Breaking Down the Oscar Nominations: What the Hell Happened to ‘Selma’?

Tommaso Boddi/WireImage

Some Academy Award nomination mornings are defined by what you hear, some by what you don’t. The big story of today’s announcement is the number of times that the name Selma was not spoken. We did not hear Ava DuVernay’s name called for Best Director. We did not hear David Oyelowo’s name called for Best Actor. We did not hear Selma announced for Best Original Screenplay, and an otherwise interesting and idiosyncratic list of choices for Best Cinematography did not include the protean (and African American) Bradford Young, who did brilliant work on both Selma and A Most Violent Year. We did hear Selma twice — for Best Song and, finally, for Best Picture. The relief at that moment was palpable. So was the frustration.

When a predominantly white, predominantly old, predominantly male voting body seems to turn its back on a movie — one made by a woman of color about black people as agents of American history that has raised the hackles of a number of splenetic older white men with powerful platforms — it is not unreasonable to ask questions about whether a particular kind of soft racism is in play. I think it would be a big mistake to dismiss that out of hand, just as it would be a mistake to say that gender had absolutely nothing to do with the almost-all-male directors’ branch omitting DuVernay, who is in no way a member of their club. If you don’t believe that more often than not, people tend to vote for people who look like them, consider that, as I write this, 20 white actors and actresses are wondering whether it’s too early in the day for a little champagne.

Is that what happened to Selma? No, not entirely. Race was a factor; it wasn’t the factor. This is the same Academy — well, no, it’s actually a much more racially diverse Academy now — that, in 1968, postponed its ceremony because of the assassination of Dr. King. Three years later, it nominated the fine documentary King: A Filmed Record … Montgomery to Memphis, and voted James Earl Jones into the Best Actor contest, the first time an African American man had ever been in the running.1 Since then, black performers have been nominated for acting Oscars 56 times. In 1992, John Singleton became the youngest man ever and first African American nominated for Best Director. The second nomination for a black director came five years ago, for Lee Daniels; the third was just last year, for Steve McQueen, whose movie 12 Years a Slave, of course, won Best Picture.

I bring all this up not to justify or rationalize what certainly looks on paper like a weird combination of respect for and indifference to Selma. There are plenty of blights on Oscar’s track record with African American themes, subjects, and talent in the post-King years, and what happened today is a big one — it’s up there with the omission of Spike Lee from the directing race for Do the Right Thing in 1989 and the documentary branch’s shrug-off of Hoop Dreams in 1994. But the Academy didn’t suddenly turn more racist between the time McQueen was jumping for joy onstage 11 months ago and this morning, so let’s look at some other factors.

The reason Selma didn’t perform better today — or, rather, the reason the Academy didn’t do better by Selma today — has a great deal to do with some infuriatingly mundane issues: release timing and campaign strategy. As I hope a lot of companies are realizing this morning, it is just about always a mistake to release a serious Oscar movie in the second half of December. Yes, American Sniper did very well today, with half a dozen nominations to take into its first weekend of national release. But it’s the only one of the eight Best Picture choices this year to open after December 1 besides Selma. The boulevard of broken dreams outside Academy HQ today is littered with the remnants of Into the Woods (three nominations), Unbroken (three minor nominations), A Most Violent Year (the National Board of Review Best Picture winner was completely shut out), and Big Eyes (shut out, despite a hearty Weinsteinian effort for Amy Adams). For the Oscars, most of the time, late-December releases just don’t work. The Selma campaign, faced with a movie that was not going to be ready until the last minute, made a set of decisions that were, I think, catastrophic. Chief among them, it opted to shrug off most of the guild awards and not send DVDs to their memberships (it wasn’t eligible for the WGA), missing many opportunities to build enthusiasm in the rank-and-file.

And then came the controversy over the film’s accuracy, which began with a blistering op-ed in the Washington Post by former LBJ aide Joseph A. Califano Jr. that actually implored people not to see the movie or give it awards. I found that contemptible, and I also found the accusations hugely overblown and the characterization of how the movie uses LBJ disingenuous (more on that next week). But to be blunt, I think Paramount was caught flat-footed by the charges and never quite recovered. When a potentially controversial movie courting Oscar voters is set to open, there’s usually a war room: You anticipate everything that critics, ax-grinders, or negative campaigners might throw at you, and you get your ducks in a row. The team behind Selma should have had historians lined up to defend its take on the period; it should have had artists ready to talk persuasively about what dramatizing history as opposed to recounting it means; it should have had a specific explanation at the ready for why DuVernay chose to depict Johnson the way she did. It didn’t have that, and, worse still, it didn’t have time. Movies can combat controversy, but more often, they simply outlive it — a film plays week after week, the discussion broadens, arguments fracture into sub-arguments, and with every ticket sold, the movie gets to speak for itself more loudly and clearly. Selma never gave itself that chance — straight through the nomination period, the story of the movie was the story of the controversy. Had it opened six weeks before it did, I think we might well be looking at six nominations today instead of two.

All that said, we’re still left with the fact that the “political problems” of Selma got a kind of traction in the media — and, I believe, with many Academy voters — that the at-least-as-serious issues of American Sniper and The Imitation Game did not. That is an indicting embarrassment — and not of Selma. And it is also, for now, spilt milk. On the bright side, Selma had a strong first weekend of national release, and will be able to go into Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend tomorrow boasting a Best Picture nomination and, in some ways, status as the must-see movie of this Oscar race. That’s not nothing — and its paucity of nominations is, by the way, not unprecedented (just a couple of years ago, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close landed in the Best Picture race with just two nominations).

