Oscars So White, Johnny Awards So Right.
By Johnny Pomatto
More than in any other year that I can remember, there has been a tremendous amount of outrage in reaction to the Academy Award nominations, with accusations of exclusion and lack of diversity. This has even prompted the Academy to vow an increase of diversity of their members over the next few years, implementing new guidelines that might force some of the older, out of touch members to resign. While a more colorful Academy would be a step in the right direction in satisfying those upset, I believe that it still glosses over many of the real issues affecting diversity in the film industry. Much of our anger towards the Academy has been misdirected. The outrage over the all white nominees didn’t begin until the day the nominations were announced. Why so late? There was almost nothing that surprised me about the names read aloud that morning because they were all the names that had been bandied about for the last few months during the increasingly growing “campaign season.” “The Academy,” a massive organization full of varied voters with individual opinions nearly impossible to track, merely voted for exactly whom the studios directed them to vote for.
It is a known fact that people en masse no longer go to the movies, and this is especially true for people in the film industry. Most industry people will go 11 months out of the year remaining oblivious of what films are even being released, only to play catch up, best they can, when their various guilds start sending them screeners at the end of the year. Even then, they’re on the honor system and often don’t watch all of the films they might vote on later, and many of the films that deserve to be in competition are often not delivered in screener form to all voters. This is not a free service that the Academy and various guilds like the SAG and WGA provide. While just about any movie is available upon request by studios, a truly aggressive awards campaign will cost a studio somewhere between 10 and 15 million dollars. Usually it is only the high profile studio films that can afford such a push, so smaller, more independent films have a much harder time getting into people’s homes and being seen, with occasional exceptions, such as last year’s “Whiplash,” which had multi-millionaire producer Jason Blum spending a huge amount to make that small film feel more mainstream. If only other films were lucky enough to have similar angels to champion them, though I try my best to do my part.
You would never know it from looking at the Oscar nominees, but this was an outstanding year for diversity in cinema. Not only was this year full of fabulous performances by people of color from our own country, but we also witnessed stunning work from international actors all over the globe, which the rise of services like Netflix has allowed for easier access for people to see. But with all the incredible work being done by so many diverse performers, why is it that the only actors that seem to be getting talked about as being “snubbed,” are the cast of STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON, Michael B. Jordan in CREED, and Will Smith in CONCUSSION?
Here is where I may start to lose you a bit. I thought STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON was a very entertaining film that had an excellent opening 90 minutes but featured third act problems that prevented me from loving it completely. While I thought the performances from the likes of O’Shea Jackson Jr. and Jason Mitchell were quite good, neither stood out for me as individually deserving of a nomination, although a film like COMPTON makes a great case for the addition of an “Best Ensemble” Oscar category, and the same can be said for its all white counterpart, “Spotlight.” While I really enjoyed much of CREED, I thought it didn’t amount to much more than a better than average “Rocky” sequel. I thought Michael B. Jordan gave a typically fine performance, though it was not what I considered his best work, and he had little hope to compete against some of the bigger stars in that category, which Warner Brothers knew so they gave a stronger push to Stallone, in a less competitive field. This is typical Academy politics. Finally, if any of you saw CONCUSSION, (and statistics tell me that most of you did not), you would probably agree that Will Smith gave a perfectly adequate performance at best, and had he been the only one of these actors to receive a nomination, the award show would still be well worth boycotting. So if any of these actors were only one vote away from getting a nomination, my ballot would not help them and we would be left with an all white field. Would this make me one of the problem voters of the Academy? I don’t believe so. As you’ll read in my ballot below, I chose to honor what I personally found to be superior performances, which still manage to include a good number of diverse performers, which would be fine and good, except in the current climate of campaigning and voting, that’s as good as throwing my vote away. If the people voting for awards haven’t seen every film, and only tend to see the films that are sent to them, then that automatically excludes smaller films from even being considered. A film or performance can’t even be nominated anymore unless the community agrees in consensus that they’re all going to come together and vote for a certain film, whether they’ve seen it or not.
While I don’t actually know anyone in the Academy, I polled some of my close friends who are members of SAG and the WGA to find out which screeners they received this year. Films like SPOTLIGHT, BROOKLYN, THE BIG SHORT, TRUMBO, STEVE JOBS, CAROL, ROOM, and THE DANISH GIRL were all said to make it to my friends’ mailboxes, with two of them noting that they actually received multiple copies of THE DANISH GIRL and STEVE JOBS, two mediocre films that seemed to have their heavy screener push pay off with Oscar nominations. That’s a pretty lily white list right there, although my SAG friends also claimed to get screeners of STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON and BEASTS OF NO NATION, the latter being a fantastic film that was well rewarded by SAG on Sunday night but completely forgotten by the Academy, possibly snobbishly snubbed because of its illegitimate affiliation with Netflix. Even many SAG members claimed not to receive screener copies of CREED, which has been heavily touted for Sylvester Stallone’s amiable performance, while any other participant in that very popular film has been pushed aside. These are all films with major studios bankrolling their campaigns, but screeners for wonderful smaller films like INFINITELY POLAR BEAR, DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRL, CHI-RAQ, EX-MACHINA, and SICARIO were not sent to any of my SAG member friends, but were all sent to my friends in the WGA, as if to say such smaller fare was not worthy of a mainstream acting award but might be lucky enough to get a token Best Screenplay nomination, something that the monster hit STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON had to settle for as well.
