Interestingly, Tom Hanks earned a nomination for his portrayal of Mister Rogers in that film, whereas Jennifer Lopez’s commanding performance as a stripper with a heart of gold — and more than a touch of larceny — in “Hustlers” was ignored.
Considering that Lupita Nyong’o was also overlooked for her terrifying double-take in the horror movie “Us,” it’s tempting to chalk up this year’s snubs to the same racial and gender blind spots at the Academy for Motion Picture Arts and Sciences that led to the #OscarsSoWhite campaign and efforts to invite more women and filmmakers of color to join the organization.
But if this year’s nominees reflect an inherent bias, it has as much to do with genre as race and gender — not to mention the ways those three things sometimes overlap or cancel each other out in unexpected ways.
It’s not that white guys are running the entire table this year. For the first time, a film from South Korea — Bong Joon-ho’s wealth-inequality parable “Parasite” — has a credible shot at winning best picture, and Bong could very well take home the award for best director. Like “Roma’s” showing last year, that’s a progressive development, acknowledging film as a global medium. But, as imaginative and richly realized as his film is, it’s still more of a piece than not with the American films he’s competing against: Like Todd Phillips’s “Joker,” Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman” and Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” it relies on familiar tropes of explosive, stylized violence for its most visceral thrills. Sam Mendes, nominated for his direction of “1917,” has been duly recognized for his audacious decision to film the World War I action-adventure seemingly in one continuous shot, a muscular cinematic flex if ever there was one. But as a war picture about men of courage going into battle, “1917” epitomizes the kind of movie Hollywood has always deemed important and canonical enough to deserve its highest honors.
It’s no coincidence that Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to win an Oscar for best director for “The Hurt Locker” in 2010. It so happens that she deserved that honor, for making a tough, technically flawless movie about a bomb technician’s experience in the Iraq War. But there’s also no doubt that “The Hurt Locker” fused perfectly with what the academy has always taken seriously as cinema. And, traditionally, what it takes seriously aren’t pop stars like J-Lo or horror movies like “Us” or comedies like the surprise hit “Knives Out.”
It bears noting that “Jojo Rabbit,” Taika Waititi’s whimsically anachronistic satire that was nominated for best picture, seems to have overcome the academy’s anti-comedy snobbery, perhaps because of its anti-fascist message, World War II setting and climactic battle.
In its efforts to be more inclusive, the academy has welcomed hundreds of younger members, which probably accounts for recognition of such broadly popular films as “Get Out” and “Black Panther,” and holds promise for more open-mindedness when it comes to what defines greatness. But even that progress has limits. As Gerwig told me in December, “If you were to take what seems to matter [from] movies, I would say male violence against other men is very high on that list.”
With the exception of Gerwig’s “Little Women,” most of the films being honored this year are overwhelmingly male-dominated narratives, albeit sometimes self-consciously so, as in the case of “Ford v Ferrari,” “The Irishman” and “Joker,” whose director, Todd Phillips, took more than a few of his visual and themes from co-nominee Martin Scorsese. That film racked up the most nominations this year — 11 in all — and also helped reinforce the comic-book movie as legitimate art, much the same way that “1917” mashes up the tracking shot of classic cinema with the grammar of first-person video games (two subcultures, not incidentally, that have historically been boys’ clubs).
Just as “Joker” is a protracted homage to Scorsese, Bong’s “Parasite” bows toward Tarantino in its penultimate, hyper-violent set piece, creating a closed loop of mutual influences that is simultaneously hermetic and self-impressed. From these movies’ visual languages and fascination with flawed heroes to their common interest in codes of honor and spectacle-friendly mayhem, the result is a hall of mirrors in which, despite nominal differences, they look weirdly — and distressingly — the same.
Last year, when a record number of women and people of color took the Oscar stage to receive awards for their work behind and in front of the camera, one of the chief takeaways was that representation matters. This year, the message might be that it’s time to expand our notion of representation to include not just the identities of individual filmmakers, but the movies themselves.