It wasn’t that long ago that the Oscar nominations were a blanket of white — #OscarsSoWhite in 2015 and 2016 — an embarrassment to the Motion Picture Academy and a poor reflection on the increasingly diverse array of quality films produced by Hollywood.
Well, what a difference a few years make. When the 2021 Oscar nominations were announced Monday morning — much later than usual, as will be the awards ceremony, in these COVID-affected times — there were many diversity firsts logged.
Nine of the 20 nominated actors and actresses are people of color, by far a record for the Academy. Viola Davis, the title performer in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, shattered a couple of glass ceilings this year. When she was nominated in the best actress category, she became the first African-American woman to be so named twice. The nomination is her fourth, a record for a Black woman.
She will be competing against Andra Day, for her work in the title role of United States vs. Billie Holiday. This marks only the second time there will be two Black women vying in the category. They will be up against two-time winner Frances McDormand (Nomadland), one-time nominee Carey Mulligan (Promising Young Woman) and Oscars newbie Vanessa Kirby (Pieces of a Woman).
For the first time, the majority of nominees for best actor are non-white. Almost a prohibitive favorite is the late Chadwick Boseman (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom), who died last year of colon cancer at age 43. Competing with him will be Riz Ahmed (Sound of Metal), of Pakistani descent, and Asian-American Steve Yeun (Minari), the Korean farmer transplanted to Arkansas. The two white actors in the category, both former Oscar winners, are Anthony Hopkins (The Father) as a vulnerable senior drifting into dementia and Gary Oldman (Mank) as Herman Mankiewicz, alcoholic screenwriter of Citizen Kane.
Oscar nominators and voters traditionally have an affection for movies about the movies. This year’s nomination leader is Mank (10), a black-and-white film set in Hollywood in the early 1940s. In addition to best picture and Oldman’s nomination, it will be up for best supporting actress (Amanda Seyfried), director (David Fincher), score, sound, cinematography, costume design, production design and makeup. Working against its chances for the top Oscar is its failure to cop a screenplay nomination.
The best picture category can contain between five and 10 choices, based on a complex formula designed to squeeze more studio films into the running. This year, there will be eight nominees, led by Mank, another six films with six nominations each (The Father, Judas and the Black Messiah, Minari, Nomadland, Sound od Metal and The Trial of the Chicago 7), and Promising Young Woman (four nominations). Nomadland, already named best picture by the Golden Globes and the American Film Institute, looks to be the likely winner at the Oscars as well.
Nomadland’s director Chloe Zhao has been racking up wins in the preliminary awards. Along with Promising Young Woman’s Emerald Fennell, they represent the first time two women are in the best director category at the same time. And Chinese-American Zhao is the first woman of color to be nominated in this category. Also nominated are Lee Isaac Chung (Minari) and Fincher (Mank).
The fifth nominee, and quite a surprise pick, is Thomas Vinterberg, director of the Danish film Another Round, which also make the cut for best international feature film. Left out were such expected nominees as Aaron Sorkin (The Trial of the Chicago 7) and Regina King (One Night in Miami).
Glenn Close, who has not won an Oscar after seven nominations, looks unlikely to win this time either for her nearly unrecognizable performance in Hillbilly Elegy. She will be up against 2019 best actress winner Olivia Colman (The Father) and a trio of first-time nominees — Maria Bakalova (Borat Subsequent Moviefilm), Seyfried (Mank) and Korean film star Yuh-jung Youn (Minari).
Sacha Baron Cohen is nominated for best supporting actor, not for his Borat movie — which won him a Golden Globe — but for playing radical Abbie Hoffman in The Trial of the Chicago 7. Daniel Kaluuya and Lakeith Stanfield were both nominated for their work as Black Panther leader Fred Hampton and FBI infiltrator Bill O’Neil, respectively. Apparently Academy voters thought there was no leading performance in the movie.
The category also includes Paul Raci (Sound of Metal) and Leslie Odom Jr., who played soul singer Sam Cooke in One Night in Miami. Odom Jr. is doubly nominated, having co-written a song for the movie.
For most of the past year, of course, movie theaters across the country have been closed by the pandemic. So the Academy’s eligibility rules about required exhibition in theaters have been suspended for 2020-2021. As a result, Netflix, Amazon Prime and Disney+ — the major streaming services — have dominated this year’s nominations. Netflix, which has Mank and Chicago 7 among its films this year, walked off with 35 nominations, by far the most of any studio or streamer.
The 93rd Academy Awards will be telecast on Sunday, April 25, on ABC-TV.