The Academy’s season of snubs

By Alex Frail

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On Feb. 22nd, the 87th Academy Awards will air on ABC, but this season promises little surprises or excitement. The nominations, which were announced on Jan. 15th, not only failed to offer any underdog upsets, but also snubbed several legitimate contenders for the coveted film awards. The Oscars, long the target of criticism for its pretentious conceit, didn’t help itself with this round of nominations.

Take a look at the Best Picture category. It features four biopics, but only “Selma” was a truly excellent film, while “The Imitation Game,” “American Sniper” and “The Theory of Everything” were mired in the genre’s blander storytelling. Despite “Selma’s” excellence, courtesy of a concise and pointed narrative about Dr. Martin Luther King’s historic march to Montgomery, it probably won’t contend with “Boyhood’s” epic charge. The film, director Richard Linklater’s 12-year experiment, has become an unstoppable juggernaut that seems destined for Best Picture.

The nominations of “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and “Birdman” are outliers here. Wes Anderson, a genius auteur, enjoys his first Best Picture nomination for “Grand Budapest.” Meanwhile, “Birdman,” an avant-garde, faux one-act play, studies a washed-up actor (Michael Keaton) as he faces his last shot at stardom. It has the best chance of upsetting “Boyhood,” a possibility compounded by its originality amidst the cluttered biopic field.

Although these biopics are great films, they’re classic Academy bait that clouds the chances for better, fresher films like “Gone Girl” and “Nightcrawler.” I wrote last year how “Gone Girl” wasn’t director David Fincher’s greatest effort, but that meant it was still better than almost anything else you’d see. I stand by that statement. Even after the awards-bait rush through December, no film, especially the nominated biopics, topped “Gone Girl.” Adding insult to injury, Fincher received no nod from the Academy.

Similarly, “Nightcrawler” missed out big, snatching a nomination solely for Original Screenplay. While well written, the film’s script is actually its weak link. The film itself, Dan Gilroy’s direction, and Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance all stood out far more than the screenplay. A nod for Best Picture or director was unlikely, but Gyllenhaal’s taut performance of an unhinged lunatic should’ve made the Best Actor list. Only Keaton and Eddie Redmayne (“The Theory of Everything”) might’ve topped Gyllenhaal. Otherwise, no one in the Best Actor race had an edge on him. In this case, his greatest strength might’ve been his greatest weakness. Gyllenhaal, like “Nightcrawler,” was too edgy to survive as Academy bait.

Another snub for Best Actor was David Oyelowo (“Selma”), who gave a stellar performance as MLK. Biopic roles often earn many trophies – six of the top ten acting nods were from biopics. Oyelowo, however, received no recognition.

“Selma’s” director, Ava DuVernay, also saw no Academy recognition. Controversy surrounded her film for its supposed depiction of President Johnson’s disposition towards MLK, complaints that have been disputed. You have to wonder if these grumblings dashed her chance. It wouldn’t be the first time the Academy let that happen. 2012’s “Zero Dark Thirty” seemed a shoe-in for Best Picture before people denounced its depiction of torture, and then its chances went up in a wisp of smoke.

DuVernay represents the biggest snub this year. While she probably wouldn’t have won next to Linklater’s 12-year effort or Alejandro González Iñárritu’s mind-bending direction in “Birdman,” her artistic revival of MLK’s pivotal march in the Civil Rights Movement deserved Academy recognition. Like how her lead actor excelled in a field of biopics competitors, DuVernay brought style and intrigue to “Selma,” the best biopic this year.

The Best Supporting acting categories saw more adventurous choices for the Academy. Emma Stone (“Birdman”) gave a performance that was equal parts unhinged, like when she gets high and berates her father, and powerfully contained, like when she glibly spars with her father’s cast. Both Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette scored for their transformation as separated parents in “Boyhood.” The actors were as subtle as the script, slowly and patiently adding new layers to their characters as a decade came and went. Finally, J.K. Simmons, heretofore a minor supporting actor in films like “Juno,” scored big. The favorite in his category, Simmons leveled audiences as Fletcher, a sadistic and abusive maestro. Beside “Boyhood,” Simmons is the surest lock this year.

Of course, this long list of snubs doesn’t detract from the truly excellent films that are nominated. As I said, however, the Academy has long faced criticism for its predictability, lack of diversity and pretension. This field, while containing excellent films and performances, strays little from the assumed path that we could’ve predicted it taking. If it had sought those edgier nominations, the “Gone Girls” and Jake Gyllenhaals of the year, then it would both make the race more interesting to a wider array of film fans and encourage directors, screenwriters and actors to pursue different types of films while maintaining the excellence of Academy bait roles.

There have been a few glimmers of hope for shaking up the routine. “Argo” topped “Lincoln” in 2012, “Slumdog Millionaire” over “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” in 2008 and, of course, “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” in 2003. We’ve seen the Academy encourage films that go against the grain in the past. Even if they dropped the ball this year, I still have hope for a year when half of the race looks more like “Birdman” than “The Imitation Game.”

Alexander Frail can be reached at [email protected].