Welcome to Nomineering, where we take a weekly look at the news and stories behind the most lavish, high-budget spectacle the film industry has to offer: Oscar season. No matter how you feel about them, awards are one of the key ways to gut check what Hollywood itself thinks is important, with winning films often opening doors and setting the agenda for which kind of movies will be made in the coming years — and which ones won’t. From the surprise nominations that foretell an upset, to the last minute surges that see the most unlikely of films, um, crash into a Best Picture win, Nomineering tells the story from the beginning of the year all the way until the ceremony itself. This week we look at the ongoing reaction to the Academy’s representation problem, and how it tackled a similar situation in its not-too-distant past.
Over the past week the furor over the 88th Academy Awards' diversity-free nominations has only grown louder, with some of Hollywood’s highest-profile personalities taking the awards show to task. First Spike Lee condemned the nominations, and announced he wouldn’t attend; Jada Pinkett Smith followed suit soon thereafter. Will Smith — snubbed for his performance in Concussion — confirmed that he’s out as well, and George Clooney has even thrown in his two cents, decrying not just the lack of representation in Oscar nominations, but in the industry at large.
It's telling that Clooney may have been the last straw, but when the man synonymous with the kind of tuxedo panache the Academy loves to drape itself in speaks out, they clearly have a real problem on their hands. On Monday president Cheryl Boone Isaacs issued a statement recognizing the outrage. Stating that the Academy would be taking "dramatic steps" to address the problem by taking a close look at membership recruitment, she also noted that the Academy has gone through similar growing pains in the past. In the press release itself it came off as a bit of hand-patting — reassurance that these sort of things happen all the time, so nobody should get too upset — but Hollywood has had to deal with this kind of situation before. You only need to look back around 45 years or so.
The Oscars have had to deal with this before
In the 1960s the legacy studio system that had dominated Hollywood since its early days began to lose steam as audience tastes and demographics changed. With high-profile box-office disasters mounting, the studios began to turn to young upstart filmmakers as a solution, often ceding authorial control to the filmmaker. This "New Hollywood," as it came to be known, kicked off with movies like Bonnie & Clyde and Easy Rider, and was made up of filmmakers with names like Coppola, Scorsese, DePalma, and Polanski.
Audiences responded, rebooting American filmgoing as a serious pastime, but whether due to age or lack of cultural awareness, the studio heads at the time simply didn’t understand what was happening. (Warner Bros. head Jack Warner somewhat famously hated Bonnie & Clyde when he first saw it, and gave the movie a penny-ante release only to see it swell into a phenomenon). The Academy saw things in very much the same way as those crusty entrenched powers, and the result was a series of Oscar nominations that are ludicrous when viewed through the lens of history. The Graduate earned Mike Nichols the Best Director award in 1968, while both it and Bonnie & Clyde lost Best Picture to In the Heat of the Night. A year later, Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey won only a single Academy Award — for visual effects — while not even receiving a nomination for Best Picture (Oliver! won Best Picture and Best Director that year).
The refrain from critics was shockingly familiar to the rhetoric we’ve heard over the past year: the Academy was too old and too out of touch to celebrate the best work out there. "The young lions insist that the ‘deadwood’ voters be cleaned out," reads one 1970 story from The Pittsburgh Press. "They charge that of the 3,000 plus Motion Picture Academy members at least a third are too old, or even senile, and too inactive in industry affairs to apply good judgement in choosing the best of the 25 or more categories."
Then-Academy president Gregory Peck took action, with a focus not just on adding new members to the Academy ranks — the main strategy Cheryl Boone Isaacs has talked about — but by actually weeding out older members that might be skewing the results. An Associated Press article from 1970 headlined "Stodgy Old Film Oscar To Undergo a Facelift" (take a moment and enjoy that one), describes how the Academy audited its ranks in May of that year (to be fair, the same year Midnight Cowboy won its Best Picture trophy) and reduced its membership from 3,172 to 2,802 members — with an additional 109 members prevented from voting for nominations altogether.
"At least a third are too old, or even senile, and too inactive in industry affairs to apply good judgement."
Two years later, The French Connection took home Best Picture and William Friedkin was named Best Director. The year after that, The Godfather. After that, The Sting won Best Picture, over a field of nominees that included The Exorcist, Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers, and American Graffiti. The ‘70s were certainly a watershed decade for American filmmaking, but it’s also a decade during which the taste of the Academy actually seemed to reflect some of the very best work being done.
With the Academy’s board set to meet and discuss the representation issues next week, many options are going to be on the table — one of which is reportedly going to be simply increasing the number of Best Picture and acting nominees. But that seems like a band-aid; a temporary fix used in the hope that statistical probability alone will magically result in a more representative group of nominees. Adding new, diverse members to the Academy is obviously key, but we’re still talking about an organization where each invitee receives a lifetime membership. There are decades of entrenched members in the Academy as a result, and while some categories could move faster than others it will take decades at that rate for the organization as a whole to reflect comprehensive change.
Forty-six years ago the Academy made a pivot, upending its membership. It’s a move that no doubt ruffled plenty of feathers, but it worked. Whether today’s Academy can turn things around the way it says it wants to comes down to two things: will, and the courage to exercise it.
Catch up with awards season news from the week:
Spike Lee announces he won’t be attending the Oscars
"We cannot support it." (Instagram)
A statement from Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs
"I am both heartbroken and frustrated about the lack of inclusion." (Twitter)
Will Smith says Oscar nominations don’t reflect diversity in the US
"It’s going in the wrong direction." (Good Morning America)
Academy mulls changes in membership and categories to halt diversity crisis
"In Hollywood, image is all-important, and board members at the January 26th meeting will work to fight the perception that the Academy is racist or elitist." (Variety)