Oscar Nominations Analysis: The Biggest Winner of All Is — Wait for It — the Academy

On Tuesday morning, seven years after the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences last announced its Oscar nominations in front of press and publicists (that announcement turned out to be the second consecutive one without any Black acting nominees, aka #OscarsSoWhite), the in-person gathering returned to the Samuel Goldwyn Theater. And this time, Academy insiders, less than a year removed from “The Slap” Oscars telecast and its near record-low ratings, must have been very happy that they had an audience for an announcement that yielded some promising news for the organization and its 95th Oscars ceremony.

The nominations have set up the show for success

Twenty-five years ago, the Academy and its broadcasting partner, ABC, rode the wake of James Cameron’s Titanic to what was then, and remains today, the highest-rated Oscars telecast — and the highest-rated awards show of any kind — ever. That ceremony serves as a reminder that the Oscars’ ratings are tied, as much as anything, to the popularity of the top nominees, which makes sense: If people have seen and liked the movies in contention, they have a reason to care about the outcome; and if they haven’t, they don’t.

In the age of the internet, multiple screens and cord-cutting, no Oscars telecast will ever again attract 57 million viewers — last year, when CODA defeated The Power of the Dog, just 16.6 million tuned in, the second-lowest figure ever, which was up only slightly from the record low of the pandemic pared-down ceremony of the year before that, when Nomadland beat The Trial of the Chicago 7.

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But this year, the 10 best picture nominees include several bona fide blockbusters: Paramount’s Top Gun: Maverick ($718.7 million domestically, $1.5 billion worldwide), which could become the first film in 19 years, since The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, to both top the domestic box office in and win best picture for the same year; Disney’s Avatar: The Way of Water ($598.4 million domestically, $2 billion worldwide), from the aforementioned money-printing-machine Cameron; Warners’ Elvis ($151 million domestically, $287.3 million worldwide); and A24’s Everything Everywhere All at Once ($70 million domestically, $104.1 million worldwide), the highest-grossing film in the history of its art house distributor.

In other words, a lot of people who might not watch the Oscars every year have a lot of reasons to tune in this year — and that’s before the Academy and ABC even begin promoting the fact that tunes by Lady Gaga (“Hold My Hand” from Maverick) and Rihanna (“Lift Me Up” from Black Panther: Wakanda Forever) have been nominated for best original song and are almost certain to be performed on the telecast, along with “Naatu Naatu,” the song-and-dance showstopper at the center of RRR, one of the biggest blockbusters to ever come out of India (it has grossed $160 million worldwide).

Things broke nicely for the Academy in terms of big-name talent, too. Nominees include beloved household names/faces Steven Spielberg (The Fabelmans), Angela Bassett (Wakanda Forever), Colin Farrell (The Banshees of Inisherin) and Jamie Lee Curtis (Everything Everywhere), and rising stars Austin Butler (Elvis) and Ana de Armas (Blonde). Plus, though Maverick’s Tom Cruise wasn’t nominated for acting and The Way of Water’s Cameron wasn’t nominated for directing, both will almost certainly still show up given that they are producing nominees. And though Wakanda Forever and RRR were not nominated for picture, both, again, did get song noms, meaning their top talent may still attend (and, in the case of the latter, perhaps even perform).

Most of the high-profile races are wide open

Few of the major awards look sewn up, which will certainly fuel conversation and excitement leading up to the show, as well.

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Everything Everywhere is up for a field-leading 11 nominations — only 30 films have ever received more — but because of the unusual preferential ballot that the Academy employs for best picture voting, the most nominated film has not prevailed in that category in recent years. Based on that system of voting and the overall nominations landscape, I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of a win by Maverick, Elvis, The Fabelmans, Banshees or even All Quiet on the Western Front, a German-language film from Netflix which is tied with Banshees for the second-most noms of the year, nine, and is just the 13th primarily non-English-language film ever nominated for best picture. (A prior version of All Quiet on the Western Front won best picture 92 years ago.)

Expect hand-to-hand combat for best actor (Elvis’ Butler, The Whale’s Brendan Fraser, Banshees’ Farrell and Living’s Bill Nighy all have a shot), best actress (Tár’s Cate Blanchett could win a third statuette, but one of two Michelles who have never won before, Everything Everywhere’s Yeoh or The Fabelmans’ Williams, the latter now a five-time nominee, could derail her) and best supporting actress (Wakanda Forever’s Bassett is the favorite, but don’t count out Everything Everywhere’s Curtis or Stephanie Hsu).