But this entire hubbub has been over something as incredibly insignificant as an awards show. It’s a shame that films like CREED and STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON weren’t invited to the glitzy victory parties, but both films are already winners because they made a ton of money, which Hollywood tends to listen to in spite of awards, which is why they have sequels in development. Hopefully Hollywood will take note of their success and make more films like them. I would love for The Academy Awards to start honoring deserving and diverse films based on their worth and not how many screeners the studio sent out, but I would be even happier if studios just made more diverse films, whether they ended up winning awards or not. The real problem with “The Academy’s” diversity problem is that the only diverse films that have a chance of being honored are the three or four that the studios deem mainstream enough to stand a chance at competing. Until they make more films full of faces of color, there’s only going to be a few films like STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON eligible each year, while all the other great and diverse films of the year get forgotten because they’re too independent and small to compete. I’ve actually heard people shame the Academy saying, “If you don’t nominate more actors of color, then Hollywood won’t want to make films with those actors.” Movies are supposed to beget awards, and not the other way around. Films can’t be nominated if they don’t already exist. You’ll notice that the Academy doesn’t have a problem honoring minority directors, as the last four Oscar winners for Best Director have all been foreign minorities. It is not that the Academy is less discriminatory with directors than they are with actors, but more that the studios are more likely to employ minority directors than they are actors for large tentpole films, thus making it a more diverse field long before award nominations even begin. Hollywood should be investing in as many minority performers as they do directors, but no director’s face is ever going to be featured on a poster, affecting box office potential in foreign markets, which is a primary concern now for every studio.
Even better than Hollywood stepping up and making more diverse films, (which I’ve lost faith of them ever doing), they could start to pay more attention to the smaller independent films that are already doing the diversity job for them. They can stop making these films and go to film festivals and start buying the ones that are already made and give them the kind of push that independent cinema got in the mid 90’s before Hollywood decided that they could replicate their formula all by themselves. Even just last week, Nate Parker’s film THE BIRTH OF A NATION was bought at Sundance for a record 17.5 million dollars, and has already been declared the frontrunner for the Oscars in 2017, even while only a small handful of people have even seen it. Hopefully it gets enough of a screener push next campaign season that the voters will get to see it, because lord knows they’re not going to go to the multiplex on their own.
In the meantime, there is one awards show that still matters, and that’s my award show: THE JOHNNY AWARDS. I don’t nominate films here to be a contrarian or to spite the Oscars for their snubs, but to reward the performances I find truly deserving. This year, I’ve even included a “snub” in each category, with a provided reason for their exclusion, which is more than the Academy will ever give you. So enjoy THE SIXTH ANNUAL JOHNNY AWARDS, where everyone is a winner!
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR:
JASON BATEMAN, “The Gift”
BENICIO DEL TORO, “Sicario”
IDRIS ELBA, “Beasts of No Nation”
WALTON GOGGINS, “The Hateful Eight”
RICHARD JENKINS, “Bone Tomahawk”
I’m Snubbing… OSCAR ISAAC, “Ex-Machina.”
OSCAR ISAAC, a previous Johnny Award winner, gave a predictably excellent performance in EX-MACHINA, but it wasn’t even his best performance of the year. That would be the ineligible miniseries, “Show Me A Hero.” Sorry, Poe, but the bar has been raised.
It was an interesting year for niche character actors. A lot of these performances felt like lead roles, but what typically made me bump them into this category was their shared screen time with a larger ensemble. Comedic actors doing drama is always an attention grabber, but it’s been a long time since I’ve seen a funny actor get so seamlessly dark as JASON BATEMAN did in THE GIFT. BENICIO DEL TORO’s cold character in SICARIO was so mystifying that even now I still can’t decide if he’s a hero or a villain. IDRIS ELBA also doesn’t resort to villainous clichés for his portrayal of a monstrous warlord in BEASTS OF NO NATION. WALTON GOGGINS has been acting in films for years, but he is usually killed off shortly after being introduced. His performance in THE HATEFUL EIGHT is not only a hilarious highlight of the film, but is also dominating in a way he’s never been allowed to be outside of television. While Goggins plays with western tropes through a modern lens, RICHARD JENKINS is on the other side of the coin, channeling Walter Brennan with a performance that would have been perfectly at home in a classic western from the 1940’s. This superb character actor knows just how to get a laugh and play for our sympathies. Tough choice.
And the winner is… WALTON GOGGINS.
