MCN Columnists
David Poland

By David Poland

20 Weeks To Oscar: The Most Shocking Event Of The Week!!!!


The Answers…

Clint Eastwood.
Bradley Cooper.
Alexandre Desplat.
The LEGO Movie.
Life Itself.

The Question…

What are six Oscar occurrences today that are legitimately more surprising than Selma “only” getting a Best Picture nod?

Clint Eastwood‘s been nominated for Best Director four times in 21 years and has won twice. His latest film, American Sniper, got nominated for six Oscars, including Picture, Actor, Screenplay, and Editing. And yet, the Director’s Branch, where he is clearly well respected, did not give him a directing Oscar nomination.

Bradley Cooper got his third acting nomination in three years, a very rare feat. I am hardly the first to note that actors often end up nominated because of the choices they make and not because they stand out so much from the crowd of other actors. In Cooper’s case, I think this is his best work on film. But he also made back-to-back films with David O. Russell before hooking up with Eastwood for Eastwood’s best film in at least 5 years. American Sniper is, in many ways, what Universal hoped they had with Lone Survivor last year… a box-office hit that would attract a lot of military people and conservatives who are not frequent moviegoers, mixed with award season viewers. Hilary Swank has two Oscars at home, each of which felt great at the time, but in perspective is a little shocking, given a lack of great roles across her career. Now Bradley Cooper is being doubted, though he has clearly committed to some great work as a character actor who is also handsome enough to be a lead, whether on screen or on Broadway, where he is now playing The Elephant Man.

Alexandre Desplat has only gone without an Oscar nomination for a Score in two of the last eight years. And this year, he got his seventh and eighth nominations. That is the freaky part. Two nominations in the same category in one year. And you know what’s really freaky? It’s not actually that odd. In the 30 years since the score award became a single award, there has been a double-nominee nine times. Eight of those times have been John Williams. He won the Oscar on none of those occasions. The only other person to do it, before today, was James Horner, and he, too, lost. He also becomes the third person in history to get 8 Oscar nominations for Score without a win. The other two are cousins Randy Newman and Thomas Newman. (Randy’s won twice for Song, but never for Score.)

Foxcatcher has five nominations, including Directing, Writing, and two Actors… but no Director. A director getting nominated and his/her picture not getting nominated was not that unusual before the expansion to as-many-as-10 nominees. But this is the first time it has occurred in the up-to-10 nominee era of six Oscar seasons. I counted eight occurrences in the nine years of five nominees starting in 2000 and in only two of the eight was an actor nominated for a film in which the director was nominated and the film was not. And neither of those films had two actors nominated. Interestingly, in most of these cases, these films were also nominated for editing… which Foxcatcher is not. I think that is a function of this flat season, but still, an anomaly.

The LEGO Movie seemed to be everything awesome. Three times in the previous thirteen years of the Animated Feature Oscar has the highest-grossing animated film been left without a nomination: Madagascar, Shrek The Third, and Cars 2. But none of these films were particularly well reviewed (55% on RT, 40%, 39%) or beloved. The LEGO Movie has a 96% rating on Rotten Tomatoes… and though I am loathe to use this as a detailed measure, 96% vs 55% is a pretty clear indicator. What happened? Well, the theory is often that animation studios control a certain number of votes in the branch. But as Warner Bros has not been an active theatrical feature animation studio, they didn’t have enough leverage. But then you’d have to explain Song of the Sea. Truth is, no one except those voters really know. But this is a real surprise and not just emotionally, but in terms of Oscar logic.

Now… Selma.

I am not saying that the film didn’t deserve some of the nominations it didn’t get. Please remember… it got Best Picture, the biggest of them all. But people are obsessively focusing on the lack of a Best Actor or Best Director nomination.

Start with the fact that those two categories were the most competitive on the board this season. There were at least nine Best Actor candidates with constituencies and what seemed like an opportunity. There were others. But nine hardcore candidates. And for director, start with the eight nominated Best Picture,s half of which would not have Director nominations; Ava DuVernay, Clint Eastwood, and James Marsh. Pretty damned good company. And then, there was a parade of directors whose films were not nominated, led by Bennett Miller, who got the nod. But there were also Christopher Nolan and David Fincher and Jean-Marc Vallée (nominated last year) and Paul Thomas Anderson and Damian Chazelle and JC Chandor hanging out there, potentially swinging in to do exactly what Bennett Miller did.

