by / January 20th, 2015 /

Oscar Nominations and the Absurdity of Equality

Unlike the Golden Globes which is seen by many to be a bit of a laugh, just a night for famous people to mingle and get drunk and pat each other on the back, the Academy Awards is Hollywood’s attempt for the world to take them seriously. Also, unlike the Golden Globes, the Academy Awards is stuck within a certain type of mentality. Some of the best films and performances of the year get passed over, while safe subjects and topics get Oscar nominations hurled in their direction. For those not entirely in the know, here’s a brief catch-up:

Best Actor – Carrell, Cooper, Cumberbatch, Keaton, Redmayne. All white.

Best Actress – Cotillard, Jones, Moore, Pike, Witherspoon. All white.

Best Supporting Actor – Duvall, Hawke, Norton, Ruffalo, Simmons. All white.

Best Supporting Actress – Arquette, Dern, Knightley, Stone, Streep. All white.

Best Director – Anderson, Inarritu, Linklater, Miller, Tyldum. All male.

Best Original Screenplay – All male.

Best Adapted Screenplay – All male.

Best Cinematography – All male.

It’s difficult to know what to get more upset about, the sexism or the racism. And if you’re a woman of colour? Forget about it! Which is why there was such a backlash to Selma director Ava DuVarney not receiving a nomination, as she gave the Academy a chance to rectify the fact that since the first ceremony in 1929, not a single black woman has received a nomination for Best Director. Which leads us on to the crux of the argument; just because the Academy could nominate DuVarney, does that mean they should?

To narrow down the scope a little, the Academy has never given a Best Cinematography nomination to a woman. Ever. A little investigating will show that for as long as the cinematic medium has been around, there have been female directors. Alice Guy-Blache released her first film The Cabbage Fairy in 1896, making her one of the first ever directors of fiction film, but it took until 1976 for a woman to be nominated for Best Director, when Lina Wertmuller received the nom for her film Seven Beauties. It was over another three decades before a woman actually won the award, when in 2010, Kathryn Bigelow beat the likes of James Cameron and Quentin Tarantino for her work on The Hurt Locker.

Comparatively, female cinematographers are a relatively new addition to the cinematic landscape, as Brianne Murphy is known as the first female director of photography for a major studio film, lensing Fatso in 1980. While only allowed to play relatively late in the game, female DoPs have picked up considerable steam since then, with the likes of Maryse Alberti (Taxi To The Dark Side, The Wrestler), Ellen Kuras (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) and Mandy Walker (Shattered Glass, Tracks). Anyone thinking that things might be on track to get better should know that since Bigelow’s win five years ago, there hasn’t been a Best Director nomination given to another female.

Elsewhere, after Sidney Poitier won Best Actor in 1963, it was nearly 40 years before another African-American man won the award, when Denzel Washington won in 2001 for Training Day, the same year as Halle Berry for Monster’s Ball, becoming the first black actress to win Best Actress. Since then two more black actors have won the award, but no black actresses. In the entire history of Best Director, there’s only been three black males nominated, with two of those three in the last five years, but zero wins. To date, just a single nomination for Best Cinematography has been awarded to an African-American, and that was back in 1998.

It’s not just African-Americans that are being slighted, though; for example, a quick look through the history of Asian nominations and winners is even more disheartening. Six nominations for Best Director but three of those are for Ang Lee, three nominations for Best Actor but two of those were for Ben Kingsley, only one Best Actress nomination (which was back in 1935!)… the lack of equality goes on and on.

So is there a gender and racial bias within the Academy? For that, all you need to do is look at the Academy members, and we discover that they are 94% white, 74% male, with an average age of 62. While that’s not enough to entirely base an argument on, it doesn’t bode well for anyone not within their own descriptors, and under the rule of these members, which would be considered more damaging; no win at all for the ‘minorities’, or a win through what may be perceived as nothing more than tokenism?

Back in 2006, racial drama Crash won Best Picture over Brokeback Mountain, which to this day is viewed up there with Marisa Tomei’s win as one of the biggest Oscar mistakes. Was it pandering to an audience that were now clued into the Academy’s inherent small-minded ways by letting ‘the black film’ win over ‘the gay film’? Can the Academy only deal with one ‘minority’ at a time, and the 00’s were all about race for them? Openly gay Oscar winners are few and far between – Jodie Foster came out (kind of) after the fact, John Gielgud for Arthur in 1981, a handful of Best Original Song winners (including Elton John)… but for the most part, straight actors playing gay roles might get you an Oscar, but actually being openly gay would appear to damage your chances. They might ask you to host the show, but that’d be about it.

All the evidence piles up, but is it all as bad as it seems within the Academy? Probably not, but unfortunately the problem goes much deeper than we thought. Did DuVarney’s work on Selma deserve to take the place of the work on this year’s other nominees? Probably not. The female cinematographer for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind lost a nomination slot to the male cinematographers who worked on The Aviator, A Very Long Engagement, Phantom of the Opera, The Passion of the Christ and House of Flying Daggers. Could you claim that her work was unfairly snubbed when compared to her competitors? Probably not.

What can be successfully claimed are the facts about women being a minority in the field. In the last five years, women accounted for just 3% of the cinematographers among the 250 top-grossing films. That same work-force consisted of the following – Visual effects positions were 17.5% female, music 16%, editors 13%, writers 10% and directors 5%. Late last year there was a celebration around the fact that Warner Brothers were allowing a female director to take the reins on a comic book movie. With all this, it’s a wonder the Academy doesn’t try to fit a few men into the Best Actress category.

The problem isn’t with the lack of nominations for women, for African-Americans, for Asians, for the alternative sexualities, for everyone deemed by the Academy to be a ‘minority’. The fact that they have managed to get any Academy attention at all considering how few positions there are available to them is testament to their work, and a testament to where the problem truly lies. There’s no point in asking for equality at the finish line when the inequality stems from the starter’s pistol, and Hollywood can’t expect us to take the Academy Awards seriously until they seriously look at how Hollywood is run almost solely by old white men.