For the second time in two years, all twenty acting nominees at the Oscars are white, and the controversy surrounding that has given consequence to the 88th Academy Awards that were set to be all but inspid
On February 28, 2016, all eyes will be on Chris Rock, as he takes the stage to host the 88th Academy Awards at the Dolby Theater in Hollywood, California, in what has, over the last month-and-a-half, turned out to be the most talked about Oscars of this side of the 21st century, but for all the wrong reasons.
African-American standup comedian Rock’s opening monologue will have to pull no punches, mostly on the ceremony itself, if the Academy of Motion Pictures and Sciences, that runs the Oscars, wants the 88th edition to be remembered for the right reasons, or perhaps one: six-time Oscar-nominee Leonardo DiCaprio potentially winning a compensatory Best Actor Award after 22 years of near-misses, heartbreaks and internet memes.
The story of this year’s awards, which were touted to be the most boring Oscars in a decade since the 78th edition, when Crash inexplicably won over Brokeback Mountain among snooze-fest Best Picture nominees including Capote, Good Night and Good Luck and Munich, unexpectedly became significant, when, on January 14, it so turned out that for the second year in a row, all 20 actors announced as nominees in the four acting categories were white.
Not since 1998 had such a thing happened at the Oscars, and the fact that it has now happened two years in a row, opened the floodgates of controversy surrounding the Academy, as well as Hollywood’s, Achilles heel: its severe diversity problem. There had already been an outcry from Hollywood and beyond in 2015, when the snubs to award shoo-ins David Oyelwo, who portrayed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Best Picture nominee Selma, and the movie’s director Ava DuVernay, gave rise to the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite, causing much embarrassment to the Academy. The hashtag trended again, immediately after this year’s announcements, compounded by a lengthy post by two-time Academy Award nominee, director Spike Lee, on Instagram.
“How is it possible for the second consecutive year all 20 contenders under the acting category are white?” Lee passionately appealed, “And let’s not even get into the other branches. Forty white actors in two years and no flava at all. We can’t act?! WTF!! (sic)” Lee has since refused to attend the ceremony this year to collect a Honorary Oscar that was presented to him for his contributions in filmmaking at the Governors Awards in November.
In a year where two of the biggest original blockbusters came in the form of F. Gary Gray’s biographical drama on the hip hop group, N.W.A., collecting $200 million at the box office on a $28 million budget, followed closely by Ryan Coogler’s Creed, that earned over $170 million on a $35 million budget, the reactions towards the nominations and Lee’s comments were swift and no-hold-barred. On last count, Jada Pinkett-Smith and husband Will Smith, David Oyelowo, Tyrese Gibson and Michael Moore were among the other prominent names who wouldn’t be going – or watching – the Oscars.
Besides them, all of Hollywood, from George Clooney, who said that the Oscars are “moving in the wrong direction”, to Best Actress nominee Charlotte Rampling, who added fire to the debate by saying that the controversy was “racist to whites”, has weighed in on the issue, with even President Barrack Obama stating, “The industry should look for talent and provide opportunity to everybody. Are we making sure that everybody is getting a fair shot?”
The controversy has put Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the first black president of the Academy, centre stage, and Isaac has already set a goal of doubling the number of women and diverse members by 2020. She also put out a statement saying, “While we celebrate their extraordinary achievements, I am both heartbroken and frustrated about the lack of inclusion. This is a difficult but important conversation, and it’s time for big changes.”
These changes, which include expungement of voting rights for inactive members of the Academy, are crucial for the 6,000-plus-member group that runs the Oscars that is, according to a 2012 Los Angeles Times Survey, 94% white and 77% male, with a median age in the mid-60s, not only because of its diversity issues, but also because it needs to stay relevant to younger audiences, who are all but tuning out of the Awards each passing year.
The audience for last year’s ceremony, which saw Neil Patrick Harris valiantly try to entertain in his underwear, dropped to 36.6 million in 2015, nearly 15 percent from 43 million viewers in 2014, a year remembered for Seth MacFarlane’s unfortunate segment, ‘We Saw Your Boobs’. It has long been time for change, and for that reason, David Hill (a former Fox executive) and Reginald Hudlin (Oscar-nominated producer of Django Unchainted) were appointed in 2015 to take over producing duties and make the show more engaging.