It’s also not this morning’s only Oscar story. Since I spent the last week making guesses, let’s see where I went right and wrong, and why. I went 36-for-43 overall, and I will take one second to pat myself on the back for correctly calling the fact that there would be eight Best Picture nominees this year, and for going 8-for-8 about what they’d be. The film I thought would just miss, Foxcatcher, did, I think, just miss — it grabbed five nominations but not Best Picture. One of the nominations it did get, Best Director for Bennett Miller, was one of the biggest (and, to me, most welcome) surprises in the top categories. Miller got the slot that I predicted would go to DuVernay. Among his competitors: Wes Anderson, who finally got his first Best Director nod and saw his movie The Grand Budapest Hotel tie Birdman to lead all films today with nine nominations. Miller got the slot that I predicted would go to DuVernay and made history by becoming the first director since the Best Picture category was expanded to score a spot for a film that was not also nominated for Best Picture. On the other hand, American Sniper’s Clint Eastwood failed to make history — at 84, he would have been the oldest Best Director nominee ever — but he’s not complaining: As one of the movie’s producers, he received his 11th career nomination. (And congratulations to Oprah Winfrey, whose producing credit on Selma allowed her to score her second Oscar nomination just 29 years after her first.)

While Birdman’s Michael Keaton cruised to his first Best Actor nomination, as did Benedict Cumberbatch for The Imitation Game (one of eight noms for the film) and Eddie Redmayne for The Theory of Everything (which got five), I missed the other two: Sniper’s Bradley Cooper, in a bit of a surprise, knocked out Selma’s David Oyelowo to get his third acting nomination in three years — he’s the first man to do that since Russell Crowe 13 years ago. And Foxcatcher’s Steve Carell got the slot I thought might go to Nightcrawler’s Jake Gyllenhaal. Speaking of which, one big question going into today’s event was, just how many dark movies could Academy voters accommodate? The answer was two. They showed plenty of love for Foxcatcher, which also picked up Supporting Actor (Mark Ruffalo), Original Screenplay, and Makeup/Hairstyling, and for Whiplash, which capped a yearlong run for the gold that began last January at Sundance with five nods, including one for Best Picture. I and many other pundits thought that Nightcrawler, which had performed excellently with the guilds, was surging, but it had to content itself with a single nomination, for Dan Gilroy’s sharp screenplay.

For Best Actress, the spot I thought would go to Jennifer Aniston for Cake went instead to Marion Cotillard for her performance in Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne’s Two Days, One Night, a deeply heartening choice since the foreign-language film was a late-December release and its star was all but unavailable to campaign; sometimes, hallelujah, the work is enough. I went 5-for-5 in Best Supporting Actor, including The Judge’s Robert Duvall (it’s his seventh, and he’s now the oldest man ever nominated for acting). In Best Supporting Actress, the nomination I thought would go to A Most Violent Year’s Jessica Chastain went instead to Wild’s Laura Dern (it’s her second; her first came 23 years ago, for Rambling Rose). A Most Violent Year opened December 31, the very last day of eligibility. Did I mention what a bad idea that is?

The five Best Original Screenplay choices were exactly the ones I guessed, and this is one category in which Selma’s omission is somewhat more explicable, since a dispute over who actually wrote it went public. In Adapted Screenplay, Nick Hornby’s script for Wild and, much more surprisingly, Gillian Flynn’s script for Gone Girl were left out — David Fincher’s movie, which was expected to do better, won just a single nomination, for Rosamund Pike. In their places were Paul Thomas Anderson for Inherent Vice and Jason Hall for American Sniper. All nominees should have at least one day when nobody trash-talks their work, so, uh, congratulations to, you know, the script for American — eh. I can’t. Anyway, let’s move on.

A few surprises in other categories:

  • A hugely deserved and unanticipated nomination for Ida’s black-and-white cinematography (the film also scored an equally hugely deserved, wholly anticipated nomination for Best Foreign Language Film).
  • The unexpected omission of The Lego Movie from Best Animated Feature. Folks, this branch has problems. Real problems. Taste problems and maybe even some issues of clubbiness, insularity, and favorite-playing. No excuses for this one; further examination is warranted, and we’re probably at the point at which these nominations would look a lot better if they weren’t picked solely by animators.
  • The omission of Life Itself from Best Documentary Feature would, I hope, have amused Roger Ebert as much as it will appall everyone who knew Roger Ebert. It is a good reminder of a couple of things, namely that one should never take the Oscars too seriously or expect them to be nice to a movie critic, even in death.

Is there any major movie I haven’t mentioned in this wrap-up? Oh, right, Boyhood. Remember Boyhood? Richard Linklater’s movie didn’t make any news today: It picked up exactly the six nominations it was hoping for — including Best Picture. And it marches on, slow and steady, eyes on the finish line.

Filed Under: Movies, Academy Awards, Oscars, Oscar Nominations, 2014 Awards Season, selma, the grand budapest hotel, Theory of Everything, The Imitation Game, Mr. Turner, Interstellar, Steve Carell, Bradley Cooper, Benedict Cumberbatch, michael keaton, eddie redmayne, patricia arquette, Laura Dern, Meryl Streep, Emma Stone, Robert Duvall, Ethan Hawke, edward norton, Mark Ruffalo, j.k. simmons, Paul Thomas anderson, Inherent Vice, Whiplash, Damien Chazelle, Marion Cotillard, Felicity Jones, Julianne Moore, Rosamund Pike, Reese Witherspoon, american sniper, birdman, boyhood, foxcatcher, best picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Ava DuVernay, Keira Knightley, richard linklater