As I’ve said a few times over the course of this Blitz, the men’s side of the acting field is decidedly slight compared to the women. We still have a legitimate contest, as this is still a two-horse race, possibly even three. But the fact that it’s not five consistently, year in and year out, is a real issue, regardless of whether we’re talking about lead or supporting performances, men or women.
In my best version of events, this year’s Academy Awards will result in another reckoning of how we do things going forward, particularly when it comes to campaigning for these prizes. A lot of attention was paid to the controversy surrounding Andrea Riseborough’s nomination for Best Actress. Her co-stars, friends, and what appears to be fellow actors from her talent agency went on a huge social media crusade to get her nominated, including 11th hour appeals which almost certainly violated Academy rules against negative campaigning, where some were encouraged to leave the likes of Viola Davis or Danielle Deadwyler off their ballots because they were assumed to be shoe-ins.
But hers isn’t the only potentially problematic nod. Brian Tyree Henry in Causeway got tapped for Supporting Actor, as did Paul Mescal in this category for his performance in Aftersun. In all three cases there was no domestic momentum for any of them outside of the Independent Spirit Awards (Mescal was also nominated for a BAFTA, which was much kinder to Aftersun than the Academy, but then again they also gave 14 nominations and Best Picture to the All Quiet on the Western Front remake, so take what you will from that), meaning that in three of the four acting categories, there’s a candidate who basically came out of nowhere.
Similarly, A House Made of Splinters was nominated for Documentary Feature despite the fact that literally no one outside of a film festival or the Academy itself could see it until basically this week, when it’s FINALLY getting a theatrical run and is available for rental on VOD platforms. Diane Warren is nominated for Original Song for the 14th time, including the last six years running and eight of the last nine. This is despite the fact that in the vast majority of cases, the song only plays over the end credits (which is allowed, but there are contextual guidelines that are clearly not followed), the overall films are not highly rated (average Rotten Tomatoes score of 61%), and this year’s hopeful, Tell it Like a Woman, was completely unseen until last week when it was released on VOD. It doesn’t even have an RT score yet because there’s only one review, and it came in TODAY. The producers have all but admitted that the film itself only exists so they could commission Warren for a song to get nominated and raise awareness of the overall project, because you know, that’s what people with integrity do.
I’ll have more to say about Warren’s shenanigans when I cover Original Song in a few days, but the point still stands that whatever rules and methods are in place to govern the nomination process, they have to change, because they are clearly too easily circumvented. Believe me, I want surprise nominations, but I want them to be earned not engineered.
And that brings us to the sin of this category, as well as several others over the years, what I like to call, “The Showcase Film.” These are movies that are designed to tug at the heartstrings and get their lead performers (and occasionally a supporting one) a nomination by creating and marketing the project completely around the star. Now, this is not a classic “starring vehicle” that A-listers used to put out in Hollywood’s golden age. Those are meant to make money, put asses in seats, and actually entertain audiences. Showcase Films, however, only exist to win awards, typically by generating sympathy for either the character because of some affliction or demographic obstacle (disability, illness, persecuted homosexuality, etc.), or the actor because there’s the perception that it’s “their turn” to get a nod or a win. The tactic is completely transparent, and it sucks.
And yet, it works. Julianne Moore won for Still Alice. Glenn Close nearly won for The Wife. Jessica Chastain won just last year for The Eyes of Tammy Faye and Kristen Stewart was inexplicably nominated for Spencer. Leonardo DiCaprio finally won for The Revenant, Eddie Redmayne got his for The Theory of Everything, and Daniel Day-Lewis got his third for Lincoln. These aren’t necessarily bad films. In fact plenty of them are quite good. But it’s clear what the intention was when the projects were green-lit, and that’s, to quote The Player, “go out there and win us an Oscar.” Occasionally the Showcase Film will get a secondary, minor nomination as a means to feign credibility and obfuscate the ploy. For example, Darkest Hour and Tammy Faye also won for Makeup & Hairstyling, Crazy Heart got Original Song to go along with Jeff Bridges’ win, and it’s become common practice to toss in a token Best Picture nomination, mostly to fill out the category.
But you know what never seems to happen with these films? They never just get released so that critics and audiences can watch them and take them in together, then judge the quality of the performances for themselves. Instead, they’re screened at film festivals, where friendly press are highly encouraged to come up with as much laudatory purple prose as possible to fawn over the performances, which are then used as pull quotes within the marketing months later once the For Your Consideration materials have been assembled. That’s why you’ll see a trailer for the movie, and despite the fact that you’ve never even heard of it before that point, there’s screen text from Deadline, Indiewire, and Awards Daily among others with phrases like, “A performance unlike anything you’ve ever seen” (even though that’s a total lie), or “Give her all the awards now!”
All of this is by design, to drown out other voices and artificially inflate a film’s profile, and the Academy is complicit in it, mostly because if people are left to their own devices, they might vote for something the powers that be don’t approve of. Despite the fact that the slate of Best Actor contenders this year is much weaker than normal, it was not difficult to find worthy nominees, and yet we have arguably FOUR of the five coming from Showcase Films (at least three, and one of them nominated the wrong person). Meanwhile, so many great contenders were left on the sidelines. Ralph Fiennes, Daniel Craig, and Nicolas Cage all put in tremendous turns in comedic roles, but we all know how AMPAS feels about a sense of humor. Mark Rylance pulled double duty with outstanding performances in both The Outfit and The Phantom of the Open. Daniel Kaluuya (as well as KeKe Palmer) both shined in the completely ignored Nope. This wasn’t hard. You had options.
But that would require people to think for themselves instead of just doing what the loudest voice in the room tells them to do. With that in mind, here’s my loud voice pontificating on the category!
Who do you think should win? Vote now in the poll below!
Up Next, this weekend will be spent on a bit of housekeeping, as I prepare the March editions of “This Film is Not Yet Watchable,” and “The Worst Trailer in the World,” as well as a recap of a couple of bear-y weird flicks. Then, come Monday, we’re right back into the thick of it with words far more clever than mine. It’s Original Screenplay!
Join the conversation in the comments below! Do you agree with this list of nominees? What are your feelings on Showcase Films? What rule changes would you like to see come from the Academy? Let me know!
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