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Oscars reflect a major demographic and cultural shift this year

Sam Levy and Greta Gerwig on the set

Sam Levy and Greta Gerwig on the set of "Lady Bird." Credit: A24 / Merie Wallace

On this year’s list of Academy Award nominees, you can find plenty of the usual suspects: The British period-piece, the small-town drama, a topical movie starring Meryl Streep. Sharing space, however, are movies that don’t usually make it this far: a horror movie by a black filmmaker, an indie comedy from a female writer-director, a work of steamy gay erotica.

In other words: Toto, the Oscars aren’t in Kansas anymore.

Two years after widespread criticism led the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to diversify its membership, this year’s Oscar nominees include a far wider range of both films and filmmakers. There are four black acting nominees, including A-list star Denzel Washington for the crime-drama “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” and newcomer Daniel Kaluuya for “Get Out.” Greta Gerwig becomes a rare female directing nominee, for “Lady Bird,” while Rachel Morrison is the Oscars’ first-ever female cinematography nominee, for “Mudbound.”

The director of the Long Island-based documentary “Strong Island,” Yance Ford, is the first openly transgender person nominated for any Oscar. The likely best picture winner, “The Shape of Water,” was directed by a Mexican, Guillermo del Toro. It’s hard not to conclude that the Oscars are experiencing a major demographic and cultural shift.

“It’s a great year in terms of more race representation, and it’s a good year for women,” says Tom O’Neil, editor of the awards-tracking website GoldDerby. “But that said, on Oscar night, who knows what’s going to get picked as the winner?”

The 90th annual Academy Awards, to be handed out on March 4, reflect a roller-coaster 2017 at the movies. The year began promisingly with the February release “Get Out,” a racially charged horror-satire from writer-director Jordan Peele that went on to become a box-office smash. Then came a summer of spectacular duds — notably “The Mummy” and the fifth “Pirates of the Caribbean” film — that depressed the year’s box-office and caused some hand-wringing over Hollywood’s reliance on expensive blockbusters. Christopher Nolan’s World War II drama, “Dunkirk,” emerged as an early Oscar front-runner, followed later by Luca Guadagnino’s gay drama, “Call Me By Your Name.” Yet both lost steam as del Toro’s unusual monster-romance, “The Shape of Water,” began picking up numerous awards.

O’Neill, whose website regularly canvasses Oscar voters, says the best picture race is still an open question. “ ‘Dunkirk’ is ranking consistently higher than we thought it would be, ‘Get Out’ is very strong, ‘Lady Bird’ is weaker than we thought,” he says. “It’s still a tossup.”

“We knew it was going to be an unpredictable year,” says Kameron Austin Collins, a critic at the pop-culture website The Ringer. “There’s something really exciting about this being the year that a movie like ‘Get Out’ or ‘Lady Bird’ ” — two low-budget, highly personal films — “could run away with it.”

This year’s eclectic mix of best picture nominees can be directly chalked up to the “newer, younger, browner Academy,” says Collins. The typical British costume drama no longer seems like a guaranteed winner, he says, pointing to “Darkest Hour,” a biopic of Winston Churchill that seems unlikely to take best picture (though its star, Gary Oldman, will almost certainly win for best actor). At the same time, the nominees still include traditional Oscar-bait such as Steven Spielberg’s journalism drama, “The Post,” starring Streep and Tom Hanks, and Paul Thomas Anderson’s character study, “Phantom Thread,” featuring Daniel Day-Lewis.

“I think the diversity matters,” Collins says, “because look at the range we’re getting.”

Even more unpredictable than last year’s movies, though, were the headlines that came out of Hollywood itself. Accusations of sexual assault brought down the powerful producer Harvey Weinstein in October and opened the floodgates for allegations against other men, most notably Kevin Spacey and Dustin Hoffman. (Such allegations may have cost James Franco an Oscar nod. Though he won a Golden Globe for “The Disaster Artist,” several women later accused him of misconduct and his Oscar campaign seemed to lose its steam.) As the social-media movement #MeToo encouraged more women to step forward, there came a renewed focus on Hollywood’s gender-pay disparities and its low number of female filmmakers.

Those issues will surface not just in the Oscars’ opening monologue from host Jimmy Kimmel, predicts O’Neil at GoldDerby, but in the awards themselves. Frances McDormand, for instance, is expected to win best actress for “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” and it’s no coincidence that her character is a strong-willed woman in a male-dominated town. “That theme will play out during the awards, and it will play out on stage,” O’Neil says.

April Reign, the creator of the #OscarsSoWhite movement, says she hopes the theme of gender equality won’t be just hinted at or joked about, but explicitly addressed in acceptance speeches.

“#OscarsSoWhite was never just about race, it was also about gender,” she says. Her movement also spoke for sexual orientation, age, ability and any number of identities, she adds. “It’s an incredibly broad umbrella.”

Reign acknowledges that audiences at home may not want to hear numerous agenda-driven speeches during an awards show. Still, she says, “I think it has to be more than wearing ribbons on your gown or what color gown you wear. When you have this platform, I think if you feel strongly about something, then it is imperative, when the world is watching you, to speak up.”

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