Only best supporting actor looks like a done deal, with Everything Everywhere’s Ke Huy Quan — and his heartstrings-tugging comeback story — running away with the prize.

Another thing to note: Though we are living in an era in which it’s like pulling teeth to get many big-name stars to show up to the Oscars — even when they are nominated, but especially when they are not but are asked to be a presenter — I would expect a different vibe this go-around. An astounding 16 of the 20 acting nominees have never been nominated before, including both up-and-comers (e.g. Hsu, de Armas, Butler, The Whale’s Hong Chau, Causeway’s Brian Tyree Henry, BansheesKerry Condon and Barry Keoghan, Aftersun’s Paul Mescal and To Leslie’s Andrea Riseborough) and veterans (Nighy, Yeoh, Curtis, Quan, Farrell, Fraser and BansheesBrendan Gleeson). In other words, most if not all of these people will actually be excited to be invited to the Oscars, as should be the case for everyone!

The Academy can argue that its inclusion efforts seem to be working in some areas

Some are upset that none of the five directing nominees are women (Women Talking’s Sarah Polley, The Woman King’s Gina Prince-Bythewood, Till’s Chinonye Chukwu and She Said’s Maria Schrader were widely thought to have an outside shot at landing spots in the category), that only one of the best picture nominees is directed by a woman (Women Talking) and that Till, The Woman King and She Said wound up without a single nom.

Nevertheless, the Academy can argue that its concerted efforts, in the wake of #OscarsSoWhite, to increase the diversity of its membership in the hopes of yielding a more diverse group of nominees, has yielded results.

The year’s most nominated film is Everything Everywhere, which centers on an Asian family (as did best picture nominees in each of the last three years, with Parasite, Minari and Drive My Car). Among its 11 noms are four for acting, and of those, three went to women and three went to people of Asian descent.

Additionally, seven of this year’s 20 acting nominees are nonwhite: Yeoh, who becomes the first woman who identifies as Asian to be nominated for best actress, and her co-stars Quan and Hsu; plus de Armas, the first Cuban ever nominated for a lead acting Oscar; and Henry, Bassett and Chau.

Non-English-language filmmaking is also well represented this year, arguably a byproduct of the Academy increasing, in recent years, the number of its members who are based outside of the U.S. and are therefore particularly undeterred by movies with subtitles. Again, All Quiet, a German-language film, landed nine noms, including best picture. (Also in that category — and also up for directing — are two films made far from Hollywood, Banshees and Triangle of Sadness.)

And no, Tucker Carlson, old white dudes are not being replaced: The Fabelmans’ legendary composer John Williams, at 90, just became the oldest Oscar nominee in history with his original score nom, the 53rd nom of his illustrious career, which extends his record for most noms for a living person. And that same film’s Judd Hirsch, at 87, landed his second nom, in the category of best supporting actor, a record 42 years after his first (which came for Ordinary People).

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Academy members are apparently watching a lot of movies

The danger in inviting a lot of young people to become Academy members, as has happened in recent years, is that many are busy with their careers and young families and therefore have less time to watch a lot of movies, which can cause a small handful of movies to dominate the Oscar noms. But that appears not to have happened this cycle (quite possibly because of the convenience of the Academy’s members-only streaming service), given the notably high number of films that received a single nom.

To me, it shows admirable discernment on the part of Academy members that they recognized the worthiness of de Armas’ portrayal of Marilyn Monroe in Blonde, or the cinematography of Bardo (Darius Khondji) and Empire of Light (Roger Deakins), or the costume design of Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris (Jenny Beavan), despite whatever larger issues they may have had with those films. (For context, Blonde just led the Razzie nominations with eight mentions.) It’s also nice that they made room for two standouts from critically acclaimed indies, Aftersun’s Mescal and Causeway’s Tyree Henry.

And, like many in Hollywood, where she is immensely popular, I’m happy for the great songwriter Diane Warren, who, just months after receiving an honorary Oscar, received her 14th nomination for best original song (she has yet to win) — although I have yet to meet any Academy member who has actually watched Tell It Like a Woman, the movie in which her tune, “Applause,” is featured. That’s quite a testament to the regard that Warren’s peers in the music branch have for her.

Andrea Riseborough?!?

