We are a nation that is obsessed with winners and losers, keeping score and scoring.
That’s obviously resonant today in sports, in politics and in the Golden Globes and the Academy Awards, the Oscars, those much-coveted, glittery toys that tell their owners that this year they were the best actor, the best actress, the best editor or costume designer — but not the best audience member. (We are present and accounted for sitting in the dark in the weekly box-office charts.)
After all, we have a Super Bowl coming up, which will tell us — among other things — how good, lucky and most blessed is New England Quarterback Tom Brady as he faces one of the less lucky, less publicized, but perhaps just as good a quarterback in Matt Ryan of the Atlanta Falcons.
President Donald Trump obsesses about the three-million-or-so margin by which he lost the popular vote, to the point of saying that three to five million illegal voters caused the discrepancy. Sometimes, winning isn’t everything, but winning everything *is* everything.
Sometimes, you wonder why every year we obsess not just on the Oscars, the Grammys, the Golden Globes and Emmys and People’s Choice awards and all the flying red carpets and fashion, but also on the announcements of the nominations, where nominees end up telling stories about what they were doing when they got the news — the answer to which is, in each and every case: Gripping their cell phone tightly to see if it is trembling.
This year’s Oscars nominations can be counted as an exception. There was actually something newsworthy about the nominations. It’s not necessarily the fact that “La La Land” — the much-lauded and lovely Hollywood musical that is a long and heartfelt nostalgic sigh about the absence of actual Hollywood musicals — garnered 14 nominations, tying the record with James Cameron’s “Titanic” and the Bette Davis classic “All About Eve.”
It’s not even because Mel Gibson was nominated for best director of “Hacksaw Ridge” (also nominated for Best Picture), probably the most viscerally bloody and gory movie ever made about a conscientious objector. It’s not that Meryl Streep got a record 20th nomination for “Florence Foster Jenkins”; this is news, as opposed to an alternative fact, that will no doubt cheer her fans, in spite of a certain critic who calls her overrated.
No, the real news is the optimistic note struck by many of the nominations, to the point that the ongoing #HollywoodSoWhite controversy over the scarcity of nominations for black artists over the past two years can be changed to #HollywoodNotQuiteSoWhite, at least for the time being.
Six black actors were nominated in the four major acting categories, including three in the Best Supporting Actress category. More important, there were three black-made and -themed films, “Moonlight,” “Fences” and “Hidden Figures,” nominated for Best Picture. Denzel Washington was nominated for Best Actor in “Fences,” the movie version of August Wilson’s play, part of an epic, panoramic series of plays about the black experience in America by the Pulitzer Prize-winning black playwright. Washington was not nominated for Best Director, but Viola Davis, playing the wife of Washington’s embittered central character in “Fences,” was nominated for Best Supporting Actress, along with Naomie Harris for the dark horse “Moonlight,” which is about a young black man’s coming of age, and Octavia Spencer for “Hidden Figures.”
A story of the critical role played by black women in America’s space program, “Hidden Figures” is another sleeper that could put up a fight for Best Motion Picture. It’s a recent entry — and therefore still in the mind—and it is both popular and populist and something of a box-office charmer.
Notably, “Moonlight” — for which Barry Jenkins is competing with Damien Chazelle of “La La Land” and, yes, Mel Gibson for a Best Director award — is considered a possible contender in the best of the best.
Things run deeper, though, as has been noted and written about in much greater detail with thoughtfulness and passion by the Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday, just maybe the best arts, social and cultural writer around.
One thing, which she observed, is that the Oscars run deeper in previous years with nominations for black artists in editing, cinematography and with notable documentaries. Some of these are first-ever nominations, which should be laudable but are also late.
Something else worth thinking about: We appear to be in a post-“Roots” period in terms of audiences. You don’t have to make a movie about slavery in order to get a more universal and contemporary audience. “Hidden Figures, “Fences,” Moonlight” and “Loving” (about the travails of a mixed-race couple for which Ruth Negga got a Best Actress nomination) are all both specific and universal, as is “Lion,” a film about a young man from India trying to find his home.
This is all, of course, about diversity meets universality, a theme not exactly popular among the new political class.
**Predictions (Winners, Not Losers):**
**Best Picture:** Because “La La Land” has so many, this is the one it might win. Watch out for “Hidden Figures,” my sleeper pick.
**Best Actor:** Gosh, if Casey Afleck doesn’t win for “Manchester by the Sea,” there ought to be a law or an executive order for that.
**Best Actress:** The legendary French actress Isabelle Huppert won a Golden Globe for playing a woman who exacts revenge on her rapist, but my money (and heart) goes to Natalie Portman for “Jackie.” Go, D.C. Go, U.S.A. (Alternate: Emma Stone.)
**Best Director:** Damien Chazelle for “La La Land” probably, but Barry Jenkins has a chance for “Moonlight.” Gibson has his comeback award for the nomination, and that’s plenty.
**Best Supporting Actress:** Viola Davis for “Fences,” because it’s actually the hardest role, and Davis is always more than up to the task.
**Best Supporting Actor:** Michael Shannon for “Nocturnal Animals.” Shannon is this generation’s Dennis Hopper, one of the best (and deeply weird) actors around.
As for the rest, give eight to “La La Land” and be done with it. Old-timers, rooted in the legend of old Hollywood musicals (like “Singing in the Rain”), may not warm up to it. Nevertheless, I say: If it taps, if it flies, if it dances, if it sings, if the pants are too long and it’s syncopated, we’ve got a winner. Thanks, Emma and Ryan.