Oscars: From 'Joker' to 'The Irishman,' White Male Stories Dominate Nominations

Niko Tavernise/Warner Bros.; Courtesy of Netflix
'Joker' (left), 'The Irishman'

A year after the Oscars saw a diverse slate of stories nominated and a record number of women taking home awards, the 2020 nominees may reflect a big step backwards for representation in Hollywood.

The plight of men, be they soldiers, loners, race car drivers or two friends navigating Hollywood, will take center stage at the Oscars in February after Monday's nominations revealed a lineup of mostly white male stories leading the contenders.

Out of the nine best picture nominees, six are centered on the tales of white males — Ford v Ferrari, The Irishman, Jojo Rabbit, Joker, 1917 and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Marriage Story is a two-hander of a couple’s crumbling marriage; Little Women revives the classic 1830 novel of four sisters; and then there’s Parasite, Bong Joon Ho’s story of a poor family infiltrating the lives of an affluent family, in a film that spans class and gender dynamics.

The hashtag #OscarsSoWhite, which sparked a major critique and overhaul at the Film Academy in 2016, once again was revived on Monday as only one of the 20 acting nominees was non-white — Cynthia Erivo in the lead acting race for Harriet. Meanwhile, Scarlett Johansson landed two acting noms — lead actress for Marriage Story and supporting actress for Jojo Rabbit — while The Farewell’s Awkwafina and Hustlers’ Jennifer Lopez were snubbed.

The eight best picture contenders from 2019 represented a far more inclusive selection of stories — Black Panther, BlacKkKlansman, The Favourite, Roma, A Star Is Born and Green Book explored tales of gender and racial divides. In the end, Green Book’s win still didn’t sit well as many criticized the film for leaning into white savior tropes in the story of a white working-class bouncer who drives a black classical musician across the Jim Crow South.

In a year where inclusion at the Oscars is particularly under scrutiny as the Academy prepares to announce whether it has achieved its 2016 goals to double membership of women and minorities by 2020, Monday’s nominees may feel like a step backwards for representation in Hollywood. And while more and more complex women prevail in the television awards space — Fleabag, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and Killing Eve, to name a few — in film, it’s the tales of complex men that reign supreme.

Joker, Todd Phillips’ DC anti-hero origin story starring Joaquin Phoenix as a loner who spirals into a violent streak that leads him to become the notorious comic book villain, led the Oscar contenders with 11 nominations on Monday, echoing its leading 11 nominations at Britain’s BAFTA Awards.

Following closely with 10 apiece was Martin Scorsese’s mob saga The Irishman, Sam Mendes’ World War I epic 1917 and Quentin Tarantino’s buddy tale in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

The films dominating the race this year also lean into personal tales after last year’s crop of movies that drew on urgent political themes, be it BlacKkKlansman, Vice or Roma. The top-nominated contenders this year are all period pieces that draw on nostalgia, although some have unintentionally tapped into modern threads. Joker’s themes of violence sparked conversation and controversy around lone male shooters and gun control; 1917’s unflinching look at the frontlines highlight the real casualties of war as U.S.-Iran tensions escalate; Jojo Rabbit’s tale of a 10-year-old Nazi boy and his imaginary best friend Hitler taps into the present-day rise of white supremacy movements and particularly the indoctrination of young children into extremist mentalities.

Pippa Harris, co-producer of 1917, said Monday that one of the reasons the pic was resonating was its universal themes. “The importance of friendship, about home, about what it means to sacrifice yourself for bigger things than yourself — this is something many people won’t have deal with and looking at these fractured times, it’s good to know that those values hold up,” Harris told The Hollywood Reporter.

But for the most part, the stories elevated this year for awards recognition are of personal perseverance and journeys. Bombshell, an insight into allegations of Roger Ailes’ sexual misconduct within the walls of Fox News, landed acting and makeup/hairstyle nods, but was left out of the best picture race. Warner Bros’ movie Just Mercy, based on wrongful incarceration and the work of lawyer and social justice activist Bryan Stevenson, and Focus Features’ Dark Waters, based on lawyer Rob Bilott’s exposure of chemical pollution tainting water, were both entirely snubbed from the Oscars lists this year.

Harris is one of the “record 62 women” nominated on Monday that the Academy was quick to highlight, adding that women made up almost a third of this year’s nominees. This comes after a record 15 women took home Oscars last year, including Black Panther’s production designer Hannah Beachler and costumer Ruth E. Carter becoming the first black women to win their categories.

This year’s crop of female contenders counts producers such as The Irishman and Joker’s Emma Tillinger Koskoff and Little Women’s Amy Pascal; Joker composer Hildur Gudnadottir; and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’s costume designer Arianne Phillips.

In the writing categories, Little Women’s Greta Gerwig landed a mention for adapted screenplay, while Krysty Wilson-Cairns shared a nomination in the original screenplay race with Mendes for 1917. But women were still left out of the directing race — Gerwig, The Farewell’s Lulu Wang and A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood’s Marielle Heller were among the contenders vying for a spot in the category — prompting the Time’s Up campaign to release a statement vouching to fight for women to get “the opportunities and recognition they deserve.”

The documentary, shorts and animated categories saw more women and minority filmmakers and stories represented. In the documentary race, all five films were directed or co-directed by women and people of color — American Factory (Julia Reichert, Steven Bognar), The Edge of Democracy (Petra Costa), The Cave (Feras Fayyad), For Sama (Waad Al-Kateab, Edward Watts), Honeyland (Tamara Kotevska, Ljubomir Stefanov). 

Matthew Cherry’s Hair Love was lauded by fans including Ava DuVernay when it was named among the animated short contenders, alongside Daria Kashcheeva’s Dcera (Daughter), Rosana Sullivan’s Kitbull, Siqi Song’s Sister and Bruno Collet’s Memorable.

Parasite landing six noms — including for best picture, director and screenplay — does represent a shift in the Academy's slowly diversifying voting body and a growing acceptance of foreign-language films, a year after Alfonso Cuaron’s Spanish-language Roma landed 10 Oscar noms and three wins. The South Korean film topped numerous critics’ lists in 2019 and has constantly featured among the top picks for talent and industry execs, praised for its originality and Bong’s masterful storytelling, weaving together a complex web of social themes and cinematic genres. 

Honey Boy helmer Alma Har’el, notably left off the directing lists despite her film being well received by critics and audiences, has been vocal about the obstacles that women and minority filmmakers face in the awards conversation as they are often overlooked. “The status quo relies on women & underrepresented filmmakers continuing to play a game they can’t win,” Har’el tweeted Monday. “Change the game.”