The Oscar nominations are one of society’s most predictable dog races. Any amateur pundit with a link to Gold Derby should have little trouble nailing more than half of the nominees correctly. It’s a bet you can earn on. But there are anywhere from five to 10 “surprises” every year — nominations that defy the chalk and conjure bloviating commentary about the state of the film industry’s annual awards pageant. This year was the same, but there is something queasy-making in this batch of the unpredictable. As expected, La La Land dominated with 14 nominations, tying the record for the most ever with Titanic and All About Eve; Moonlight and Manchester by the Sea are represented in several key categories, including noms for supporting performances that some pundits doubted would come through; and there was a notable but oft-predicted “snub” (a bad word we will not use again here) for Annette Bening in 20th Century Women. Heavyweights reign, and small hearts sink — these are the tropes of Oscar morning.
But this year, some things were different. With a growing roster of voters and an administration focused on diversity and international inclusion, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences also nominated a handful of uncommonly audacious films and performances — including the acclaimed French actress Isabelle Huppert for her role in Paul Verhoeven’s genuinely transgressive Elle; Ruth Negga’s quiet and stiff-backed performance in Loving; and Mica Levi’s woozy, Ativan-laced score for Jackie. There were also nominations for four African American filmmakers in the Best Documentary category; a look for Michael Shannon’s brittle and bruised Texas cop in Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals; and eight for Denis Villeneuve’s meditative sci-fi masterpiece Arrival, including the majestic work of cinematographer Bradford Young. These are far from tropes; more like changes in real time. The Oscars, at last, are morphing. The films from writers, directors, and actors of color were recognized with less anxiety and more presumption than ever this year. Mel Gibson was also nominated.
And so here is the tension of a broad, imprecise body evolving in real time. In the aftermath of last year’s #OscarsSoWhite protest, Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs sought to broaden the perspective of voters, many of whom are older, white, and wealthy. Despite the glamour of the ceremony, the Oscars are an industry award voted on by the industry’s artisans. But that block of professionals is changing at a rapid rate. Over the summer, 683 invitations to new members were sent out. According to Variety, 46 percent of invitees were female and 41 percent were people of color. With a previous count of some 6,000 members, Isaacs’s invitations led to a significant alteration of the face of the Academy. Did that help, say, the late-breaking hit Hidden Figures, one of the only female-led films in the Best Picture race? Seems reasonable to assume so. Did it hurt Deadpool, the fun but also nihilistic and probably unworthy superhero movie that had been much hyped as a possible contender? It’s possible. (I have no explanation for the two nominations for Passengers.) But it’s also clear that Gibson, whose drunken anti-Semitic tirade during a DUI arrest little more than 10 years ago seemed to torpedo his career full stop, was not impeded by his complicated past. Mel Gibson is, it seems, back.
Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge — a deeply violent and well-made war film that was only moderately successful stateside, but drew a strong international audience — is on its face typical Oscar fare. The story of a conscientious objector during World War II who nevertheless saved 75 lives in Okinawa, Gibson’s film, with its flesh-ripping battles scenes and speechifying dialogue, is a natural. Given past controversy, Gibson is not. But with six nominations, the support for his movie — over, say, Loving’s Joel Edgerton or director David MacKenzie for Hell or High Water — represents a gasp at the past. A bona fide movie-star-cum-celebrated-director, Gibson’s previous films have won Best Picture and Best Director. At 61 years old, he is now one of the industry’s lions. This is a comeback story, a yarn Hollywood has been spinning for 100 years. It’s also a reminder there are no meritocracies.
The Oscars are not — and frankly cannot be — a weather vane for society. There will no doubt be attention paid to how much rally mentality the winners and presenters bring to this year’s show in light of the political climate. If the Golden Globes are any indication, there will be a few pointed speeches. The front-runners at this year’s awards — stories of awakening, of dream-chasing, of tragic consequence, of soaring imagination — represent how Hollywood would like to be seen. A city-state of hope and creativity interpreting and manifesting the ever-hurtling progress of society. But that’s a farce, because, like any good show, the Oscars are defined by success. Mel Gibson is one of the most successful residents of the Hollywood community to have ever lived. He has quite literally done it all. He is, in spite of everything, revered, even to this day. It isn’t likely that Hacksaw Ridge will win much next month. The Academy is different now, but still itself. It turns 89 on February 26. It isn’t easy to change at that age.