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Roger Ebert would likely be furious that Steve James‘ documentary about the late, beloved film critic, Life Itself, didn’t receive an Oscar nomination — not because the film’s about him, but because 20 years ago, Ebert, saying he was “stunned” by James’ documentary Oscar frontrunner and DGA winner Hoop Dreams not getting a best documentary Oscar nomination, blasted the Oscar voters in an essay called “Anatomy of a Snub.”
“Hoop Dreams is better than all five of the nominated films, and a lot better than three of them,” wrote Ebert. He excoriated the documentary voters for preferring “talking heads and stock footage. … They do not seem receptive to cinema verite.” Though Hoop Dreams got the highest number of perfect Oscar scores, James believes that “about a dozen voters” gamed the system and cheated it out of an Oscar. James did share Hoop Dreams‘ Oscar nomination for editing.
James’ 1995 snub, arguably the most startling in Oscar history, was also influential because it caused a smart rule reform that transformed the documentary nomination process. As James told THR in 2011, “The process is much improved, in part because they recruited a lot of documentary filmmakers in the branch now. It used to be older members of the Academy, not all documentary makers, and skewed toward retirees because they were the ones who had the time to look at all of the films under consideration.”
Oscar-nominated documentaries have been more respectable ever since the change James caused, but the director still lives under an Oscar curse. In 2011, his verite doc The Interrupters, which topped Indiewire‘s poll of over 100 critics, also got snubbed, though it played well and for a long period of time, despite virtually no promotional budget. This season, James’ Life Itself was an Oscar frontrunner, rated the second-most-likely nominee by THR awards analyst Scott Feinberg. Ironically, it was beaten by, among others, Finding Vivian Maier, by John Maloof and Charlie Siskel, the nephew of Ebert’s longtime critic partner Gene Siskel, who had also given Hoop Dreams a thumbs-up.
In 1995, documentaries were at the periphery of the movie world. Today, they are far more central, and Oscar-contending fiction films increasingly resemble documentaries. “Prominent fiction filmmakers are gravitating to the documentary form as a stylistic choice to try to give their films more of a sense of authenticity and urgency and truth,” James told THR on Thursday. “When the Academy changed to 10 nominees for best picture, they really should’ve changed to 10 nominees for best documentary. Because year in, year out, you can make a much stronger case for 10 really strong documentaries than 10 fiction films.”
There are sound arguments against a 10-documentary Oscar nomination slate, but the case for it has never been stronger. Perhaps James’ Life Itself snub may give the notion greater currency. He has changed the Oscar-nominating process before.
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