The virtues and challenges of the 2013 Oscar contenders have been debated endlessly in the past few months. But how about the virtues and challenges of the Academy?
They still have a long way to go, but they've addressed some problems head-on, like diversity. There's been a little progress, but at least they're aware of what needs to happen.
Shortly after taking office, Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs observed that in the industry "there are different voices that need to be heard -- and there are audiences for these different voices. We at the Academy want to be a place where these voices can be recognized."
It's a little screwy to see Oscar presenters as symbols of enlightenment. But this week's announcement of the show's presenters offered a nice mixture of big-time stars (Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt) and relative newcomers (Michael B. Jordan, Kristen Bell). But, more important, the Academy sent a message to the industry.
Of the 46 presenters, 11 (nearly one-fourth) are Hispanic or black. It's like a market correction. The U.S. Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964 -- 50 years ago! -- allegedly guaranteeing equality. But a cross-section of Oscar shows since then prove that it hasn't been quite equal: In each decade -- 1973, '83, '93 and 2003 -- there were exactly three non-Caucasian presenters each year. (Was there a subconscious quota?)
The names of those presenters are a time capsule, including Billy Dee Williams in 1973, Cheech & Chong in 1983, Joan Chen in 1993, and Will Smith in 2003.
The jump from three to 11 is a small gesture. But the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences is signaling the industry: The business is changing, and so is Oscar; you have to make similar quantum leaps. In late June, the Acad invited 276 new members, more than double the usual number. At least 100 of them can be defined as "other voices," so the outreach/expansion is in motion.
The executives at the Academy can't control who members vote for. But as it turns out, this year's Oscar contenders prove that the business is already embracing those "different voices."
For example: "Gravity" boasted a Mexican director, scripters and cinematographer, a British producer and VFX team, and two American actors. "12 Years a Slave" was from an English director, starred actors from Britain, Ireland-Germany and Mexico-Kenya, and had four American producers.
Sunday's cinematography contenders are Mexico's Emmanuel Lubezki, Britain's Roger Deakins, Greece's Phedon Papamichael and France's Philippe Le Sourd and Bruno Delbonnel (with the last two working for Chinese and American directors, respectively). Patricia Norris ("12 Years a Slave") is the only American in the costume design category.
Alfonso Cuaron, Steve McQueen, Hayao Miyazaki and other nominees from Asia, Europe and the Mideast offer a multi-cultural cross-section. So in terms of "different voices," this is a pretty good year.
That's the good news. The bad news is that there's still a long way to go, and gender equality is still an uphill struggle.
There were zero females nominated in direction, cinematography, editing, visual effects and the two sound categories. In general, the film biz needs to address the mix (or non-mix) in below the line work.
When the L.A. Times last year published its study that the Academy was 94% Caucasian and 77% male, some charged the Academy with being an old-boys network. In fact, the Academy simply reflects the business. It's not that there are floods of working women in the industry trying to get into the Academy; instead, there are floods of women trying to get work in the industry.
And the Academy needs to do some internal house-cleaning. The nomination of the song "Alone Yet Not Alone" was withdrawn. Nobody acted maliciously. But it was a signal that there needs to be diligent self-scrutiny, to make sure that every branch is clear about the rules, and that the Academy reflects the industry.
In terms of Oscar voters, there were some encouraging signs in the nominations. A lot of "sure-fire Oscar fodder" was bypassed, in favor of some films like "Wolf of Wall Street" and "Her" that some pundits predicted would be too edgy for voters.
And yet one of the awards season's biggest surprises is how few shocks there actually were. The hopefuls on March 2 aren't significantly different from the films recognized in endless other awards since early December. Many terrific films stirred up Oscar buzz, but never gained traction, including "Lone Survivor," "The Past," "The Place Beyond the Pines," "Prisoners," "Rush," "Tim's Vermeer," and such indie efforts as "Short Term 12," "Spring Breakers" and "The Spectacular Now."
In the October interview with Variety, her first since taking office, Boone Isaacs admitted there's still a long way to go. So the 86th annual Academy Awards reminded that progress has been made but she was right: We're not there yet.
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