Now add that the film received only one Guild nomination leading up to the Oscar nominations. Costumes. These precursors are not essential to getting nominated, but it’s very rare that a film doesn’t make a wave with one of these groups. No SAG nomination(s), either for Owelowo or for ensemble, didn’t bode well. Likewise DGA. Screenplay wasn’t WGA eligible, but the was pretty open talk about how Ava DuVernay rewrote the script without taking/getting credit. There were no surprises for the film that would hint that it was a timing issue.

So the media, as the media does, started obsessing on the screeners that didn’t go out to every guild. And for the record, even though BFCA has now gotten screeners, the group voted for Selma without pre-nomination screener DVDs. So it was not an impossible feat.

Finally, as I noted in my box office coverage, Selma has nice box-office numbers in exclusive runs. $30k per-screen on 19 on opening weekend and $29k per on 22 the next. But the films of the five DGA-nominated directors, while on fewer screens, all had openings of between $77k per screen and $158k per screen. And Foxcatcher opened to $45k per on six… not as good as the others, but 50% better than Selma.

Of course, all of this detail will be dismissed by angry people who want to believe that Selma was snubbed because of race or gender or both. I apologize, but I can’t help you any more than this… Selma had enough support to be one of eight, not one of five. I think that is still pretty impressive.

Life Itself not making the Best Documentary five was surprising, but Steve James going without again was shocking. The only Oscar nomination this master has ever gotten was for editing Hoop Dreams. No doc nod for Hoop Dreams… or Stevie… or At the Death House Door or The Interrupters… and now, a tribute to a film critic who was uniquely supportive of documentaries from his singular television bully pulpit.


Boyhood! Birdman! The Grand Budapest Hotel! Whiplash! Selma!

I can’t be angry at the members of The Academy. I can’t kick and scream and call them racists and misogynists.

I spent the day letting the anger out there get in the way of celebrating a pretty daring, thoughtful, terrific list of movies.

Tonight, I put that aside and celebrate the films that made it as well as the great ones that did not.

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8 Responses to “20 Weeks To Oscar: The Most Shocking Event Of The Week!!!!”

  1. theschu says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful and (as always) well researched commentary on the nominations and for not getting wrapped up in all the insanity that always comes after the nominations are announced. After reading a bunch of articles that basically said the same thing (OUTRAGE, RACISM, etc), it’s always great to read your measured and insightful words.

  2. Daniel says:

    I don’t know if you deleted my comment from before or if it just disappeared somehow, so I’ll try again. The problem with your attitude of let’s just celebrate these great movies that did get nominated is that people of color and women are not getting opportunities to appear in these films. The conclusion one might draw from the nominations announced today is that the white actors just delivered the best performances of the year. But why couldn’t any of the films that you are so happy about–Boyhood, Birdman, Grand Budapeest or Whiplash–cast people of color in prominent roles? And why couldn’t any of them revolve around a female protagonist? This is the problem. It’s not overt racism and sexism but systemic. And the consequence is that we end up at awards time awarding the best performances without acknowledging that whole swaths of actors are never given the opportunity to prove they could knock it out of the park.

  3. Bob Burns says:

    Or… Academy members didn’t even bother to go to see Selma or open their screener because they voted for a black film last year (and I doubt they watched 12 Years a Slave either).

    Selma was one of the best reviewed films of the last year and it was about, arguably, the most important event in 20th Century US history (wars aside). Honestly, have you got a better explanation than that the Academy is made up of a bunch of old white males who vote for films that flatter themselves and who, collectively in their actions are racist? And please don’t insult everyone by pointing out that they hired and black female president that they tried to hide behind yesterday.

    Comparing the treatment of Selma to Eastwood is a trivial and insulting joke. Honestly, if you have real argument other than the Academy is racist, lets hear it.

