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Opinion The 2020 Oscar nominations didn’t have to look like this

"Joker" took the lead with 11 Academy Awards nominations on Jan. 13. Take a look at other highlights — and snubs. (Video: The Washington Post)

Franklin Leonard is the founder of the Black List, which tracks the best unproduced screenplays in Hollywood.


Once again, the Oscar nominees are extremely white, and important categories like best director, extremely male. But it doesn’t have to be that way, especially after a year like 2019 that was full of outstanding work by women and people of color. Let’s imagine an alternate history of the 2020 Academy Award nominations announced this morning.

As the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences revealed its 2020 Oscar nominations on Monday, Hollywood braced for another extremely bad news cycle.

There was already sniping when Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver were announced as the presenters of the 92nd Academy Award nominees. Many critics suggested that their selection was a paper-thin cover for the Academy’s ongoing failure to appreciate the talents of actors of European descent and a preemptive attempt to obscure another year with no white nominees in the major categories.

And as the nominees’ names were unveiled, it certainly looked like the doubters were right.

First came the blackout in the supporting actress and actor nominations: Jennifer Lopez as an entrepreneurial stripper in “Hustlers”; Zhao Shuzhen as a dying grandmother in “The Farewell”; Da’Vine Joy Randolph as comedian Lady Reed in “Dolemite Is My Name”; and “Parasite” duo Park So-dam and Cho Yeo-jeong; then Jamie Foxx for “Just Mercy”; Wesley Snipes for “Dolemite Is My Name”; Sterling K. Brown for “Waves”; and another “Parasite” double-header of Song Kang-Ho and Choi Woo-Shik.

Women of color dominated the best actress category, too: Cynthia Erivo got the slot that seems basically reserved for a biopic for her work in “Harriet,” while Awkwafina got to be the breakout newcomer for her performance in “The Farewell.” Alfre Woodard took the social-issues nomination for “Clemency.” Violet Nelson was nominated for the Canadian drama “The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open” alongside presumptive favorite Lupita Nyong’o for her electric double performance in Jordan Peele’s horror movie “Us,” edging out controversial best actress submission Jang Hye-jin, who many thought should be forced to compete against Lee Jeong-eun and the two nominated supporting actresses from “Parasite.”

It wasn’t until the very end of the best actor category that white audiences finally saw themselves represented in a nomination: Paul Walter Hauser’s performance in Clint Eastwood’s “Richard Jewell.” The recognition for Hauser saved the Academy from yet another year of the embarrassment of a slate entirely without white people, but just barely. Nevermind that Hauser’s performance is the stuff that the Academy has defaulted to when celebrating white men throughout its history: a heavy Southern yokel mistreated by journalists and overeager police state. Paul Walter Hauser was an Oscar nominee. A white man was an Oscar nominee, and he deserved it.

“It has nothing to do with race. The other actors who didn’t get nominated just didn’t rise to the standard. Hauser did. He got nominated. It’s just that simple,” said a member of the actors branch who asked not to be named in order to speak frankly.

The Hauser selection didn’t solve all the Academy’s problems, however. His director, the long-unrecognized Clint Eastwood, was still left on the outside looking in, along with every male director for over a decade except for Jordan Peele, who snuck in a shocking nomination in 2017 for “Get Out.” Perennial nominees Marielle Heller and Greta Gerwig returned to the nominees circle, accompanied by Lulu Wang for “The Farewell,” Céline Sciamma for “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” and Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers and Kathleen Hepburn for “The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open.” But in a snub, Gerwig’s partner’s streaming domestic drama was ignored. “Congratulations to those women,” remarked Driver pointedly after finishing the list.

“There were some men who made some very good movies this year. Personally, I loved ‘1917,’ and I voted for Sam Mendes, but I know that many of my fellow Academy members found it a bit big and performative. Everyone knows that real cinema is to be found in intimate moments,” said a female member of the directors branch who is also a person of color, again speaking anonymously to discuss the nominations candidly. “I’m not sure it’s sexist to say that women have a better innate sense of these things.”

But for others, the Academy’s bias was clear yet again. A senior film studio executive noted: “The odds of women running the table in a single year is 1 in 32. Of only one male nominee in a decade? Less than 1 in 22 trillion. Even if they are 90 percent of directors, it’s still less than 1 in 29. But sure, there’s no bias against male directors. I believe that.”

Read more:

Alyssa Rosenberg: What the 2020 Oscar nominations tell us about white men

Alyssa Rosenberg: Thanks, Hollywood white guys. But your work isn’t finished yet.

Stacy L. Smith: Want to know what happens when you put women in charge of movies? Look to ‘Hustlers.’

Cheryl Boone Isaacs: Why the Oscars still matter

Tessa Thompson and Nithya Raman: Hollywood takes huge risks on men all the time. Women deserve the same chances.