oscars 2021

Oscar Nominations: The Snubs and Surprises

“Húsavík” and LaKeith Stanfield showed up, while Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom missed out in Best Picture. Photo: John Wilson/Netflix/Warner Bros./David Lee /Netflix

In a season where in-person campaigning was forbidden by public-health mandates, this year’s Oscar nominations were poised to be full of surprises. Left to their own (streaming) devices, who knew what voters would choose? But the biggest surprise of all turned out to be how uncontroversial the nominations were, as many of the results lined up with our predictions from two weeks ago. (Just don’t mention our predictions from last week.) But that doesn’t mean everyone woke up happy. Or that everything even made sense. Read on to see the biggest snubs and surprises of the 93rd Academy Awards’ nominations.

After last year’s controversy, a remarkably diverse year.
Though Parasite’s triumph ultimately added a lot of shine to their reputation, on nomination morning the 92nd Academy Awards sparked another #OscarsSoWhite controversy, with 19 of 20 acting slots going to white performers and an all-male directing lineup to boot. Fourteen months and one pandemic-induced disruption of the entire industry later, that’s changed. This year’s nominations brought forth a bevy of firsts: Nomadland’s Chloé Zhao and Promising Young Woman’s Emerald Fennell became the first two women nominated for Director in the same year (and Zhao the first woman of color to ever get in); Minari’s Steven Yeun became the first Asian American ever nominated in Best Actor, while Sound of Metal’s Riz Ahmed became the first Muslim actor to do so, too. (Yeun and co-star Youn Yuh-jung are also the first actors born in Korea to be nominated.) And Maria Bakalova of Borat Subsequent Moviefilm became the first Bulgarian ever nominated for an acting Oscar. Very nice!

Congratulations to LaKeith Stanfield, supporting actor?
It was a great morning for Judas and the Black Messiah, as the late-breaking Black Panther drama earned six nominations, including a Best Picture nod. But strangely, two of those nominations came in the same category: Best Supporting Actor, where LaKeith Stanfield was a surprise inclusion alongside the category’s purported front-runner Daniel Kaluuya. After his acclaimed turns in Sorry to Bother You, Atlanta, and Uncut Gems, no one is complaining about Stanfield getting his first Oscar nom, but the circumstances are odd. Both men are arguably co-leads — it’s right there in the title — but Warner Bros. wisely decided to split them up. Since he has more screen time, and his POV dominates the narrative, Stanfield would run in lead; Kaluuya would go Supporting. However, Oscar voters overruled the studio, slotting Stanfield in Supporting alongside his co-star. It’s not unheard of for a movie to have no lead actors in the Oscar race: The supporting-actor field is filled out by Sacha Baron Cohen and Leslie Odom Jr., who rep ensemble pieces with no obvious star. But Judas and the Black Messiah is not Trial of the Chicago 7 or One Night in Miami — this is a movie that, on a structural level, has a main character. Whatever the reason, it’s an odd look all around.

Oscar says, ‘It’s Best Picture, not Best Filmed Play.’
One quirk of this weird Oscar year was just how many of the big contenders were based on plays. Netflix had Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, a star-studded version of the August Wilson play, and Pieces of a Woman, an expansion of a 2018 Polish production. Amazon had Regina King’s One Night in Miami, originally written by playwright Kemp Powers. And Sony Pictures Classics had The Father, Florian Zeller’s screen adaptation of his play Le Père. All but Pieces of a Woman were widely tipped as potential Best Picture nominees, and though all four received acting nominations, only one of them cracked the Best Picture field: The Father, which perhaps not coincidentally was also the one that made the most use of cinematic technique. I suspect that, in precarious times for the industry, the Academy is still very conscious of its role as guardian of the movies, but you can also read these results as a sign that actors really are losing influence in the Academy at large, or that voters have a hard time recognizing more than one Black-centered film at a time.

Aaron Sorkin got snubbed in Director.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 was not based on a play, but the legal drama was still one of the more visually earthbound of this year’s contenders. For that reason, Aaron Sorkin was considered the DGA nominee most likely to be snubbed by the Academy’s director’s branch, who usually prefer an auteur. Still, the TV veteran could take solace in the fact that the category’s second tier was mostly made up of the people who directed those plays-turned-movies, who all had the same issue. As it turned out, Sorkin was indeed the one missing on nomination morning, but his spot was taken by Another Round’s Thomas Vinterberg, who pulled a Paweł Pawlikowski by nabbing a Director nomination without an accompanying Best Picture nod. A ding on Chicago 7’s status as an Oscar front-runner, and a reminder that, in this most international of branches, you should never bet against a venerated European.

“Húsavík” got a Song nomination!
The elves went just far enough: Eurovision’s soul-stirring ballad “Húsavík” really did crack Oscar’s Original Song category, a happy development for a movie I feared might be too light and too old to resonate with voters. With Borat’s Maria Bakalova also nabbing a nomination, this was a very good morning for comedies and people on the internet who love them. We’ve talked a lot about the Academy getting more diverse on a race and gender level, but is it possibly becoming more diverse on a taste level, as well?

The Delroy Lindo comeback was not to be.
The critical community went to bat for a lot of performers this year, and their efforts paid off as Bakalova and Youn both made it into Supporting Actress, while Sound of Metal’s Paul Raci scored a Supporting Actor nomination after being snubbed by both SAG and the Globes. But when it came to Da 5 Bloods’ Delroy Lindo, their luck ran out. Despite plenty of love from critics’ groups — and an entire merch line — Lindo was once again missing in action in Best Actor. Pundits have guessed that category confusion might be to blame (he was originally campaigned in Supporting), or blamed the fact that he was playing an unrepentant Trump supporter. But I think the simplest explanation makes the most sense: Voters just didn’t like the movie. Even an actor as beloved Chadwick Boseman got left out for his work in Da 5 Bloods, as the Spike Lee joint managed only a single Score nomination. BlacKkKlansman’s run seemed to indicate Lee was finally being welcomed into the Oscar club, but now, that brush with gold looks like it may have been a one-off.

Golden Globe winner Jodie Foster got snubbed for The Mauritanian.
A Supporting Actress nomination for Foster would have given us two different opportunities to restage Oscar history. First, she would have joined Best Actor nominee Anthony Hopkins for a 30-year Silence of the Lambs reunion. And second, Foster making it in alongside The Father’s Olivia Colman would have pitted ostensible front-runner Glenn Close against two of the women who beat her out for Oscars. A juicy scenario, certainly, but it was not to be: The Academy remembered it had spent the entire 2000s not voting for legal dramas about Bush-era human-rights abuses, and wasn’t going to start now. So The Mauritanian blanked across the board, and Foster became the first Golden Globe acting winner since Aaron Taylor-Johnson to be denied a subsequent Oscar nomination. On the bright side, that means Kevin Macdonald’s film will join Ammonite, The Little Things, and of course, Wild Mountain Thyme in the pantheon of future This Had Oscar Buzz episodes. Saints preserve us!

Oscar Nominations: The Snubs and Surprises