10 Takeaways From the 2021 Oscar Nominations

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The 2020 acting nominees, at least, are notably diverse. . Six years ago, April Reign created the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite after all 20 acting nominations went to white actors for two years running. This year finds many more actors of color in the mix, with Riz Ahmed, Steven Yeun, Chadwick Boseman, Viola Davis, Andra Day, Leslie Odom Jr., and Yuh-Jung Young joining Kaluuya and Stanfield. That’s a big difference. So what happened? In the years since #OscarsSoWhite, the Academy has pushed to diversify its ranks, which likely helped. Films have shifted as well as audiences have come to expect, sometimes demand, more diversity in casting and subject matter. This year’s acting nominees follow that trend as the last few years have featured markedly more non-white nominees — not that anyone should start considering the problem of diversity in Hollywood fixed. There’s still a lot of work to be done both in front of and behind the camera, but the development provides some glimmers of optimism.

Two of the five Best Director nominations went to women. Last year, when announcing the nominees, Issa Rae offered a less-than-heartfelt “congratulations to those men” after reading a list that excluded Greta Gerwig, Lulu Wang, Lorene Scafaria, Marielle Heller and, well, every other woman who directed a film in 2019. This year’s nominees include Chloe Zhao for Nomadland and Emerald Fennell for Promising Young Woman. Considered the frontrunner, Zhao is now one of a handful of women directors to be nominated and would be only the second woman to win the Best Director prize, following Kathryn Bigelow, who won in 2010 for directing The Hurt Locker. Again, that’s not the sign of a problem that’s been fixed. But it’s not nothing, either.

A-listers were shut out… Few things are as reliable as Tom Hanks picking up Oscar nominations — or at least that’s how it used to be. Hanks could have been nominated for either Greyhound or News of the World, both of which fit the mold of movies that the Academy likes to nominate. But he’s nowhere to be found this year. Neither film found much traction despite being, respectively, a perfectly OK war movie and an often terrific western. In fact, the Oscars nominations proved kind of rough for the A-listers who didn’t sit out the pandemic year. George Clooney took a big swing as a director and actor with The Midnight Sky, but it picked up only a single nomination for Best Visual Effects. Should we read this as a portent of stars on the wane? Is it over for Hanks and Clooney? Nah. They’ll be fine. You just can’t be lucky all the time.

… which left room for a bunch of nominees who were hardly household names last year. Maria Bakalova burst out of nowhere to steal Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (it was fun to hear that title read in full during the nominations announcement, wasn’t it?). Youn Yuh-jung had enjoyed a long, respected career in Korean movies prior to Minari, but looked like a 73-year-old newcomer to much of the world. Most of Minari director Lee Isaac Chung’s previous work had flown under the radar and the now-42-year-old director was on the verge of giving up filmmaking before drawing on his own life for one last try. Sound of Metal’s Paul Raci has worked steadily for years but has never had a role as high-profile as his turn as a deaf mentor in Darius Marder’s film. And it’s not like many had heard of Marder, either—he didn’t get a Best Director nomination, but his film is well represented elsewhere, including a nod for the screenplay he co-wrote. Emerald Fennell has worked extensively as an actor and ran the second season of Killing Eve, but Promising Young Woman pushed her to a new level. However well-deserved these nominations are, they might not have happened in an ordinary year more crowded by the usual suspects. It’s cool to see them happen this year, however.


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