My friends and I walked out of the theater. We were floored. It was a visceral tour-de-force, and we could scarcely find the words for it. It was a cinematic achievement in many regards. Being Tarantino’s eighth film, we should have been prepared for such a pleasantly overwhelming experience. It was a film called The Hateful Eight, and despite all the debate we had about it, we all agreed on one thing:
“This is Samuel L. Jackson’s best performance. He’d better get an Oscar for this.”
And why shouldn’t he? In his first Tarantino film, Jackson received his only Oscar nomination: 1995’s Best Supporting Actor for Pulp Fiction (which he lost to Martin Landau for Ed Wood). Jackson’s performance in Pulp Fiction was full of power, as well as tender moments, and a notable character arc. But Jackson’s performance in Hateful Eight? Amazing, to say the least. He moves from a secondary role into the spotlight, he shows great range, he plays detective, and he gives what I might call the greatest film monologue I have ever seen. It begins with a feigned kind reminiscence before moving into a poisonous spite that will have you hooting in horrified laughter. (If you have seen Hateful Eight, you know which monologue I’m referring to. If you haven’t seen Hateful Eight, do yourself a favor and watch it.)
Then, about a week later, several days before the Academy was to announce the nominations for the Oscars, we went to see Creed. In many ways, Creed paralleled Star Wars: The Force Awakens by revisiting a franchise with a long and respected history, bringing back aged characters, alongside a new, black protagonist, and despite the fact that this film feels vastly similar to the first in the franchise, new characters and new actors give great performances to make it feel fresh.
From start to end, Creed was a well-shot and well-acted film that was both entertaining and meaningful. It works as both a personal drama and a great sports movie. In it, Michael B. Jordan shows us great range; he’s glad, he’s frustrated, he’s sad, he’s rabid, and he’s powerful. It’s an impressive showing for this young actor. In addition to this, there’s Sylvester Stallone reprising his role of Rocky Balboa, now a retired boxer who owns a restaurant and stays away from the sport which killed his friend, Apollo Creed. Stallone shows range as well, presenting us with an older Rocky, sadly reminiscent and dealing with the struggles of growing old. Young director Ryan Coogler has made an outstanding film, rife with great cinematography and artistic vision. It’s no wonder that after this film, Coogler, a black man, has been selected to direct another iconic black chracter, Black Panther (which we’ll sadly have to wait until 2018 to see).
“Surely, there will be nominations for Creed as best picture (maybe), Ryan Coogler for best director (likely), and Jordan for Best Actor, maybe even Best Supporting Actor for Stallone (probably).”
How wrong we were, both times. Between the two films, Jennifer Jason Leigh in The Hateful Eight was nominated for best supporting actress and Stallone was nominated for best supporting actor. For a full list of nominations, click here.
And of course, there is the overarching cultural plot which has been rather pertinent since the 2014 Oscars, and arguably since 1993; Leonardo DiCaprio and the hunt for the Oscar. Wolf of Wall Street showcased DiCaprio with a great deal of shouting and money throwing.
With Wolf of Wall Street, most people thought Leo was sure to win. His other contenders had given impressive performances, to be sure, going up against Christian Bale in American Hustle, Bruce Dern in Nebraska, and Chiwetel Ejiofor of 12 Years a Slave, but they all lost to Matthew McConaghey for his performance in Dallas Buyers Club.
This wasn’t DiCaprio’s first or last nomination, also being nominated for Blood Diamond in 2007 and The Aviator in 2005. But the one that lives on in Hollywood legend is his Best Supporting Actor nomination for his first film, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. In this film, DiCaprio gave a touching performance as a developmentally disabled child. The story goes that most of the Academy voters did not vote for him because they mostly believed that he was actually developmentally disabled, then knowing him only from the performance they had just seen.
Jump to the present day, DiCaprio still hasn’t won the Oscar. In recent years he’s had some notable performances. Inception showcased some of his moodier moments, whereas Django Unchained showed both his mild manners and his explosive outburst (and, in what makes for great film trivia, his blood). He’s also presented good performances in movies which were not so spectacular: the critical consensus for both The Great Gatsby and J. Edgar agree that although the films are not that impressive, he plays both the titular roles well. What you get with DiCaprio is, almost consistently, a good performance. But, as far as the Academy Awards, he has nothing to show for it yet. DiCaprio and his quest for the Oscar have become somewhat of a cultural joke these past few years.
This brings us to The Revenant. Arguably, one could call it “Oscar Bait,” a film made with only the intention to win an award. (I truly hope that DiCaprio did The Revenant because he liked the idea of it, rather than just to get an Oscar, but we might never know.) His most recent film has won him a Golden Globe award, which indicates favorable chances when it comes to the Oscars. But then Best Actor also has other heavy-hitting nominees, such as Michael Fassbender as Steve Jobs, Matt Damon in The Martian, Bryan Cranston for Trumbo, and Eddie Redmayne going for a second in a row with The Danish Girl.
These nominations have caused quite a stir; all five of them are white. It doesn’t just stop at Best Actor; Best Supporting Actor, Best Actress, and Best Supporting Actress are all white. The closest thing these categories get to diversity is Eddie Redmayne playing a woman. No nomination for Jackson, nor for Jordan. No nomination for Straight Outta Compton or Beasts of No Nation. This year, black actors brought their A-game, only to be snubbed by the Academy. All the worse, the same issue came up last year, despite great films starring black actors, like Selma. Both times, this sparked the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite.
The Academy Awards, and awards in general, were made to recognize and encourage excellence in the field. One film, actor, actress, director, etc., gets recognized over all the others selected, but that’s the point of nominating more than one.
That’s what it should be. That’s not always the case. It’s often said that the Oscars are more of a lifetime achievement than a recognition of a single performance. Check out Cracked.com’s “Reasons The Oscars Matter Even Less Than You Thought” which highlights what they call “The Circle of Ineptitude.” To explain, in 1974 they awarded an Oscar to Art Carney for what many expected to be his last performance; most people speculated that this Oscar should have gone to Al Pacino for his stellar performance in The Godfather Part II. Years later, in 1992, Pacino finally won an Oscar, but edged out the more-deserving Denzel Washington for his performance as Malcolm X. Washington has since received his Oscar, but for a performance that is described as a little forgettable. The way that Cracked puts it:
But your prime isn’t necessarily a good place to be in the eyes of the Academy. No matter what it says on the statue, most Oscars are at least partially lifetime achievement awards that factor in things like how “due” you are, and how likely you are to die before ever getting nominated again.
Of course, anyone who’s gambled on little league baseball or participated in a record breaking gang bang can tell you, trying to give everyone a turn only penalizes the people with talent.
This raises the important question: Who gives a shit? Why should we feel sorry for Al Pacino? The problem is that as little as they should matter, the actors, writers and directors who make our movies live and die with each Academy decision. It’s why Pacino has shouted every line of dialog since 1992 in an inexplicable Cajun accent.
I worry that the Circle of Ineptitude will strike again this year. DiCaprio might just win because he’s “due,” despite other powerful and nuanced performances.
Is the Circle of Ineptitude what might happen this year? Is DiCaprio more deserving than Jackson and Jordan? It’s hard to say. Is the Academy willfully ignoring racial minorities, or are the all-white nominations accidental? There’s no way to be certain. The idea that these two issues are culminating by rewarding the wrong people and ignoring some of the right people is truly horrifying. At best, the Academy isn’t acknowledging good performances by actors who are people of color. At worst, they are trying to discourage artists who are not white.
After all this, Mad Max: Fury Road better win Best Picture. (But I know it won’t.)