Commentary: The film academy is crippled by its narrow vision of what’s Oscar-worthy

(Alex Nabaum / For The Times)

Ever since the announcement of this year’s nominations for the Academy Awards I’ve been thinking a lot about Nicki Minaj. Allow me to explain.

At last year’s MTV Video Music Awards an ongoing row online and in the press erupted when Minaj, in accepting a prize, glared across the stage toward host Miley Cyrus and asked, “Miley, what’s good?”

In the wake of the Oscars controversy over the lack of people of color represented among the acting nominees and lack of women and people of color in the directing nominations and elsewhere, I like many have been asking myself how and why all this happened.

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The controversy started with the Oscar nominations and overall membership of the academy. But it quickly became a discussion about Hollywood itself, about what kind of movies get made and who makes those decisions. Which led me to think about the limited kinds of movies the academy thinks of as “Oscar” films — and I keep thinking of Nicki and asking myself, “What is good?”


That is, what are the signifiers of quality that make a movie worthy of an Oscar, what are the benchmarks the members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences are looking for? Largely it’s far too obvious, as we are all now painfully aware of who makes up the academy’s membership and the kinds of movies they favor.

And while diversity has become the most-used shorthand for how the conception of an academy movie needs to change, perhaps the word “expansion” is one that should also be on our collective minds. There needs to be an expansion of what the modern Oscar movie can be, away from strictly the tastefully respectable movies that have too often recently come to dominate the field.

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In that way the 10 nominations for “Mad Max: Fury Road” may be the most positive aspect of this year’s season, as a propulsive, eccentric, apocalyptic action movie with a revolutionary undercurrent sure didn’t seem like an Oscar sure thing when it first premiered nearly a year ago.

But there are downsides to this season of controversy as well. Sincere, worthy little-movies-that-could titles such as “Room” or “Brooklyn” can suddenly be recast somehow as oppressors, beneficiaries of a rigged system. That’s unfair, but it’s also where we find ourselves.

A movie like Sean Baker’s “Tangerine,” on the one hand a raucous buddy comedy about two trans women roaming up and down L.A.'s Santa Monica Boulevard and on the other a sincere drama about a community rarely seen onscreen, all shot on an iPhone, seems the very definition of a movie not for the academy. That’s unfair, but it’s also where we find ourselves, and it’s something that has to change.

I must confess to my own culpability in this process too, as I also allowed myself to become convinced that “Tangerine” was a film not “in the conversation” because it didn’t seem enough like a typical Oscar movie. The Oscar conversation should be the movies people should be talking about; the conversation should fit around the films, the films should not be forced to fit themselves into some pre-programmed idea of that conversation.

To my mind the biggest oversight in this year’s nominations was the lack of broader support for Ryan Coogler’s “Creed,” which managed to nab only a single nod, for supporting actor. The film was both respectful of the history of the characters and story it took over, while also newly energized and forward-looking.

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It has everything the academy should aspire to in the films it celebrates — an inventive, boundary-crossing mixture of craft, emotion and imagination. It is a movie for now and onward. While Sylvester Stallone’s performance was a marvel, and rightfully recognized, to treat the movie as the seventh “Rocky” and not the first “Creed” was to willfully misread it.

The parameters of what makes a movie Oscar-worthy is not some fixed concept of constitutional originalism but something fluid and mutable. Mark Harris’ essential 2008 book “Pictures at a Revolution” examined a pivot in Hollywood and the academy as evidenced by the Oscars for 1967. In the years leading to it, best picture winners included “My Fair Lady” and “A Man for All Seasons” while just a few years after the academy was celebrating films such as “Midnight Cowboy” and “The French Connection.”

Movies like “Tangerine” or “Creed” or “Straight Outta Compton” or “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” (the list could go on) should be able to be seen as full-boat, multi-category Oscar possibilities right alongside dramas such as “The Revenant” or “Spotlight.”

This is to say nothing of the academy’s ongoing predisposition against comedies. This year Judd Apatow’s revitalization of the rom-com with “Trainwreck,” written by its star, Amy Schumer, deserved consideration from the academy. (As did Paul Feig’s action comedy “Spy,” along with the deeply committed performances of its stars Melissa McCarthy and Rose Byrne.)

It is undoubtedly shot-in-the-arm exciting that Adam McKay’s adaptation of “The Big Short” is nominated for five Oscars. It shouldn’t have taken a shift to drama for voters to recognize the sharp social commentary already existing in McKay’s comedies such as “Talladega Nights” “Step Brothers” and “The Other Guys” for voters to realize he has long been one of the boldest satirists of new-millennium America.

Which brings us to the oracle that is Vin Diesel. It was last spring that he predicted that “Furious 7" could win best picture “unless the Oscars don’t want to be relevant ever.” And while one may not be fully inclined to agree with Vin Diesel on all of that, he did have a point. No one is suggesting that box office success be the main metric for Oscar-osity, but the members of the academy need to ask themselves about the face they are presenting to the world and about the world they are presenting that face to.

This is about something more than the Oscars. It is about the future of cinema, and the ongoing connection it provides between audiences and creators — and it’s why the controversy and conversation around representation and diversity is ultimately good for everyone. This is Hollywood we are talking about after all, so a little nip, a little tuck, a few reconsiderations and it could be presenting a fresh face again for the world.

Twitter: @IndieFocus

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