Meet the new Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences: a house divided against itself, yet somehow still standing. The 2019 version of the Academy is not America; it’s actually whiter, older, and more male, although strides have been made in all three of those areas. But the ways in which it balances competing appetites for revolution, retreat, incrementalism, and compromise among its different voting constituencies are very now, very us.
We don’t yet know what this year’s race will look like—what the controversies will be, or what ideological fault lines this fall’s movies will reveal. But we do know that the Academy, and Hollywood, are both in a state of existential anxiety. The Academy is expanding; the industry is contracting.
This year, one mega studio, Disney, devoured 20th Century Fox and released a slate of movies that were responsible for over 35% of all ticket sales—and included not a single film that seemed interested in being a best-picture nominee rather than a brand extension. (Yes, there will be a size-matters push for Avengers: Endgame —but it wasn’t a changemaker the way Black Panther was , and we’re not yet at the stage where the contest includes an automatic “Marvel slot.”) The company with the largest slate of best-picture candidates, Netflix, has been the target of ire from traditionalists about whether streamable movies are movies. (Verdict: They are, but don’t look for them in the country’s two largest theater chains, which are still refusing to play them.) And business for indies—the film category that supplies the lion’s share of best-picture nominees now that the studios have largely given up the game—is down 45% year-over-year.
In other words: The sky is falling, and doing so at precisely the moment the Academy finally got conscientious enough about its historically imbalanced membership to institute reforms that have started to make a difference. What happens now?
Immense trepidatious uncertainty is, of course, a good place to begin any Oscar race. The three early-fall festivals that serve as the season’s unofficial start (Venice, Telluride, and Toronto) generated good buzz for a handful of movies— Noah Baumbach ’s Marriage Story , with Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson, was probably the most praised. But no film has been anointed the front-runner, as Green Book ( accurately ) and La La Land ( memorably not ) both were early on . On paper, at least, one outcome that looks possible is a retreat. Last year, two films dominated by women, Roma and The Favourite, led the nominations .
By contrast, 2019 could reprise a more familiar Academy dynamic, in which actors get nominated for playing Judy Garland and Harriet Tubman while their movies are elbowed aside in other categories by alpha-guy epics like Martin Scorsese ’s The Irishman; James Mangold ’s Christian Bale – Matt Damon vehicle, Ford v Ferrari ; Sam Mendes ’s World War I drama, 1917; and Todd Phillips ’s Joker, which is likely to be flypaper for the season’s most contentious movie discourse . Even the surprise festival breakout, the Catholic Church drama The Two Popes, is… a buddy movie ? A bromance? Green Book, but without even a wife waiting at home?
Collectively, then, the 2019 slate is not what you’d call rich with a variety of roles for women. It actually brings to mind a Tina Fey joke about a meeting with Martin Scorsese: “This is my chance to be kicked to death in a movie!” Even the biggest Oscar contender to open so far, Quentin Tarantino ’s Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, is in many ways a love story between an aging cowboy ( Leonardo DiCaprio ) and his faithful wingman ( Brad Pitt ). A victory for Tarantino would not be a shock, since it would tick the “He’s due” box and also continue a long tradition of Academy voters choosing to look inward (see: Argo, The Artist ) when outward is just too upsetting.
Advertisement This is far from the only possible Oscar narrative, of course. It could easily be upended by Greta Gerwig ’s Little Women, Lorene Scafaria ’s Hustlers , Lulu Wang ’s foreign-language breakout The Farewell, or surges for the Cannes prizewinners Parasite , from Bong Joon-ho, or Pain and Glory, from Pedro Almodóvar . (The Academy’s directors branch nominated Pawel Pawlikowski over Bradley Cooper and Peter Farrelly last winter. For the ever-more-international membership, “surprises” like that represent the shape of things to come). And if things get really ugly, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood could make an aggressive (or maybe regressive—I haven’t seen it) case for itself as an almost defiantly offensive-to-nobody compromise choice . Who doesn’t love Mister Rogers?
Well…somebody. These days, every Oscar contender comes packaged with its own backlash kit. You think a movie about two popes is going to skate through? Good luck with that—there is no such thing as an issue-free candidate. For Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, it’s foot fetishism and violence; for Marriage Story, it’s privileged people’s problems and Johansson’s uncanny ability to say things that inflame Twitter ; for Cats, it is the trailer for Cats . But backlash can’t kill a movie that resonates with Academy voters. As Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and Green Book both proved, the argument that a movie is insufficiently woke is no match for “I liked it anyway.”
What makes this moment interesting is how quickly the precepts that have long been used to make predictions are crumbling. The Academy is sentimental? Then why did Glenn Close, a seven-time nominee who’s been owed for 30 years and made a viral Golden Globes acceptance speech , lose to Olivia Colman ? The Academy is too white not to give best picture to La La Land over Moonlight ? Ask Faye Dunaway how that one went down. The Academy would never give best picture to a foreign-language, black-and-white Netflix film? Okay, true so far, but the important point about Roma is how close it came—10 nominations and three Oscar wins, including one for best director.
When it comes to Oscar predictions in 2019, most of us don’t know what we’re talking about. I mean that literally, not sneeringly. Prognosticators have long referred to “the Academy” as a large beast that, ultimately, behaves with somewhat monolithic predictability. But that beast has morphed so quickly that we can’t pretend we know who “it” is or what “it” likes or even that it is an “it” anymore. Approximately 35% of voters joined in the last four years. Of the 33 invitees to the directing branch this year, exactly three are white American men. And of the 56 acting branch invitees? Again, three white American men. What was, for decades, the Academy’s dominant demo is now much closer to becoming one niche among many.
We don’t yet know the difference that such a drastic overhaul will make. But it’s absurd to pretend that it will make no difference at all, that “the town” and its well-practiced industry ways—the screenings, the parties, the meet and greets, the carefully engineered career-achievement awards at film festivals—will decide everything just the way it used to. “The town” is a lot closer to being the world, and the votership is now a mix of people who guard the palace gate and those who were long stuck on the other side of it. The membership shares a profession but not an aesthetic—so the awards are, or should be, an exciting mess, subject to inconsistency, revolt, and upheaval. Of course, the Academy’s old guard is still strong—and like most old guards, can dig in its heels and get weird when it feels threatened, which is pretty much always. It doesn’t have a favorite yet this year, but don’t count anything out. Even after that trailer, Cats still has eight lives left.