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'La La Land,' diversity and the return of Mel Gibson: The highlights of the 2017 Oscar nominations

There are few things Hollywood loves more than celebrating itself and, true to form, the nominations handed out Tuesday for the 89th Academy Awards reflected an industry happy to revel in its own glittering self-image. But they also revealed a 90-year-old tradition-bound institution embracing the future with record levels of diversity, both in demographics and format.

The effervescent, brightly colored musical “La La Land” — a love letter to the city of Los Angeles and the movies themselves — danced its way to 14 Oscar nominations, including best picture, tying the all-time record held by “Titanic” and “All About Eve.” 

One of nine films to score a best picture nod in this year’s crowded and varied field, “La La Land” has been widely embraced as a balm in these politically turbulent times and a fresh twist on a genre that had largely fallen out of favor.

“It’s a film that uses all the tools of cinema — performance and music and design and storytelling — and masterfully combines them to deliver a joyful experience,” said one of the film’s producers, Marc Platt. “No cynicism, no irony — just joy.”

But beyond the resurgence of the old-fangled musical, Oscar voters gave the recently embattled motion picture academy something bigger to cheer about: Unlike last year’s telecast, which host Chris Rock scathingly branded “the White People’s Choice Awards,” the 89th Academy Awards will not be dominated by hot-button questions of discrimination in the film industry.

After two years of bitter controversy over back-to-back slates of all-white acting nominees, seven actors and actresses of color earned nominations this year.  

The diversity of this year’s nominations — which, in a further break from tradition, were announced via a pre-recorded, live-streamed video instead of the usual news conference — is a testament to a strong group of recent films, including “Fences,” “Moonlight” and “Hidden Figures,” that deal head-on with issues of race in ways that have resonated with critics and audiences.

“It goes to the heart of what I say over and over again and that is, frankly, that diversity pays,” said “Hidden Figures” producer Donna Gigliotti, who helped bring the real-life story of female African American mathematicians in the space race to the screen. “People want to see their own stories up on the big screen. The problem is nobody in Hollywood is really paying attention, so it falls on independent producers to find and tell these stories.”

To help encourage the telling of those stories, and in response to last year’s #OscarsSoWhite furor, the academy’s leadership has taken dramatic steps to broaden the organization’s overwhelmingly white and male membership ranks. Of the 683 industry professionals invited to join last year, 46% were female and 41% people of color.

And while it is impossible to know what impact that new class had on the nominations, six black actors and actresses earned nominations. Among them were Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, who share the screen in Washington’s adaptation of August Wilson’s play “Fences,” and Mahershala Ali and Naomie Harris, who earned nods for their work in “Moonlight,” a coming-of-age film about a gay African American boy growing up in Miami that earned eight nominations in total, including one for its African American director, Barry Jenkins. 

Live coverage: Analysis, reactions, snubs, surprises and more on the 2017 Oscar nominations »

Even so, writer and activist April Reign, who first created the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag in 2015, says there is still much work to be done before the problem is truly solved.

Noting the lack of Latino or Asian American acting nominees, Reign said that “we can’t forget just because we have black nominees this year. #OscarsSoWhite is about everybody.” Studios, she said, need to be “actively seeking the stories of the marginalized — and that’s not happening yet.”

And indeed, the lists of nominated directors and writers were overwhelmingly male. There were no women nominated in the directing category, and in the screenplay categories there was only one: “Hidden Figures” co-writer Allison Schroeder.

While “La La Land” emerged from Tuesday’s nominations as the odds-on favorite to win the top prize, Oscar voters spread their love far and wide, with films across a range of genres competing for best picture, including the cerebral sci-fi hit “Arrival,” the crime thriller “Hell or High Water” and the World War II epic “Hacksaw Ridge.”

For “Hacksaw Ridge” director Mel Gibson, the nominations capped a noteworthy comeback. The onetime megastar, who spent years as an industry pariah for his alleged anti-Semitism and other controversial offscreen behavior, picked up six nominations for his film, including nods for his directing and for lead actor Andrew Garfield.

“This was definitely a film that had to overcome a lot of stuff to get in,” said “Hacksaw Ridge” producer Bill Mechanic. “Only by the quality of the movie being so strong did the love overcome the hate…. It was emotional to see Mel be embraced and all the stuff of the past finally being forgiven.”

The wrenching drama ”Manchester by the Sea,” though an odds-on favorite for the six nominations it received including best picture, was also a milestone. As the boundary between film and television grows ever porous, “Manchester” marks the first time Amazon Studios, or any streaming service, has earned a best picture nomination. The story of an emotionally broken man who becomes the guardian of his late brother’s teenage son, the film earned six nominations in total, including for its director and writer, Kenneth Lonergan, and for stars Casey Affleck, Lucas Hedges and Michelle Williams. 

The documentary “O.J.: Made in America” blurred formats even further. The 7½-hour documentary that was shown in five parts on ESPN as well as in a limited theatrical release earned a nomination for best documentary feature, as did director Ava DuVernay’s Netflix film about racial discrimination in the criminal justice system, “13th.”

With a crowd-pleasing Hollywood confection like “La La Land” dominating the nominations and the #OscarsSoWhite controversy abated for now, the Oscar telecast — which will air on ABC on Feb. 26, with Jimmy Kimmel hosting — promises a return in many ways to the old-school and the feel-good. 

“We want to inspire people with memories of what a best friend the movies have been over the course of their life, and we want to have a lot of laughs,” Oscar telecast co-producer Michael De Luca told The Times in November. “Get in, get out. No homework. All joy.”

That said, with many in liberal-leaning Hollywood staking out full-throated opposition to President Trump and diversity so strongly on display, these Oscars are sure to be freighted with political messages, overt and otherwise.

“These are very wild times,” said industry stalwart Jeff Bridges, who earned a supporting actor nod for his role as a Texas Ranger in “Hell or High Water.” “We’re all in it together.”

Times staff writers Tre’vell Anderson, Christie D’Zurilla and Jessica Gelt contributed to this report. 

 

 

josh.rottenberg@latimes.com

Twitter: @joshrottenberg

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