Their first call to action was getting Chris Rock back on as host after his 2005 Oscar-stage debut, in a pre-nominations move that has now become especially momentous, in the wake of the diversity controversy. In fact, Rock, who is said to be writing a monologue to “specifically” address the issue, responded to the #Oscarssowhite hashtag with the tweet, “The #Oscars. The White BET Awards. (sic)” referring to the Black Entertainment Awards that honour African Americans and other minorities in entertainment.
Besides Rock, Foo Fighters’ founder Dave Grohl is another veteran entertainer who may infuse some much-needed positive momentum and bring more eyeballs to the Oscars. Grohl is slated to perform at the ceremony, although the specifics of his act are being kept a secret. He’ll be a welcome addition to the other notable performances including Best Original Song nominees Lady Gaga, Sam Smith and The Weeknd, all of whom will attempt to keep audiences interested, entertained and awake through the four-hour-long Oscar night.
There will also be a noticeable change in format this year with Hill and Hudlin introducing a ‘Thank You Scroll’ at the bottom of the screen for home viewers, aimed at keeping the winner speeches shorter and more emotional, by taking off the pressure of having to say lengthy ‘Thank Yous’. All this may end up making the ceremony memorable, at the very least, or a game-changer, at best, especially if the #OscarsSoWhite drama carries out on stage through its diverse presenters including Quincy Jones, Kevin Hart and Kerry Washington. This is all very well, since the awards themselves are nothing exciting to speak about.
For one, besides Mad Max: Fury Road, none of the eight Best Picture nominees have managed to accumulate any sort of feverish fan following or emotional connect with the audiences, as opposed to last year, when Birdman, Boyhood, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Selma as well as Whiplash, each had its own cult following, or the year before, where 12 Years a Slave, American Hustle, Gravity, Her and The Wolf of Wall Street were all popular choices for Best Picture.
This year, if you don’t count The Martian’s $609 Million worldwide gross, the collective gross of five other nominees, Bridge of Spies, Brooklyn, Room, Spotlight and The Big Short, stacks up to $370 Million Dollars, the amount nearly grossed by two other nominees, Mad Max: Fury Road and The Revenant, themselves. The numbers are but an indication of how many people have watched these films or for that matter, really care about them, and they paint a sorry picture.
Adding to this dreary trend, is the fact that the acting winners are all but set in stone. Leonardo DiCaprio and Brie Larson have swept the Best Actor and Actress Awards respectively at the Golden Globes, The Screen Actors Guild Awards, The Critics Choice Awards and the BAFTAs, so it would take some doing for them to be left empty-handed (here’s looking at you, Leo!).
There are two favourites in both Supporting categories – Sylvester Stallone (Creed) and Mark Rylance (Bride of Spies) among actors and Alicia Vikander (The Danish Girl) and Kate Winslet (Steve Jobs) among actresses, as all four have won two awards each so far. But seeing how the Academy favours experience over craft, it is likely that Stallone and Winslet may win, but the only ones getting robbed here would be Idris Elba (Beasts of No Nation) and Charlize Theron (Mad Max: Fury Road), who didn’t score a nomination at all.
Inside Out is certain to win Best Animated Film while Spotlight and The Big Short are likely to win Best Screenplay and Best Adapted Screenplay respectively, as both The Hateful Eight and Steve Jobs were shut out of the nominations.
It all eventually boils down to Best Picture and Best Director, which would be interesting only if Mad Max: Fury Road and its director George Miller stood any chance of winning, but given the Academy’s penchant for being blind to what or who has really wowed audiences, Alejandro G. Inarritu is probably going to win Best Director for the second year in a row, whereas Best Picture will be a close call between Spotlight and The Revenant, both award-season favourites, although no one would really bother if either of them or any of the rest won, as long as DiCaprio took his trophy home.
And if your heart is made of stone and you aren’t excited about seeing DiCaprio finally take the Oscar stage to receive a trophy, even as animators elsewhere in the world are creating arcade-style video games called ‘Red Carpet Rampage’ in tribute (check it out), there is still something for you to watch out for: Indian-origin director Asif Kapadia, is, in all likelihood, winning the Best Documentary Feature Award for his film, Amy, on the life and death of late singer, Amy Winehouse. Plus, Priyanka Chopra will be presenting on stage, and as long as she doesn’t give a shout out to Mother Teresa, at least India will have something to write home about.
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Note: This interview first appeared in Open Magazine on February 26, 2016
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