Controversy at the Oscars

February 12, 2016

For the second year running, only white actors and actresses have been nominated for every major acting category in the Academy Awards. But this time around, people all over the country aren’t taking this lying down. Spreading like wildfire, the controversy has sparked national outrage and prompted numerous Hollywood stars, politicians, and even our own president to weigh in on the matter.

In an interview with Us Weekly Magazine, Matt Damon, a nominee, said “it’s shameful and embarrassing” that no black actors or actresses were nominated. Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton chimed in in an interview with AOL, stating that “the Academy has to catch up with our reality.” Even our president, Barack Obama, told reporters at the White House that the movie industry should “provide opportunity to everybody.”

Naturally, those who disagree with the whitewashed Oscars have taken to social media to spread the word, prompting the creation of the popular Twitter hashtag #OscarsSoWhite as well as a boycott of the Oscars by stars like Will Smith and his wife Jada Pinkett Smith.

And this phenomenon is nothing new. Over the Academy’s 88 year life span, the winners of these awards have always been hugely disproportionate in favor of white actors and actresses. In the entirety of the Awards’ history, there have been a total of four black, two Asian, and only one Hispanic best actor winners. And best actress has even less minority winners, with only one black woman, one Asian woman, and no Hispanics taking home the award. Every other winner has been white.

In the 2010 census, it was found that demographically, the United States is about 64% white, 16% Latino, and 12% black. So, if the system were unbiased, one would expect to see a similar distribution of winners in major acting categories. However this is not the case. Black people have only taken home 4% of the best actor trophies, and Latinos only 1%.

This imbalance stems from the Academy itself. The process for entry into the Academy is stacked against minorities. In order to even seek admission, one must not only have “demonstrated exceptional achievement in the field of theatrical motion pictures,” but also receive two sponsors from the current members. This creates a system where minorities are less likely to receive sponsorship than someone of the dominant race. In a recent survey by the Los Angeles Times of the 6,028 members of the Academy Award voters, it was found that 94% were white, 2% were black, and less than 2% were Latino. Obviously, these numbers are hugely disproportionate to the national racial spread, leading to the bias we see in movies and actors that are nominated.

“I think the Oscars debate is really just an expression of this broader issue of, are we making sure that everybody is getting a fair shot?” Obama said in the same White House interview.

In response to this controversy, the President brings to the surface the larger issue of race relations in the United States and the question that seems to be on everyone’s mind in recent years. Are minorities getting fair treatment in the United States? And with the Black Lives Matter movement still fresh in people’s minds, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences needed a way to save face with the public.

In response to this national outrage. the Oscars released a statement detailing their plan to take historic action “designed to make the Academy’s membership, its governing bodies, and its voting members significantly more diverse.” The Academy claims that they will be launching a new, global mission to seek out more diverse members to increase the variety of movies, actors, and actress nominated for their performance. Whether or not this campaign will come to fruition is yet to be seen.

Best Actor


Will Win: Leonardo DiCaprio

Could Win: Matt Damon

Should Win: Michael Fassbender

Five men. Ten combined Oscar nominations between them. Two Oscar winners among them. The field for the 2016 Oscars Best Actor in a Leading Role nominations is rich and filled with many deserving candidates, as well as a familiar face. As one of the most illustrious awards given in the movie industry, five brilliant actors are looking to add another accomplishment to their distinguished careers on February 28.

The list includes Bryan Cranston, playing Dalton Trumbo, a famous screenwriter in 1950’s Hollywood, Matt Damon, nominated for his role in “The Martian” as Mark Watney, an astronaut left to die on Mars and Michael Fassbender, playing Steve Jobs, an immortalized figure in computing history. Another headlining name and Oscars veteran Eddie Redmayne plays both Einar Wegener and his female side, Lili Elbe, in the British biographical drama, “The Danish Girl”,  that follows his journey in transitioning from a man to a women. Leonardo DiCaprio, the favoured winner, plays Hugh Glass, a hunter, left for dead by his fellow hunters after being attacked by a grizzly bear.

Although both Cranston and Redmayne have had acclaimed acting careers, with Redmayne winning an Oscar for “The Theory of Everything” in 2015, their performances cannot compare to those of the other three candidates. Their performances were not as highly-anticipated, and the performances of Damon and DiCaprio simply garnered more media attention, thus giving them an edge in publicity.

Leonardo DiCaprio, probably the most vaunted of the candidates, searches for his first, and very elusive, Oscar award. With his performance in “The Revenant,” DiCaprio stunningly portrays an anger-fueled man searching for vengeance over those who left him to die. The struggle between morality and personal conflict is illustrated incredibly, keeping the audience at the edge of their seat throughout the action-packed drama.

Another headlining name, Matt Damon, is nominated for his role in “The Martian” as Mark Watney, an astronaut left to die on a barren Martian landscape after he was assumed dead in an emergency evacuation. Watney’s fight for survival becomes the storyline of this intense thriller, but his witty humor and sharp innovation ease the sting of the disastrous situation.