And then there’s Riseborough, whose best actress nom for the indie To Leslie evoked gasps in the Samuel Goldwyn Theater, not because the prolific 41-year-old British actress isn’t talented or because her performance isn’t worthy, but because it was the culmination of one of the most unusual campaigns ever mounted.

Essentially, Riseborough’s film, which was shot in just 19 days on a minuscule budget, premiered at SXSW, where it — and especially her performance — received raves. It was picked up by the fledgling distributor Momentum Pictures, which didn’t have the resources to give it a big theatrical release (it grossed just $27,322) or awards push. So Riseborough began independently organizing a campaign with her own funds and with the impassioned support of her manager and greatest champion, Jason Weinberg, and publicists from Narrative PR (which reps Riseborough personally) and Shelter PR (which came on for the campaign).

Team Riseborough mounted some traditional campaign events — such as screenings with receptions organized by Andrew Saffir’s The Cinema Society and Colleen Camp — but above all they hit upon a strategy of promotion that not even money could buy.

Indeed, starting way back in October — shortly after Howard Stern, a friend of To Leslie director Michael Morris, talked up To Leslie on his hugely popular SiriusXM radio show — they and their allies convinced a ton of A-list actors, some with whom Riseborough has worked (e.g., Demi Moore), others who have admired her from afar (e.g., Sarah Paulson), to check out the film and then, if they felt inspired to do so, to post about her performance on social media (Susan Sarandon, Helen Hunt, Zooey Deschanel, Mira Sorvino, Constance Zimmer, Rosie O’Donnell, Alan Cumming and Riseborough’s Birdman co-star Edward Norton did so, with Norton tweeting that her performance “just knocked me sideways,” and Melanie Lynskey tweeting “I’ve always worshipped her, but even for her this is next level”) and/or to “host” a screening/Q&A/virtual event to highlight it (Charlize Theron, Jennifer Aniston, Courteney Cox, Minnie Driver, Gwyneth Paltrow, Amy Adams, Frances Fisher and Kate Winslet did just that, and Winslet, who is working with Riseborough on a film right now, declared at hers, “I think this is the greatest female performance onscreen I have ever seen in my life”).

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Others did what they could to call attention to Riseborough in other ways: Cate Blanchett gave Riseborough a shout-out in her televised acceptance speech at the Critics Choice Awards; and Riseborough’s To Leslie costar Marc Maron had her on his popular podcast.

The fact that few outside of the Academy’s acting branch had heard of or were offered the chance to see To Leslie didn’t matter. (Gotham, Golden Globe and Critics Choice awards are decided by journalists, so those constituencies weren’t courted, whereas acting Oscar noms are decided solely by the members of the actors branch of the Academy, so they were.) And this sort of top-down campaign, aimed solely at actors branch members, resulted in Riseborough’s performance getting seen and beating out the likes of Till’s Danielle Deadwyler, Empire of Light’s Olivia Colman, The Woman King’s Viola Davis and others whose films and performances had much higher profiles and better-funded campaigns.

It’s all rather remarkable — and, I suppose, inspiring. Many Oscar contenders have famous friends and allies, but Riseborough’s went the extra mile for her and her big performance in a little film that would have otherwise gotten lost.

Nobody’s perfect

I’m not here to say that the Academy and its latest set of Oscar noms are without their flaws.

Let’s note that the documentary branch seems to think that being a movie with wide appeal is a bad thing (they didn’t even shortlist the popular features Good Night Oppy or Sr., and today they didn’t nominate the wonderful Linsanity short 38 at the Garden, which I find appalling) — plus they overlooked two beautiful portraits of a filmmaker’s family enduring a trying time, David Siev’s Bad Axe and Ondi Timoner’s Last Flight Home, as well as Matthew Heineman’s death-defying portrait of the end of the war in Afghanistan, Retrograde.

Other branches snubbed contenders that virtually every other awards group felt were worthy, from Till’s lead actress Deadwyler and Triangle of Sadness’s supporting actress Dolly de Leon to Maverick’s cinematography by Claudio Miranda to Living’s costumes by Sandy Powell to The Way of Water’s editing to Wakanda Forever’s production design to Maverick’s sound.

On a personal note, I feel bad about the exclusion from the supporting actor category of The FabelmansPaul Dano, whose understated portrayal of Spielberg’s father was every bit as integral to the success of The Fabelmans as the performances given by his co-stars Williams and Hirsch, which were nominated.

But there are only five slots in every category except for best picture, which has 10, so none of us can get everything we want — with the possible exception, at least this year, of the good folks at the Academy.

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