By Glenn Lovell
Hollywood largesse extends only so far.
As expected, Oscar, still smarting from last year’s #OscarsSoWhite backlash, managed to have it both ways: This year’s slate of nominees, announced Tuesday at dawn, both pay tribute to the Dream Factory and recognize a record number of African Americans.
Even so, there are oversights, such as Nate Parker’s wrongly maligned “The Birth of a Nation.”
To no one’s surprise Damien Chazelle’s heavily stylized backlot musical “La La Land” racked up 14 nods, including those for stars Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, tying it for most nominations ever with “All About Eve” and “Titanic,” and movies made by and about people of color dominated several of the top categories, including best picture, supporting actress and best documentary feature (three of the five nominees are about racial injustice in America).
Accused of being caught in a segregationist time-warp last year when it overlooked “Selma,” “Creed,” “Straight Outta Compton,” and other strong dramas about being black in America, the Academy made amends by changing bylaws and addressing the racial disparity in its membership (predominantly white, male, over 50). The soul-searching appears to have paid off. As for why Netflix’s superb “Beasts of No Nation,” about the conscripting of child soldiers in West Africa, didn’t make last year’s cut, that has more to do with Hollywood’s reluctance to welcome online studios into the fold.
Barry Jenkins very personal “Moonlight,” a critics favorite about growing up black and gay in the Miami projects, received eight nominations, including those for best picture, best director and adapted screenplay (Jenkins), best supporting actor (Mahershala Ali) and best supporting actress (Naomie Harris).
“Fences,” based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by the late August Wilson, received four nods – for best picture, best adapted screenplay, best actor (Denzel Washington), and best supporting actress (Viola Davis). “Hidden Figures,” about women of color struggling for recognition in a segregated NASA, received three nominations – best picture, best adapted screenplay and best supporting actress (Octavia Spencer).
Kenneth Lonergan’s “Manchester by the Sea,” a grim homecoming drama thought to be the frontrunner in the original screenplay and best actor (Casey Affleck) categories, received nominations for best picture, actor, supporting actress (Michelle Williams), and supporting actor (Lucas Hedges). And Australia’s “Lion,” the year’s feel-good attraction about a lost Indian boy who, years later, finds his way home, received six nominations, including those for best picture, supporting actor (Dev Patel) and supporting actress (Nicole Kidman).
But what would Oscar be without a few surprises and egregious oversights? Among those that stand out:
√ Denzel Washington’s deserved spot in the director category went to, of all people, Mel Gibson, whose hypocritical, graphically violent World War 2 epic “Hacksaw Ridge” received six nominations, including those for best picture and best actor (Andrew Garfield). Academy members, as we feared, downplayed Washington’s contribution behind the camera because, in their minds, “Fences,” as good as it is, remains essentially a “filmed stage play.”
√ Though the brainy, first-contact sci-fi’er “Arrival” earned eight nominations, including one for best picture, Amy Adams, unarguably the beating heart of the picture, was thought to be a shoo-in for a best-actress nod. Her spot went to Ruth Negga (“Loving”) … or did it go to perennial nominee Meryl Streep (20th nod for the sentimental “Florence Foster Jenkins,” about a tone-deaf New York philanthropist who fancies herself an opera singer)?
√ The Texas-set modern-day Western “Hell or High Water” surprised prognosticators; it wrangled its way into the best picture, original screenplay, supporting actor (Jeff Bridges), and editing categories — and could very well play spoiler.
√ Michael Shannon, fast making a name for himself as one of Hollywood’s most reliable character actors, was superb last year as the father who sacrifices everything in “Midnight Special,” but the Academy nominated him for a less satisfying performance, as the dying Texas detective in the turgid “Nocturnal Animals.”
√ “Silence,” Martin Scorsese’s epic labor of love about Jesuit missionaries in feudal Japan, went all but overlooked by the Academy, which only nominated it in the cinematography category.
√ Nate Parker’s ambitious Nat Turner biopic, “The Birth of a Nation,” fared even worse, leaving many to surmise that the media’s anti-Parker campaign (tied to a almost two decades old charge for which Parker was cleared) took its toll.
The 89th Academy Awards ceremony will take place at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood on Sunday, Feb. 26. Jimmy Kimmel will host.