The nominees are all deserving of the win, and  Michael Fassbender’s performance in “Steve Jobs” is no exception. The movie doesn’t necessarily focus on the business  aspect of Jobs’ life, but instead, his relationship with his daughter, Lisa. Angled towards the emotional side of Jobs’ life, Fassbender’s performance brought to light an unseen side of Jobs.

All five candidates are phenomenal actors who have worked hard day in and day out to produce their works, which have been recognized in their excellence through the Oscar nominations. Nevertheless, Leonardo DiCaprio is the star of the bunch, making it certain that he will take home the Best Actor award – finally.

Best Picture

Will Win: Spotlight

Could Win: The Revenant

Should Win: Spotlight

This year’s group of nominees for Best Picture has a little of it all. From the Cold War thriller Bridge of Spies to the Financial drama The Big Short, to the frontier epic (The Revenant) to both post apocalyptic and extra-terrestrial deserts in Mad Max and The Martian, respectively, in addition to lesser-known dark horse candidates (Room and Brooklyn), each of the nominees has something riding in its favor. However, no film on the list has more going for it than Spotlight.

Considering Spotlight’s subject matter, this could seem like a plug for journalism by journalists, but it isn’t. While it may lack the cinematic scope of The Revenant, the action of Mad Max, or the comedy of The Big Short, Spotlight finds its strength in its story, its characters, and its underlying conflict of an intentionally veiled system.

Based on a true story, and hewing much more closely to its source material than many of this year’s other contenders, Spotlight takes the viewer through the work of the Golden Globe’s investigative unit of the same name, four journalists who uncover a system of child molestation and cover-ups among the Catholic Diocese of Boston that stretched to include almost 90 priests. Both the portrayal of the victims of molestation, who are all based on real survivors, as well as of the reporters themselves, all of whom have roots in the city and the church, show the effect of the revelation when a backbone of society is exposed as broken.

Although it’s a more conservative pick than some, most observers, including the New York Times, agree that Spotlight is a presumptive favorite to win Best Picture. Its key strengths are its ensemble cast, featuring strong performances from Mark Ruffalo and Michael Keaton, among others, and its top-notch script, which dramatizes the Globe’s investigation without losing sight of accuracy.

In recent years, many films about journalism have earned the ire of working professionals, who see them as hackneyed and inaccurate in their stereotypical portrayal of reporters. In particular, many were outraged over 2014’s Kill the Messenger, which told the story of a 1997 Mercury News story about the CIA but, many say, glossed over the severe reporting mistakes the story’s writer made in the interests of telling a more interesting story.

Spotlight resists that temptation admirably. Instead of relying on overdramatic parking garage rendezvous and conspiracy antics, its strength rests in its confidence and masterful execution, telling a true story and trusting that its inherent drama will shine through. For audiences, critics and journalists alike, that is a winning combination.

However, if there’s another film that stands a chance of spoiling Spotlight’s title, it’s certainly Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s wilderness epic The Revenant, which dramatizes the story of Hugh Glass, left for dead in the Old West after being mauled by a bear.

Carried by its sweeping wilderness vistas and Leonardo DiCaprio’s show-stopping performance in the title role, The Revenant has garnered critical acclaim. If Iñárritu, whose film Birdman won the Oscar last year, takes home the trophy again, he will become only the second person in history to win back-to-back Best Picture awards, and the first since 1940.

Entering the awards season, Spotlight was viewed as the presumptive favorite. However, with its win at the Golden Globes, The Revenant is gaining momentum, and making a win at the Oscars not far out of reach.

Best Actress


Will Win: Brie Larson

Could Win: Saoirse Ronan

Should Win: Brie Larson

This year’s Best Actress category presents a classically varied cast of characters: A young victim of abduction who finds her strength in the upbringing of her son, a wife who discovers a dark secret about her husband’s past amid planning for their 45th anniversary, a single-mother turned entrepreneur and marketing maven, a glamorous New Yorker who engages in a hushed lesbian affair during the 1950s, and a young Irish immigrant in Brooklyn torn between the love of her life and her homeland.

The nominees range from the ages of 21 to 69, and out of the five women, three are veteran nominees. Jennifer Lawrence, nominated for “Joy,” and Cate Blanchett, nominated for “Carol,” are both previous winners in the category, while Dublin-native Saoirse Ronan was awarded her first nomination at the age of 12. However this year, the predicted winner is a relative newcomer. Brie Larson is rumored to be a shoo-in for the prize. Larson stunned audiences with her performance in “Room,” this year’s adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s 2010 novel directed by Lenny Abrahamson.

Larson won the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Drama this last January, and at the age of 26, she is being lauded as 2015’s breakout star. This is not to say Larson is a newcomer to the industry in any way. In fact, she has been in show-business since her childhood and even has a semi-successful career as a teenage pop-star under her belt. However, in the last few years, Larson has resurfaced in a series of low-profile indie films which have gained her immense critical praise. Critics even said that she was snubbed a nomination for her performance as a social worker in 2013’s “Short Term 12.” With “Room,” Larson has made her stake as one of Hollywood’s most talented young actresses.

