Two narratives have dominated this movie awards season: the lack of female directing nominees and of people of color in the acting races. Monday morning, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences whiffed on the first and barely skated by on the second.
Cynthia Erivo, who played the title role in a biopic of “Harriet” Tubman, is one of only two actors of color chosen among 20 contenders. The first-time nominee, who also scored a nod for co-writing best song candidate “Stand Up” from the same film, will compete with fellow double-nominee Scarlett Johansson (“Marriage Story” in the actress category, “Jojo Rabbit” in supporting actress) as well as Oscar vets Saoirse Ronan (“Little Women”), Charlize Theron (“Bombshell”) and front-runner Renée Zellweger, who has won virtually every award possible for playing Grand Rapids, Minn.’s Judy Garland in “Judy.”
Three of the Oscar-nominated best actress roles are actual women and the other two — “Little Women” and “Marriage Story” — were inspired by real women.
The movie biz loves to honor films about itself so it was not unexpected that Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” set in La La Land in the late ’60s, nabbed 10 nominations. But it was a surprise that the generally conservative voters handed a leading 11 nominations to the violent “Joker,” which, if you count it as a comic book movie, is the most Oscar-favored comic book movie of all time as well as a movie that barely includes women in its narrative.
Both of the front-runners scored nominations for their lead actors (Leonardo DiCaprio in “Once Upon a Time,” Joaquin Phoenix in “Joker”), screenplays and directors (Tarantino for “Once” and Todd Phillips for “Joker”). Natalie Portman wasn’t around to throw shade at the announcement but she was probably rolling her eyes at home when the all-male list of directors was read. The other three contenders are previous winners Martin Scorsese for “The Irishman” and Sam Mendes for “1917,” as well as Bong Joon-ho for “Parasite,” the first South Korean film ever nominated for best foreign language film and best picture.
It’s worth noting that, despite recent attempts to make the motion picture academy membership more inclusive, its voters are still reportedly as much as 70% male and that, in the last decade, just one woman has been nominated for director: Greta Gerwig, for “Lady Bird.” Anticipating pushback, the Oscars released a statement that this year’s contenders include a record 62 women, about a third of the nominees. The release did not note that women make up about half of the population.
World War I epic “1917,” a big hit in its just-concluded first weekend of wide release, managed 10 nominations despite failing to find favor with the largest branch of the academy, actors, in part because the two leads in “1917” are unknowns. Still, “1917” did exceptionally well in the craft categories, including a 15th nomination for cinematographer Roger Deakins, who conceived the movie so that it looks like one, continuous shot, and a 15th nomination for composer Thomas Newman, who has never won and will compete against his cousin, Randy Newman (“Marriage Story”).
The dominance of “The Joker” will please ABC, which televises the annual Oscars and likes to see popular movies in contention. Middling box-office performers have taken the top prizes in recent years, but “The Joker” could become the first billion-dollar grosser since “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” to win best picture.
Three of the year’s Top 10-grossing movies, “Avengers: Endgame,” “The Lion King” and “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker,” earned nominations for visual effects. Two more top hits, “Frozen II” and “Toy Story 4,” scored nominations for best song, and “Toy Story 4” is also up for best animated feature.
The 2020 ceremony marks another step forward for Netflix as a major movie player. The streaming site scored its first best picture nomination last year with “Roma,” and it has a pair of them this year, “The Irishman” and “Marriage Story.” Overall, Netflix led all studios with 20 nominations.
Robert De Niro was not among “The Irishman”’s 10 nods but there were no huge surprises, although Monday’s nominations did answer some questions: Would Margot Robbie be cited for her supporting performance in “Once” or “Bombshell? (The latter.)
Would Tom Hanks finally score his first nomination since “Cast Away” 19 years ago? (Yep, for playing Mister Rogers in “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”).
Would real-life partners Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig compete against each other? (Nope. Neither was nominated in the directing category, although both received screenwriting nominations in different categories: Baumbach for his original “Marriage Story” screenplay and Gerwig for her adapted “Little Women” screenplay.)
Would its surprising popularity sneak the well-liked “Knives Out” into the best picture race? (It didn’t, although Rian Johnson, who already has announced a sequel, earned a nod for his screenplay.)
Would someone playing a glammy ’70s pop star win best actor two years in a row? (No. Rami Malek’s win for playing Freddie Mercury in “Bohemian Rhapsody” last year won’t be followed up by Taron Egerton as Elton John in “Rocketman,” since he missed the list, although he may be at the ceremony, singing best song nominee “(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again” with John.)
Will Phoenix follow Heath Ledger’s 2009 Oscar win for “The Dark Knight” to become the second actor to win an Oscar for playing The Joker? (That answer will have to wait for the Oscar ceremony, Sunday, Feb. 9)