Oscar Nominations: A New Landscape for 'La La Land,' #OscarsSoWhite and Mel Gibson

THR's awards columnist identifies the biggest headlines and offers his personal takeways, including his early read on what and who are the new frontrunners.
Courtesy of Dale Robinette/Lionsgate
'La La Land'

Trading in its traditional live announcement for a glossy pretaped promo, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences on Tuesday morning revealed its nominees for the 89th Oscars in 24 categories — and made more news than anyone possibly could fit in a headline.

In almost any other year, the main story would be that La La Land, Damien Chazelle's original musical about struggling Hollywood artists, tied the all-time record for most noms for a single film by landing 14, the same number bestowed upon 1950's All About Eve and 1997's Titanic, both of which went on to win best picture, for which La La Land now becomes the heavy favorite, as well. (The 32-year-old Chazelle, meanwhile, is poised to become the youngest best director winner in history.) But this year, on the heels of two consecutive nominations announcements during which — for reasons that have been highly debated — there were no acting nominees of color, the takeaway is this: #OscarsSoWhite is a thing of the past.

Three films about black life in America — Fences, Hidden Figures and Moonlight — are nominated for best picture. Seven people of color — Fences stars Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, Moonlight stars Mahershala Ali and Naomie Harris, Hidden Figures star Octavia Spencer, Loving star Ruth Negga and Lion star Dev Patel — are among the 20 acting nominees. (Davis, Harris and Spencer form the first trio of black performers ever nominated in the same category — best supporting actress — in the same year.) And three of the five nominees for best documentary feature — 13th, I Am Not Your Negro and yes, the 7.5-hour O.J. Made in America, which some argued was more of a TV miniseries than a film — center on the subject of race in America; and they, as well as a fourth nominee in the category, Life, Animated, were directed by people of color (Ava DuVernay, Raoul Peck, Ezra Edelman and Roger Ross Williams, respectively).

The Academy may claim that this is the result of it flooding its organization with an unprecedented number of diverse new members this year, but I maintain that these nominees, up against the same competition, would have been nominated in either of the last two years, as well — but good luck trying to make that case to #OscarsSoWhite hashtag-entrepreneuer April Reign.

In other major news, Mel Gibson, who won the best director Oscar 21 years ago, but then spent years in Hollywood's doghouse after he was recorded making anti-Semitic and misogynistic comments while inebriated, has been welcomed back to the party with a best director nom for his film Hacksaw Ridge, which also was nominated for best picture. Few, including me, would have imagined that this was even possible just a few short years ago, when Gibson was, to say the least, persona non grata around town. At the Oscars ceremony Feb. 26, Gibson won't win — but simply by being invited, he has won.

Apart from La La Land, Hacksaw, Moonlight, Hidden Figures and Fences, the other best picture nominees — the Academy picked nine, though it could have wound up with anywhere from five to 10, based on its quirky preferential balloting system — are Arrival, Hell or High Water, Lion and Manchester by the Sea, which becomes the first film distributed or co-distributed by a streaming service (in this case, Amazon) to land a mention in the top category. The most glaring omission may be Deadpool, an atypical comic book adaptation turned critically acclaimed blockbuster, which had received substantial recognition from major Hollywood guilds, prompting speculation that it could become the first comic book adaptation to crack the best picture Oscar "glass ceiling." Seven years ago, when the Academy lifted the cap of five nominees for the best picture following a controversial best pic snub of The Dark Knight, it was with the hope that doing so might bring into the fold a film like Deadpool, but, alas, that has yet to happen.

The most glaring acting omission unquestionably was that of Arrival's Amy Adams from the best actress field — she had received SAG, Globes, BAFTA and Critics' Choice noms — passed over for not only frontrunners Emma Stone (La La Land) and Natalie Portman (Jackie), but also Negga, who had been regarded as a longshot for her understated work in Loving; Isabelle Huppert, the revered veteran who bagged her first-ever nom for French-language Elle; and Meryl Streep, who, with her nom for Florence Foster Jenkins, extends her all-time record for acting noms for an individual — male or female — from 19 to 20.

The most widely predicted contenders were nominated for best actor (Fences' Washington, Manchester's Casey Affleck, La La Land's Ryan Gosling, Hacksaw's Andrew Garfield and Captain Fantastic's Viggo Mortensen) and best supporting actress (Fences' Davis, Moonlight's Harris, Hidden Figures' Spencer, Lion's Nicole Kidman and, for just 11 minutes of screen time, Manchester's Michelle Williams). But the best supporting actor category packed one big surprise: On top of expected noms for Moonlight's Ali, Hell or High Water's Jeff Bridges, Lion's Patel and Manchester's Lucas Hedges, the fifth nominee was not Nocturnal Animals' Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who recently won a Golden Globe and was nominated for a BAFTA in the category, but rather his co-star, Michael Shannon, who heretofore had been almost entirely overlooked on the awards circuit. Also boxed out, perhaps due to category confusion, was Hugh Grant, who made a much-praised comeback in Florence Foster Jenkins.

It looks like we're in for a three-way race for best actor (Washington v. Affleck v. Gosling) and a two-way race for best supporting actor (Ali v. Bridges), while Davis seems primed to take best supporting actress in a walk.

In other curiosities: a non-English-language film, Italy's Fire at Sea, is nominated for best documentary; a stop-motion animated film, Kubo and the Two Strings, is nominated not only for best animated feature, but also best visual effects (the last time animated film to register in the VFX category was 1993's The Nightmare Before Christmas); a Swedish-language film, A Man Called Ove, is nominated not only for best foreign language film, but also for best makeup and hairstyling — for the second year in a row (the same artists also were nominated last year for The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared); a man deceased for 12 years received a best adapted screenplay nom (Fences scribe August Wilson has been dead six fewer years than Larry Russell had been when he won best original dramatic score for Limelight); La La Land scored two best original song noms, for "Audition" and frontrunner "City of Stars," a rare but not unprecedented feat; Justin Timberlake is, for the first time, an Oscar nominee, in recognition of his Trolls hit, "Can't Stop the Feeling!," and probably stands the best shot at benefiting from a potential La La Land split; J. Ralph, with his nom for "The Empty Chair" from Jim: The James Foley Story, extends his record of most best original song noms for tunes featured in documentaries from two to three; and three perennial bridesmaids will get yet another chance to snap their winless streaks — Passengers composer Thomas Newman (on his 14th nom), 13 Hours sound mixer Greg P. Russell (on his 17th nom) and Hacksaw sound mixer Kevin O'Connell (on his 21st nom).

Tuesday's announcement kicks off "phase two" of the Oscar race, during which studios are under far more prohibitions when it comes to hosting promotional events, but nominees will find other creative ways to get in front of Academy members, such as participating in "tributes" at voter-packed gatherings (like the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, where I will moderate conversations with Affleck and Williams on Feb. 5 and Bridges on Feb. 9); and granting one-on-one interviews through outlets that are sure to reach voters (including my own "Awards Chatter" podcast, which will roar back to life this week).

The final round of Oscar voting opens Feb. 13 and closes Feb. 21. The Oscars ceremony is in just 33 days on Feb. 26. Let the race to the finish begin.

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