“You like me, right now, you like me” were the words uttered by Sally Field, rather infamously, when she accepted her second Oscar for Places in the Heart in 1985. The speech has been referenced, mocked and reduced to meme status by history, but there may be more to her seemingly unassuming words, a deeper meaning that applies to the Academy’s tastes. Now, almost 35 years later, her words seem more true than ever, because the Academy is still liking the same things they liked back then.
When the nominations were announced on Monday morning, the internet was set on fire because of the notable omissions of some very big names: nowhere to be found were Jennifer Lopez for her ballsy and commanding performance in Hustlers, the best of her career and further proof that she’s much more than the image we have of her; Lupita Nyong’o for her daring and dual role in Jordan Peele’s horror film Us; Awkwafina and Shao Shuzhen for their tender and comedic roles in Lulu Wang’s heartwarming semi-autobiographical film The Farewell; and Greta Gerwig for her second directorial effort, the critically and commercially successful Little Women.
In a year where the Academy could’ve made some inspiring choices with their nominations, it instead retreaded back to their confort zone by recognizing the films that have always liked: war films in the form of 1917, gangster films with The Irishman and films about the industry with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Their “daring” nominations went to Parasite, undoubtedly the best film of the year, and the controversial Joker, a film that has as many supporters as it has detractors. Films directed by women, mainly A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood and the previously mentioned The Farewell and Hustlers were pretty much ignored, save for Tom Hank’s nomination for his portrayal of Mr. Rogers. Little Women was the exception to this rule, achieving a Best Picture nomination.
It is now that we must ask ourselves, why is it that the Academy keeps recognizing men’s stories and ignoring women’s? Out of the 9 nominees, 6 have plots centered almost entirely around men. The Irishman infamously neglected to give one of its few female characters a single line, while Once Upon a Time in Hollywood sidelined Sharon Tate (and practically muted her) in favor of two fictitious male characters. It’s no surprise to find out that, despite efforts to diversify it, 65% of the Academy’s 9000 members are male, and 84% white. Looking at these numbers, and knowing what the Academy usually seems to like, the nominations seem disappointing, but not surprising.
It’s now 2020 and for all the progress that has been done on some fronts, the Academy is still liking the same stories they liked when they first began handing out these awards. It’s easy to understand why: men have been directing films since the beginning of cinema, so it’s only logical that the mainstream definitions of “good” and “bad” come from films with an undeniable male perspective. While films with modern-day settings are more likely to have a strong female presence on them, they are hardly recognized by the Academy. Indeed, 7 of the 9 nominees for this year’s Best Picture are set in the past, at times when their historic settings allow them to minimize the role of women in their stories. With all this in consideration, it wouldn’t be crazy to suggest the Oscars have become safe and even outdated.
A question then begins to loom: are the Academy Awards still meaningful? They are relevant, of course, albeit much less than they use to be if we go by the declining ratings. Winning an Oscar is still viewed as the highest honor an actor can get, and sometimes it can even launch a career. However, it’s not the sort of mythical and absolute stamp of approval it used to be back when Sally Field stepped on the podium for the second time. It’s not that hard to imagine a lot of people being more excited by the red carpet arrivals than by the 3-plus hour show itself. The importance that campaigning has taken over the years has also messed with the Oscars’ prestige, especially since modern awards campaigning is so closely associated with the Big Bad Hollywood Wolf, Harvey Weinstein.
But throughout its 92 year history, the Oscars have managed to stay afloat, even if they’re beginning to lose some steam. Even if the Academy includes more female voices and stories, even if some progress is actually made on the representation front, will that be enough to make the Oscars the shining stars they once were? Or are we moving, more and more, to a time where award shows will become relics of a celebrity-obsessed past? As social media becomes the place where stars are born, will award shows even matter in a couple years?
I’m not saying the Oscars will disappear, they’ll be around forever. I am saying they are static, refusing to acknowledge new voices and stories; like the silent stars who resisted the arrival of sound on film, the Academy is choosing to stick to what they’ve always known and liked. They are not interested in challenging the male-dominated perception of “good” and “bad” in cinema, they are choosing to preserve and reinforce it. The Academy needs to move, they need to embrace new topics so as to keep up with the times. Whether this will be enough to take them to the place they once held, only time will tell, but until they try it, they’ll remain a ship, slowly but steadily sinking into a sea of oblivion.