “At the Oscars, Best Actress and Best Picture Rarely Coincide” in The Atlantic. He came to a conclusion that films with a Best Actor nomination are almost 50% more likely to receive other nominations in other categories.
In a recent piece for Slate, “Why It Matters That Wild Wasn’t Nominated for Best Picture,” cultural critic Dan Kois writes: “In some ways, the dismissal of Wild, and the frequent non-nomination of movies about women, calls to mind the ongoing debate in the literary world about the way critics and awards-givers dismiss ‘domestic fiction.’” I can’t help but think about Boyhood, which was one of my favorite movies of the past year. It was beautiful in both its grand scope and intimate stakes, and I really hope that Richard Linklater wins the Oscar for Best Director. Boyhood is as “domestic” as it gets. However it seems highly probable that if a woman or a person of color had made a nearly identical movie about a girl’s coming of age, it wouldn’t be an Oscar frontrunner. It probably wouldn’t even be in consideration.
Many people say, “Who cares about the Oscars?” They’re chosen by old white dudes. It’s just an excuse for Hollywood to kiss its own ass. Kat Stoeffel wrote a great piece for The Cut entitled “Awards That Snub Women Are Meaningless Awards.” And while I agree with her in many ways, I firmly believe that the Oscars do mean something. Not just to my weirdo film buff inner-child, but to Hollywood and the future of film financing.
In recent years, the movie industry has been going in all-or-nothing on blockbusters. These special effects extravaganzas are highly profitable around the globe, especially in new markets across Asia. The emphasis is on the universal appeal of stunts and spectacle, and the less dialogue the better. Intelligent, adult dramas and comedies in the mid-budget range are rarely being produced by major studios anymore. They would rather spend $300 million on one big box office summer tent pole than make ten dramas at $30 million a piece.
Film historian and critic Mark Harris recently published an article in Grantland called “The Birdcage: How Hollywood’s toxic (and worsening) addiction to franchises changed movies forever in 2014.” Harris points out that for the first time ever, major studio chiefs, such as Kevin Tsujihara at Warner Brothers and Jeff Shell at Universal, are coming from a business background without having had direct involvement in film production or development. Their primary concerns are profit margins, and giving people more of what they already like seems to be the best business practice.
As a result, in the next six years we can expect 32 movies based on Marvel or DC comic books, as well as at least 70 sequels, reboots, or franchises that already have release dates through 2020. These include three Avatar sequels, three more LEGO movies, and such fine fair as Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2, Friday the 13th Part 2 in 3-D, Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Roadtrip, and (I shit you not) The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Harris writes: “There is no evident love of movies in this lineup, or even just joy in creative risk. Only a dread of losing.”
During their discussion of Harris’s article on The Slate Culture Gabfast last month, editor-in-chief Julia Turner and film critic Dana Stevens had the following exchange:
Turner: The one thing I wonder for you, Dana, is does this article make you feel grateful for the Oscars instead of sad about the Oscars? Because the only reason that anything else exists is because the only other kind of reward that the studios know besides money is—
Stevens: Is the cultural prestige leant by the Oscars.
Turner: …So the only way that a Selma gets made or that Amy Adams gets to do Big Eyes—or whatever else we are going to be talking about for the next few months until the Oscars—is because of the weird prestige of the Oscars, which usually gets sneered at by critics. But after [this] piece I wondered if critics all the world over are just like, “Thank God for Oscar season!”
The Oscars may just be our last outpost for quality films. Which brings me back to something Dan Kois wrote in his piece on Wild: “When the stories of women—those out in the world, living real human lives, existing not as auxiliary characters but as the heroes of their own stories—are deemed unsuitable of the industry’s biggest prize, it becomes harder to convince studios and producers to make those movies.” And the same can certainly be said for films about people of color.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is made up of established film professionals, most of whom have been nominated for an Oscar at some point in their careers. Major progress will require time and a serious commitment on the part of both the Academy and the film industry. An active effort must be made to give opportunities to first-time directors and screenwriters from all backgrounds, and mentorship support in every field for promising cinematographers, editors, composers, etc.
In the meantime, we as an audience need to vote with our dollars. Go to the movies! Support women and minority filmmakers! Prove to these studio executives who are focused on the bottom line that we need quality movies that tell human stories, and we want to see honest representations of ourselves and our communities on the screen.
Which brings me to Sunday, February 22: Oscar night. I was really looking forward to seeing what host Neil Patrick Harris had up his sleeves. (Probably magic tricks!) He’s a fantastic performer, and doing wonderful things for the LGBT community. But now I just don’t think I can bring myself to watch a parade of white men in tuxedos thanking their mothers. Anyway, I already know who’s going to win the big awards: Michael Keaton, Julianne Moore, J.K. Simmons, Patricia Arquette, and Richard Linklater. Last week I would have put all my money on Boyhood for Best Picture, however wouldn’t be surprised if Selma pulled ahead of the pack as a result of the Academy trying to overcompensate for the amount of backlash that’s being widely reported by all major media outlets. Hey, something similar happened in 2013 when Argo won following Ben Affleck’s perceived Best Director snub. Still, I don’t feel the need to watch.
What am I going to do instead? Most likely I will join documentary filmmaker Monika Navarro who is encouraging people to go to their local theaters and watch Selma on Oscar night. Maybe I’ll make it a double feature and watch Still Alice or Wild, if either are still playing in February.
And let’s be honest, I’ll probably sneak a peek at what the Go Fug girls are saying about the gowns when I’m back at my desk on Monday morning. My trend prediction for that? Beading. Lots of beading.
Lily Ladewig is a poet and pop culture enthusiast. She is the author The Silhouettes (SpringGun Press, 2012) and was the Logistics Chair for the inaugural conference Out of the Binders: A Symposium on Women Writers Today.