It’s a record-setting year for performers of Asian descent. In the actress race, there’s room for Andrea Riseborough but not Viola Davis or Danielle Deadwyler.
The sci-fi hit “Everything Everywhere All at Once” led the Oscar nominations on Tuesday, but many other presumed contenders fell startlingly short. As your Projectionist, here’s my analysis of Tuesday morning’s biggest surprises and omissions.
Though two of the last three best-picture winners were directed by Asian filmmakers, the academy has fallen short when it comes to nominating performers of Asian descent: Films like “Parasite” and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” failed to earn even a single nomination for their acclaimed actors. But Tuesday’s nomination haul, which saw “Everything Everywhere” cast members Michelle Yeoh, Ke Huy Quan and Stephanie Hsu all making the cut alongside “The Whale” supporting actress Hong Chau, set a record for the most actors of Asian descent ever nominated in a single year. The 60-year-old Yeoh became only the second Asian woman to be nominated for the best actress Oscar: The first, Merle Oberon, hid her Asian ancestry when she was nominated all the way back in 1935.
A single awards campaign can involve a monthslong gantlet of interviews, red carpets, screening Q&As and voter handshakes, and not every contender can charge all those appearances to a corporate credit card. You have to admire the actress Andrea Riseborough, then, for pioneering a brand-new, low-cost awards strategy: Though her microbudget indie “To Leslie” was underseen and her performance as a dissolute lottery winner was barely on the radar of most awards pundits, Riseborough relied on a network of famous friends — among them, Edward Norton, Gwyneth Paltrow and Sarah Paulson — to take to social media and tout the movie en masse just as voting for the Oscar nominations began. That strategy earned the 41-year-old British actress her first nomination, and proved that when it comes to Oscar season, it ain’t over till it’s over.
Riseborough’s rise brought the best-actress hopes of two other contenders to an abrupt end: “The Woman King” star Viola Davis and “Till” actress Danielle Deadwyler were both shut out of a best actress category that many pundits assumed would be mostly made up of women of color. Deadwyler’s deeply felt performance as the mother of Emmett Till had suffered a few notable snubs this season from the Independent Spirit Awards and Golden Globes, but Davis had cruised through the season so far, earning nominations from the Globes, Screen Actors Guild, Critics Choice Awards and BAFTA. Only Tuesday did the Oscar-winning actress fall short.
Though the best actress race often favors ingénues, male up-and-comers aren’t always regarded so warmly: The best actor category is typically stacked with veterans over 40, and the same famous names are nominated an awful lot. In fact, the last time the entire best-actor lineup was made up of first-time nominees was in 1935, when only three men were even nominated. Tuesday’s lineup, then, is the freshest in ages: Every single man in the best actor category is a first-time nominee, from 26-year-old Paul Mescal to 73-year-old Bill Nighy, and a total 16 of the 20 acting nominees all received their first nod.
After back-to-back years when a female filmmaker won the best director Oscar, that trend came to a decisive halt Tuesday when no women were even nominated in that category. Among the biggest contenders were Gina Prince-Bythewood (whose action epic “The Woman King” was snubbed across the board), “Aftersun” director Charlotte Wells (whose leading man, Mescal, made the best actor cut), and Sarah Polley, whose film “Women Talking” earned two nominations, for adapted screenplay and best picture. Meanwhile, “The Fabelmans” auteur Steven Spielberg earned his ninth best-director nomination, tying Martin Scorsese for the second most nominations in that category, behind William Wyler’s 13.
When pundits first saw Michelle Williams play Steven Spielberg’s mom in “The Fabelmans,” they were convinced she was our new supporting-actress front-runner. Then, just a few weeks later, word broke that instead of gunning for that easy win, Williams would be campaigned as the film’s leading actress. It was a laudable rejection of the category fraud that has become all too common during award season, in which a star with a sizable amount of screen time slums it in a supporting category, but then the Screen Actors Guild and BAFTA both snubbed her in the best actress category, causing no small amount of uncertainty about her ultimate fate. Tuesday, the Oscars came through for Williams in the best actress category, and not for the first time, either: When SAG and BAFTA both snubbed her for “Blue Valentine” (2010), the academy still swooped in with a last-minute save.
Mainstream moviegoers love franchise entertainments, but Oscar voters are more skeptical: Only seven sequels have ever been nominated for best picture. Tuesday added two more to the mix, as “Top Gun: Maverick” earned a solid six nominations (including an adapted screenplay nod that produced an audible reaction in the room where the nominations were read) and James Cameron’s “Avatar: The Way of Water” took four. (“Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” managed five nominations, including a supporting-actress nod for Angela Bassett, but was shut out of the best picture race.) Neither “Top Gun” nor “Avatar” managed a directing nomination, but hopefully their makers can be consoled with the films’ billion-dollar grosses instead.