The Oscars' white-guy backlash: Why academy voters retreated to their comfort zone

There's actually some good news in this year's nominations -- but the academy has swamped it in white backlash

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published January 16, 2015 12:00AM (EST)

Bradley Cooper in "American Sniper"
Bradley Cooper in "American Sniper"

There are numerous ways to slice and dice the cultural and commercial significance of the Oscar nominations, this year and always. One way, for instance, is to conclude that they don’t matter at all, or at least shouldn’t: The Oscars are a trade show, staged and selected by a geriatric band of troglodytes who are entirely unrepresentative of the larger society and have their own bizarre tribal notions about what constitutes a good movie. That approach may provide some context for the striking tone-deafness of Thursday morning’s nominations.

After a year when the cultural debate in America was dominated by vigorous and sometimes angry discussions of race and gender, all the actors nominated for Oscars in all four categories were white, and the nominees in the writing and directing categories were all male and almost entirely white. Let’s say that again, a teensy bit differently: Twenty white folks are up for acting awards, and all but one of the nominated films in the adapted screenplay, original screenplay and directing categories were made by white men. (The borderline exception there – and it’s honestly pretty borderline -- is “Birdman,” a movie by a Mexican director made in New York, with an entirely white and North American cast.)

I think New York Daily News critic Elizabeth Weitzman was the Twitter winner on Thursday morning: “I, for one, am taking great comfort in the fact that all of this year's Best Actress nominees are women.” Amid the understandable social media outrage and amazement (#OscarsSoWhite has been the hashtag of the day), we are dragged once again back to the question of whether the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has some moral or social responsibility to respond to larger cultural issues or foster diversity within its industry. It’s a question to which, white hetero cis-male that I am, I do not claim to know the answer. There are prominent voices within Hollywood and the academy, including Denzel Washington, who have argued that a virtual quota system should be instituted to bring academy membership – which is more than 90 percent white and about three-quarters male, with a median age around 63 – in line with the general population. (As Washington and others have noted, Latinos are even more poorly represented within the academy than black people.)

Quite obviously, that is not the dominant current of opinion within the academy. You can certainly defend, in the abstract, the idea that movie awards should be entirely about the art and craft of cinema, not about who made the movies. And one can argue, from a film-lover’s point of view, that this year’s Oscar nominations have fewer ludicrous howlers than usual, and a few genuine surprises: Marion Cotillard’s best-actress nomination for the Belgian film “Two Days, One Night”; Wes Anderson’s first directing nomination, for “Grand Budapest Hotel”; the presence of “Ida” and “Leviathan” and “Timbuktu,” three tremendous works of world cinema, in the foreign-language category. But let’s be clear: Those things are not the big story today, and the academy’s interest in film as an art form has always been a secondary concern. The primary mission of the Oscars is to burnish the public image of the American film industry, and on that front the voters have screwed the proverbial pooch.

So here we are facing what feels way too much like the White Backlash Oscars, announced on the morning of Martin Luther King Jr.’s actual birthday. A year after awarding its biggest prize to a confrontational film about the most painful aspects of America’s racial history, Oscar voters appear to have retreated into their collective comfort zone. (This is not meant to impugn the excellence of “12 Years a Slave,” but conservative critics who accused Hollywood of being driven by liberal guilt had a point.) No doubt Ava DuVernay’s potent civil-rights drama “Selma,” the most obvious casualty of this retreat – it garnered a best-picture nomination, but DuVernay and star David Oyelowo were both spurned – was undermined in part by the controversy over its depiction of Lyndon B. Johnson. But I feel like the LBJ issue was used as a mask for issue fatigue, an unexpressed and not-quite-conscious feeling that We gave it to a “black movie” last year, dammit.

This retreat into whiteness and maleness was not an intentional decision, in any ordinary sense of that word. There is no overt racist or misogynist conspiracy within the academy, just a whole lot of cluelessness and insularity. But the effect is likely to be extremely damaging, and as I said earlier it’s also likely to overwhelm the positive nuggets to be found in the nooks and crannies of this year’s nominations. If Oscar voters want to claim that they’re all about cinematic quality and above petty considerations of cultural politics, it might help if they didn’t swoon, year after year, for mediocre inspirational pictures dosed with obvious Oscar sauce.

I’m not entirely convinced that anyone actually enjoyed “The Imitation Game” or “The Theory of Everything,” this year’s ultimate Oscar-flavored productions. Oh, professional awards-watchers may have enjoyed dissecting their finely calibrated blend of craft and emotional manipulation, and then the people who vote on awards enjoyed them by proxy, as examples of the kind of movies they wish other people would like. “Selma,” on the other hand, is an intimate, thrilling and deeply flawed work; even the controversy suggests that those who saw it felt its power. When you consider both the degree of difficulty and the scale of the final achievement, I cannot construct a hypothetical person who thinks that Morten Tyldum, who made the glorified TV drama that is “The Imitation Game,” is more deserving of a directing award than DuVernay. It’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that boxy, clean and English is preferable to challenging, messy and black.

And then there’s the Clint problem. Clint Eastwood was not actually nominated this year for directing “American Sniper,” which is a modest surprise. But "American Sniper" raked in six nominations, including best picture and best actor, while "Selma" wound up with just two. (Eastwood was nominated for a Directors Guild award, while DuVernay was not.) The contrast between a movie about a Texas good ol' boy who shoots kids and old ladies from rooftops in Iraq and a movie about a bunch of black people defying racist cops and claiming their rights as American citizens sums up the unhappy symbolic politics of the 2015 Oscar race a bit too well. No, no, I know – I have seen “American Sniper,” and it’s not nearly as rah-rah uncomplicated as it sounds (though it’s also not half as complicated as it should be). I'd be happy to argue that Eastwood deserves awards consideration more than Morten Tyldum does, on purely technical grounds. The problems with "American Sniper" lie, we might say, at a philosophical or epistemological level where Eastwood simply does not venture.

The Academy's enduring love affair with Clint Eastwood, and its reluctance to embrace a newcomer like DuVernay (or, for that matter, "Gone Girl" writer Gillian Flynn), speaks to the fundamental problems of the Oscar electorate, and the ways this strange annual ritual has become increasingly detached from the central currents of American culture. The academy is a congenial, fraternal organization, for all its creaky efforts to change, and Clint Eastwood is a venerated member of the tribe. Your paradigmatic Oscar voter, the not-entirely-inaccurate stereotype of the retired actor in Beverly Hills with his sky-blue cardigan and white patent-leather loafers, knows Clint, or likes to think he does, and once exchanged quips with him over cocktails at the Polo Lounge. That guy is going to keep on voting for Clint's movies every time out, with no conscious intention of snubbing the black or female director he doesn’t know and has only vaguely heard of. That guy and his friends sincerely believe they are supporting artistic excellence in motion pictures and the best possible image for the movie industry. They are no doubt dismayed and surprised to learn that they failed dramatically on the latter front today, and thoroughly undermined themselves on the former as well.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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