Oscar nominations arrived Tuesday, an early morning wakeup call that was greeted, in some quarters, with all manner of jumping, mostly for joy, possibly some of the furious kind. For others, the break of day was like the atomic bomb test sequence in “Oppenheimer” — an irrevocable countdown leading to oblivion. You think it’s hard just being Ken? Try being just a Golden Globe nominee. That, my friends, is an existential crisis.
In a perfect world, of course, it’d be cherries jubilee for everyone. But these are the Oscars, not the “Critics” Choice Awards, a show where categories and nominations are as abundant as the hot dogs in “May December.” The Oscars cap their nominees at five per category, leading, invariably, to some surprises and omissions — some egregious, some understandable.
For the sake of alliteration and search engine optimization, we’ll call these oversights “snubs,” though voters likely meant no ill will, unless they were the person at my “Saltburn” screening that started shrieking in agony when Barry Keoghan slurped the cloudy bathtub water down to the last drop. That’s personal. They’ll carry that grudge to the grave.
But let’s not dwell on that. Let’s move on to the snubs and surprises of the nominations for the 96th Academy Awards, which will be presented on March 10.
SNUB: Leonardo DiCaprio, “Killers of the Flower Moon” (lead actor)
This feels like the year the academy overlooked DiCaprio for playing the debonair, depraved plantation owner in Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained.” Then and now, DiCaprio earned a Golden Globe nomination, but failed to secure a SAG Awards spot and then suffered a similar fate with the Oscars, even though most pundits had him making the cut. The “Killers” campaign was so focused on DiCaprio’s co-star Lily Gladstone that it took for granted that voters would reflexively check off the box next to his name. Many voters I spoke with couldn’t understand his character’s behavior. He loves his wife … but wants to murder her and wipe out her family? Yes! It’s messy. But Oscar voters like their villains to be a little less complicated.
SNUB: “The Color Purple” (picture)
Maybe it was the late arrival, which shortened the runway for the movie to be screened for some of the guilds. Maybe voters felt like they didn’t need another “Color Purple,” even though this was an adaptation of the 2005 Broadway musical and not an update on the 1985 Steven Spielberg movie. If you saw it with an audience, you couldn’t help but get caught up in its story and its energy. It was not a movie to watch on the couch, which too many academy members did. And once cast members began criticizing poor working conditions on the set and low pay, the narrative shifted, with media reports focusing on the controversy instead of the film’s achievements. “It opened well with strong reviews, but then all you heard about was the complaints,” says a source close to the film. “It overshadowed the movie.”
SURPRISE: Colman Domingo, “Rustin” (lead actor) The purpose of the biopic “Rustin” was to introduce audiences to the work of civil rights activist Bayard Rustin, a man who helped organize the March on Washington, the landmark 1963 demonstration where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. The movie came freighted with exposition, along with lengthy monologues and much stirring oration. And it worked because Domingo was the actor doing the talking. Sometimes at the Oscars, all an actor needs is a biopic with a couple of good speeches and a scene or two that softens voters’ hearts.
SNUB: Greta Gerwig, “Barbie” (director)
No! Not again! Four years after being overlooked for her work behind the camera for “Little Women,” the academy’s directors branch again slighted Gerwig, this time for “Barbie.” You’d think making a movie that grossed more than $1.4 billion in box office, earned ecstatic reviews and launched a thousand think pieces would have merited a nomination.
SURPRISE: Sterling K. Brown, “American Fiction” (supporting actor)
Brown’s big turn as the cosmetic surgeon whose wife left him after finding out he’s been having affairs with men brought a delightful chaos to “American Fiction” as well as real sense of poignancy later in the film in his scenes with Jeffrey Wright. Voters rewarded both actors.
SNUB: Margot Robbie, “Barbie” (lead actress)
A couple of months ago, I wrote that the only thing that could prevent Robbie from being nominated would be voters failing to appreciate the degree of difficulty in what she pulls off in the film — the comic timing, the emotional depth she brings to the character, the precise body control required to play a plastic doll. And here we are with the academy, once again, discounting great acting in a comedy.
SURPRISE: America Ferrera, “Barbie” (supporting actress)
America Ferrera’s powerful monologue in “Barbie,” in which she laments, “I’m just so tired of watching myself, and every single other woman, tie herself into knots so that people will like us,” was transcribed and discussed and widely appreciated as a highlight of the movie. But the performance as a working mother trying to find purpose and a connection with her daughter was bigger than the speech.
SURPRISE: Annette Bening, “Nyad” (lead actress)
Bening and her “Nyad” co-star Foster were both nominated by SAG Awards voters, and the academy clearly approved. It’s Bening’s fifth nomination and first since her superb turn as the wine-loving workaholic trying to hold her family together in “The Kids Are All Right.” She’ll be a long-shot in the category. No matter. It’ll be nice to see her — and Foster — at the Oscars again.
SNUB: Greta Lee, “Past Lives” (lead actress)
Eight out of the 10 movies nominated for best picture also picked up nods for their actors. Those left out: “The Zone of Interest” and “Past Lives.” The former is more understandable, as Sandra Hüller, chilling as the wife of the Auschwitz commandant, secured a nomination for her lead turn in “Anatomy of a Fall.” Less forgivable: Overlooking Lee’s remarkable turn as a woman whose life is upended when her childhood sweetheart comes to visit from Korea. It’s a master class in communicating subtle behavior and emotions. Unfortunately, the Oscars typically subscribe to the “Hoooo-aaah” school of acting.
SNUB: “May December” (acting)
Todd Haynes’ provocative character study received a warm greeting at its Cannes premiere, and the good vibes continued through December as critics groups lavished the film with prizes for its screenplay and supporting actor Charles Melton. Then after it dropped on Netflix, the Film Twitter discourse turned … interesting, with people wondering if the movie was supposed to be camp or a melodrama or what? It was like people were seeing a Todd Haynes movie for the first time — which many indeed were, as none of his previous efforts had ever debuted in wide release. You’d think academy members would be able to appreciate the nuances of his style, but the actors branch proved immune, ignoring both Charles Melton and Julianne Moore, both of whom had been pegged by many as nominees.
SNUB: Penélope Cruz, “Ferrari” (supporting actress)
It’s odd when Michael Mann makes a movie as enjoyable as “Ferrari” and nobody notices. I get how it could be lapped in the crowded best picture race, but ignoring Cruz, an Oscar winner and four-time nominee, feels like one of those omissions that people will look back on and ask, “How did she not get nominated?” Her fierce portrayal of Laura Ferrari, a woman consumed by grief over the death of her son and stewing with resentment over the dismissive way her husband and others treat her, was one of the highlights of the film.