Well folks, it happened again. Instead of taking the opportunity to include the subversive and diverse films 2023 offered us, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences opted to continue salivating over the works of old white men. The three-hour epic by the white male director who has seen better days and clearly really wants another Oscars dominated with films like Oppenheimer and Killers of the Flower Moon. But the bigger problem isn’t who was included, but rather who wasn’t. So many female-directed projects could have easily been nominated (as per my last piece on the subject), but it feels as though the Oscars are far more concerned with the pedantic and pretentious cinema that only established, white male directors have the luxury of making. Despite their “progress” in recent years, 2023 makes it clear that the Academy sees creative diversity as a quota to be met rather than an artistic achievement to be taken seriously.
Let’s start with some of the positives, which are unfortunately also laced with negatives. Although Killers of the Flower Moon does not live up to how Indigenous people should be represented in film, it did give us an outstanding performance by Lily Gladstone. Not relying on the fact that her work will be automatically praised like her co-stars Leonardo Dicaprio and Robert DeNiro, Gladstone gave a layered performance that earned her a Best Actress nomination, making her the first Native American woman to do so. A win for her would be historic, and would hopefully create a space for more Native women in mainstream cinema – a space where they can tell their own stories, rather than having white male directors like Martin Scorsese dictate the narrative.
Best Supporting Actress is probably the best major category overall, in terms of both inclusivity and merit. Da’Vine Joy Randolph is the heavy favourite to win the award for her part in The Holdovers, and deservedly so. She was a highlight in this funny and heartwarming film, rounding out a successful year for her overall, with her return to Hulu’s Only Murders in the Building, and being arguably the only good thing about Abel Tesfaye (a.k.a. The Weeknd) and Sam Levinson’s exploitative dumpster fire show that was The Idol. The rest of the category includes gems like America Ferrera for Barbie and Danielle Brooks for The Color Purple, making the nominees mostly women of colour, all of whom have been nominated for their work in musicals or comedies, genres which are often overlooked by the Oscars.
The Best Director category, on the other hand, was met by most with face palms. An opportunity to include more than one female director, as well as directors of colour, was practically spoonfed to the Academy, yet they still didn’t bite. The most talked about snub has been Greta Gerwig for Barbie, a film that also saw its lead Margot Robbie omitted from the Best Actress category. Many have dismissed the sexism of this slight with the logic that Gerwig was omitted because the Oscars generally do not take blockbuster comedies very seriously. While this is true, a film that did as well as Barbie would have a far greater chance of being considered were it directed by a man, and were it not aimed at female audiences. Just look at Poor Things, which was considered a comedy by the Golden Globes and also saw its director nominated at the Oscars.
Alas, this is not where the double standard ends. Many have pointed out that Gerwig will profit even if she wins in other categories, like Best Picture, hoping that the film “pulls an Argo” by taking this award as compensation. But if that’s the case, why were Christopher Nolan, Martin Scorsese, and Yorgos Lanthimos nominated for Best Picture when their films monopolized the other categories as well? While Gerwig is perhaps the most salient example, the directing category overall committed several egregious oversights in a year where diverse filmmakers proliferated.
Past Lives is probably the film that got the most royally screwed over this year, in Best Director and several other categories. Lord knows how long it’s been since a directorial debut was as revered as this one from Celine Song, who easily could have joined Justine Triet in the Best Director category. In addition to creating an incredible artistic achievement, Song was also able to tell a semi-autobiographical story about moving from Korea to Canada and pursuing the arts, representing the shared experience of many Asian-American immigrants while maintaining a deeply intimate tone. The authentically beautiful star-crossed lovers story also saw an outstanding performance by Greta Lee, whose absence from Best Actress is nothing short of a travesty.
With these snubs, it feels as though the Academy is almost riding the wave of its Asian representation from last year with Everything Everywhere All at Once and its record-breaking cleanup. The 2022 film took home almost all the major categories, including Best Editing, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor and Actress, Best Actress, and Best Picture. The fact that Everything Everywhere was transgressive in both its themes and storytelling, managing to paint a deeply complex picture of intergenerational trauma among Asian immigrant families (like Past Lives), actually gave us a lot of hope for the Academy’s ability to recognize such stories. Unfortunately, with the absence of Song’s masterpiece from most major categories, it now feels like a one-off.
Certain incredibly deserving female-directed films were nowhere to be found at all. While not as Oscar bait-y as some anticipated, Emerald Fennell’s Saltburn featured some deeply original screenwriting on behalf of the director, and gave us an outlandishly disturbing performance from Barry Keoghan that easily could have been nominated. Yet the Oscar robberies this year extend to films that would typically be very well-received, such as the dramatic biopic. Sofia Coppola’s Priscilla featured an intimately told story that underlined the issues of Elvis Presley’s treatment of Priscilla Presley, without erasing Priscilla’s subjectivity or turning her into a polemical figure. Priscilla also features breathtaking costuming and set design, and two tour-de-force performances by Cailee Spaeny and Jacob Elordi. Yet this was still not enough to appease the overwhelmingly white, male selection committee. For a deep dive into the film, you can read my review of it for the Daily published in November.
I could go on and on about my plights with the Oscar nominations this year. Where was Charles Melton in Best Supporting Actor for May December? Why was Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Monster not nominated for Best International Feature? Why wasn’t The Boy and the Heron nominated in more categories outside of Best Animated Feature? The Academy has become an expert at crushing the hopes of film lovers who wish to see themselves and their stories celebrated at the most esteemed levels of cinema. Outrage, however, can facilitate change. Even if they still have a long way to go, the diversity of the selection committee has greatly expanded since 2014 when the average age of the members was 63, while 76 percent were men and 94 percent were white. While most of the known 2024 releases so far are set to be sequels and remakes, the diverse storytelling that began in 2022 and blossomed in 2023 will hopefully continue its momentum, and eventually break through the Academy’s pretentious, normative barriers.