The story of “Room” follows Ma and her son Jack, held captive by a sexual predator who kidnapped Ma during her high school years. The first half of the film revolves around Ma and Jack in Room, with Jack, born in the vile conditions, not realizing that there is a world outside of the small square of space he has grown up in. Ma, however, through towering fortitude, is able to raise her son in the happiest of conditions she can muster within her limited conditions. When Ma, however, discovers a chance to escape, she enlists Jack to help her in the ultimately decisive endeavor, with the story then taking a turn to document the lives of Ma and Jack post-release, as Ma now begins to raise her son in the real world, and Jack adjusts to the concept that the world is much vaster than a dusky backyard shed.  

Her performance — nuanced, subtle, and brave all in the same — is winning her some pretty solid odds at the Best Actress title. She plays the character of “Ma” with a certain depth, courageously portraying a woman who has been held in captivity and impregnated as a result of sexual assault by her captor. Larson’s crowning achievement, however, comes through her depiction of the subsequent recovery that Ma experiences as she reacquaints herself to the real world following her release. The swift transition is the most notable aspect of Larson’s performance.

In captivity, Ma is a warrior: a powerful mother figure intent on raising her son to the best of her ability and reclaiming her freedom. However, immediately following her release, Ma’s personality undergoes a shift. Reunited with her family, bombarded with media attention, and realizing the years of her life that she has lost to captivity, Ma becomes abrasive, afraid, and proves to be the

very young girl she has been all along but has been keeping hidden to protect her son. Through this gradual on-screen progression, Larson shows a keen aptitude for understanding and embracing the character-development of Ma.

Her only competition, although highly improbable, is Ronan for her role as Eilis in “Brooklyn.” Ronan’s performance is a graceful one, and she pulls off the film’s emotional highs and lows with wit and grace. Ronan’s talent is undeniable, but as far as award season showings go, it seems like this year, the statue is Larson’s to lose. Although Lawrence has proven to be an Academy darling, “Joy,” did not receive particularly rave reviews due to a lackluster storyline, and as far as “Carol” goes, most of the attention seems to be going to Blanchett’s co-star, Rooney Mara, who has been nominated in the supporting actress category. Some say Charlotte Rampling could be this year’s dark horse for her portrayal of a woman in a broken marriage in “45 years,” but again, it’s a long-shot. It’s Larson’s year, and rightfully so.

Best Director


Will Win: George Miller

Could Win: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu

Should Win: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu

Birdman, Alejandro G. Inarritu’s previous feature, and a swirling, manic gift of a movie, won him last year’s ‘Best Director’ belt. This year, the Mexican director focuses his efforts in the frontier and in the furrowed features of his star, Leonardo DiCaprio. Hugh Glass, his half-Pawnee son, and the rest of their trapping party are ambushed by indigenous warriors. One boat, a bear, and a few horses later, Glass tracks the venomous Fitzgerald, murderer of his son, to a sheet of ice in the snowy boonies.

The Revenant is without a doubt, a less fully-realized movie than was Birdman. Less graceful, less poetically-wrought. But the charisma of Inarritu’s photography and direction, overcomes the movie’s drawn-outness. Glass travels for days, weeks. There is a lot to see, and Inarritu shows it all to us. Whether DiCaprio is catching snowflakes on his tongue with a prophetic Pawnee Indian or heaving himself into the corpse of his horse, Inarritu’s camera floats, seeing like a plume of smoke, turning organically like a head.

George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road is his long-awaited follow-up to Mad Max, Road Warrior and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. Fans of the decade-spanning serial entered auditoriums clutching popcorn like boomerangs and other utensils of Miller’s past futures. Partial to stunt work, not computer generated images, Miller’s action is for all intents and purposes, real. Tom Hardy, also in The Revenant, plays a young maverick inadvertently on the run with the wives of an apocalyptic warlord. Despite positive reviews and a foaming-at-the-mouth fan response, I left the theater disappointed. Gone was the magic of Road Warrior, somehow. Fury Road loses the hokey fun of its predecessors.

McKay, McCarthy and Abrahamson, the dark horses of this race, make a strong showing. McKay’s direction pops like a glossy magazine. He lets Margot Robbie delineate esoteric real estate jargon in a bathtub, while tossing shrimp cocktails into her mouth. There is a debt to Scorsese somewhere. Abrahamson’s Room opens on a young woman and her androgynous child, born into the captivity of her mother’s predator. All the child knows is this ‘room’ until, he is introduced to the rest of the world. Spotlight, a frontrunner for Best Picture features perhaps the most subtle, if assured direction of the cluster. McCarthy’s slow pans and fixed frames reinforce the funereal tone. But undeniably, Spotlight leans more heavily on the performance of its ensemble cast, and on the sparse writing, than on McCarthy’s muted supervision.

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