  4. Billybil says:

    I appreciate the intention of this post but I have to agree with Daniel and Mr. Burns. You approached this from the perspective of the Academy and from that of a man extremely well versed in the movie business. BUT, by doing so, you kinda prove the point you’re trying to contextualize.

    Yes – the director’s branch went to their ballots and acknowledged the directors they felt did the “best” work on films that released last year BUT it is extremely difficult to understand how DuVernay wasn’t in the very top list of accomplishments no matter who you are (or who else is being considered). Seriously, Bennett Miller over her? There’s gotta be something deep down influencing such a group decision. I’m not claiming that most of the nominating group are outright racists or sexists – I am claiming that this outcome does reflect an inherent bias.

    Plus, looking at box office success as to how well a director contributes seems ill-advised. Why a film sells has so much to do with issues outside the director’s control. The studio, the advertising budget, the advertising campaign… But, even if we go with that criteria, it seems to inherently expand on the deep rooted prejudices that affect the movie-going public. They’ve been trained to expect male movies from male directors. It seems sort of self-fulfilling that movies with complicated historical issues OR social/political unrest are going to struggle on their opening weekends. We all bemoan that those and other challenging topics are difficult to “sell”. BUT, that’s all the more reason to celebrate great accomplishments in those fields when they occur.

    And, if box office was a key component in choosing Best Directors then where are James Gunn for Guardians of the Galaxy ($94M+ opening weekend/91% adjusted RT), Bryan Singer for X-Men: Days of Future Past ($90+ opening weekend/91% adjusted RT), and Matt Reeves for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes ($72M+ opening weekend/90% adjusted RT). All highly accomplished films in their genres.

    Bottom line – there is an underlying bias evident in the director’s branch in avoiding DuVernay this year and many of us are justified in worrying how this continues to affect the movies that get made and admired.

  5. YancySkancy says:

    I think David hit most of the nails on the head. Daniel, to me, the lack of diversity in the way studios cast films is a separate issue that may affect Oscar nominations, but isn’t specifically an Oscar problem. They can’t very well nominate a black actor for BIRDMAN if a white actor is cast in the role. Maybe they can introduce a category called Best Theoretical Casting in a Leading Role or something.

    Bob, how do you explain all these racists who didn’t even see SELMA giving it enough votes to crack Best Picture? I’d also bet my life that both Oyelewo and DuVernay had lots of votes — just not quite enough to make the cut in their respective categories. The “snub” mentality is ridiculous. Of course it’s always surprising when supposed shoo-ins don’t make it, but most categories can only include five nominees. I’ve seen some folks listing four or five “snubs” for Best Actor while admitting that they wouldn’t want to deny nods to most of the final nominees. Well, unless the rules change, five’s the limit. Lots of great work can’t get in. Not to mention every year many great performances are never even mentioned as having a snowball’s chance.

  6. Daniel says:

    Yancy, therein lies the Catch 22 for people of color and women who want good roles in Hollywood. When was the last time an auteur director cast a person of color in a lead role? Really, think about it. Scorsese, PT Anderson, Spike Jones, Malick (outside of the New World, which is “about” race), Aronofsky, Fincher, Spielberg, Eastwood, etc. Tarantino is really the only one I can think of who regularly casts black and Asian actors, but even that is problematic as it is so tied to his fetishism of otherness and love of exploitation movies. When the elite American filmmakers don’t cast people of color or make stories where women are the central characters, it inherently colors our ideas about who the best actors are. And there’s no reason not to cast people of color in parts that are not inherently race-based. It’s laziness, fear, and, yes, systemic racism. If a Tyler Perry movie is your best chance to prove you’ve got acting chops, you’re probably not getting hired by an A-list director. End of story.

  7. Peter says:

    Thank you, Daniel, for your thoughtful and well articulated comments.

  8. pat says:

    Thomas Newman was also nominated twice in the same category in 1994 for Shawshank and Little Women. Both lost to Lion King (and inspired the whole “best comic score” category over the next few years.)

Quote Unquotesee all »

It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon