Brow Beat

Oscar Is Starting to Look Beyond His Navel

This year’s nominations suggest the Academy isn’t so obsessed with movies about itself.

Photo illustration: An Oscar statuette watches Roma, one of the two movies that led Tuesday’s Oscar nominations.
Oscar watches Roma, one of the two movies that led Tuesday’s Oscar nominations. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Neflix, Getty Images, Getty Images Plus.

Is the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences less enamored of the entertainment industry than it used to be? That’s one possible takeaway from perhaps the two most surprising omissions in the 2019 Oscar nominations, which saw the snubbing of Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, the widely acclaimed documentary about Mr. Rogers, and the continued sidelining of A Star Is Born, the latest iteration of one of Hollywood’s favorite stories about itself. The Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga romance did walk away with eight nominations—the Academy evidently wants to take at least a few more looks at it—but with no recognition for its director (Cooper) or editor (Jay Cassidy), the pop-rock musical has definitively lost its status as the presumptive front-runner.

Until not so long ago—maybe even as recently as Monday—it was conventional wisdom that the Oscars would crown whichever film painted Academy voters in the best light. Long-noted and long-mocked, this tendency became impossible to ignore during the first half of the 2010s, when three movies about movies (The Artist, Argo, and Birdman) took home Best Picture in four years (in 2012, 2013, and 2015). The Oscar-winning docs of that era weren’t much different, with three movies about performers—2012’s Searching for Sugar Man, 2013’s 20 Feet From Stardom, and 2015’s Amy—taking home the trophy in their respective years.

But suddenly, it seems the pattern no longer holds. On Tuesday the director of 20 Feet From Stardom, Morgan Neville, woke to find that his blockbuster documentary about Mister Rogers—a movie that celebrates a television innovator who used the magic of his medium to nurture, unite, and heal—went from being the favorite in that category to sharing headlines about the most shocking “snubs” with Bradley Cooper. A Star Is Born might not have nice things to say about the fame business, but it arguably flatters the egos of Academy voters—all of whom “made it” enough at some point in their careers to be invited to help pick Hollywood’s top awards—by speciously portraying the entertainment industry as a fair, if ruthless, meritocracy. A Star Is Born’s obsessions with “selling out” and an ingenue’s meteoric rise doubtlessly inspired La La Land, another presumed shoo-in for Best Picture given its tributes to classic cinema and the “city of stars”—another navel-gazing film whose failure to win over the Academy sent genuine shockwaves.

What happened between 2015, the year of Birdman and Amy, and 2017, the year of La La Land’s stunning loss to Moonlight? Well, 2016 was the year the Academy announced it was overhauling membership so that the Oscars wouldn’t be #SoWhite, not to mention #SoMale and #SoElderly. A 2012 survey of the Academy revealed that it was 94 percent white, 77 percent male, and had a median age of 62. In contrast, the hundreds of new voters who have joined in the past few years make up almost 30 percent of its voting membership and are much more likely to be women, people of color, or both.

It doesn’t seem like a stretch to presume that many of these new inductees—some from various groups that have traditionally marginalized by the film industry—don’t view their industry through the same rose-colored glasses afforded to those who found success in earlier, more regressive eras. The #MeToo scandals of the past two years and the diversity of so many projects today, constituting a much more varied canon of “prestige” films, might also help counteract the industry nostalgia and self-mythologizing that A Star Is Born and Won’t You Be My Neighbor? producers banked on for their award chances.

Of course, even though Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is out of the running, there’s still some chance that A Star Is Born—or even, if Beelzebub has his day, Bohemian Rhapsodywill bring home the night’s biggest award. After all, even last year’s Best Picture winner, with its many homages to Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dance sequences and midcentury creature features, had its whiffs of Tinseltown nostalgia. But looking at Tuesday’s biggest surprises, it seems the Academy might think it really is time to let the old ways die.