Believing that comedy doesn’t get honored nearly enough, I’m easily seduced by a humorous performance and Goggins got a ton of laughs out of me in a very dark film. He has been so extraordinary on the small screen in shows like “The Shield” and “Justified” that it’s time that we recognize his potential for being one of our finest character actors working today, and let’s also not rule him out as a leading man either.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS:
JENNIFER JASON LEIGH, “Anomalisa”
CYNTHIA NIXON, “James White”
ERICA RIVAS, “Wild Tales”
GÜNES SENSOY, “Mustang”
MYA TAYLOR, “Tangerine”
I’m Snubbing… KRISTEN STEWART, “The Clouds of Sils Maria.”
I know. I’m surprised too. STEWART’s performance in THE CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA was shockingly good, displaying none of her signature ego and boredom. But she’ll have to prove she can do it again before I shake any memories of “Twilight.”
Very few award shows take animation seriously, and so vocal performances rarely get recognized. While JENNIFER JASON LEIGH did score a few nominations for her performance in “The Hateful Eight,” it was her performance in ANOMALISA that really blew me away, showing a pain and vulnerability that could be felt without ever seeing the actress’ face. CYNTHIA NIXON offered one of the most devastating portrayals of illness I’ve ever seen in JAMES WHITE, a film very few people have seen, but should. Argentinean actress ERICA RIVAS gave one of the funniest and most over the top performances of the year in her segment of WILD TALES in which she plays a jilted bride out for quick revenge. We love seeing child actors at award show podiums, but some of the best young performances of the year have widely been ignored. There wasn’t a better child performance this year than that of GÜNES SENSOY in the powerful Turkish film MUSTANG. Sensoy’s performance beautifully lifts the devastating film with hope and joy and I won’t ever forget it. Finally, MYA TAYLOR broke my heart in TANGERINE, playing a transgendered Hollywood hooker doing her best to have a merry Christmas amidst a chaotic day. Tough choice.
And the winner is… MYA TAYLOR.
While Taylor has the subtler, less flashy and vocal role in “Tangerine,” her face speaks volumes and tells a harrowing story of survival. Taylor does not play her character as a victim, but as we watch her selflessly put her friends needs over her own; we desperately want to envision a happier future for her. Taylor strips herself of all vanity to show us her raw emotions, from her fantasy torch song performance of “Toyland,” to her final moments in an ending worthy of O’Henry. Mya Taylor’s performance is a benchmark for transgendered performers everywhere and a powerful debut for a kind of character that we’ve never seen on screen before.
TOM COURTENAY, “45 Years”
SAMUEL L. JACKSON, “The Hateful Eight”
BEN MENDELSOHN, “Mississippi Grind”
MARK RUFFALO, “Infinitely Polar Bear”
JASON SEGEL, “The End of the Tour”
I’m Snubbing… COLIN FARRELL, “The Lobster.”
COLIN FARRELL should absolutely be nominated for his hilarious performance in the pitch black comedy THE LOBSTER, but the film doesn’t technically come out for a few months. Maybe next year.
Best actor is usually regarded as the most prestigious category, because Lord knows we love our leading men. This year was full of some very fine performances, but ultimately very few that I considered truly great. For the first time ever, I honestly had difficulty filling this category with performances that I unequivocally loved. However the great TOM COURTENAY, a marvelous actor barely recognizable by anyone in this country, gave a haunting performance as a sweet old man with small secrets that could destroy his marriage. Another actor not nearly well regarded enough in our country is BEN MENDELSOHN, an Australian known for playing small character roles, always superbly, even in bad films. He got some notice this year for his role on the Netflix series “Bloodline,” but it was his leading performance as a sad sack, unlucky gambler in MISSISSIPPI GRIND that may be my favorite role of his to date. I hope people discover this film. Critics called JASON SEGEL a lock for a nomination when THE END OF THE TOUR came out last July, and then completely forgot about him. Segel’s portrayal of David Foster Wallace (an author I’m barely familiar with) was a huge leap forward in his career, tonally capturing a brilliant man suffering from depression and bored with life. It’s a performance I didn’t know he was capable of. But two of my absolute favorite performances of the year come from SAMUEL L. JACKSON and MARK RUFFALO. While he’s been known to phone in for a paycheck from time to time, Jackson is constantly taken for granted and doesn’t get the credit he deserves. In THE HATEFUL EIGHT, he gets his juiciest part in years, essentially playing the detective role in an Agatha Christie-esque mystery. He commands complete authority over an already excellent ensemble cast. Meanwhile, I thought MARK RUFFALO did nice work in another ensemble film, “Spotlight,” but gave maybe my favorite performance of his to date as a bi-polar father trying to raise his two daughters in INFINITELY POLAR BEAR. I’ve gone back and forth between these two for a while now. Really tough choice.
And the winner is… MARK RUFFALO
Not since “You Can Count On Me” have I seen MARK RUFFALO give such a natural and funny performance. Many actors attempt to tackle mental illness in films as a shortcut to awards, but Ruffalo’s performance is devoid of cliché and sentimentality. I’ve never seen manic depression dealt with in such a personal way. This sweet and hilarious comedy was completely ignored upon its initial release. It demands to be seen now and Ruffalo deserves to be bumped to A list status.
BLYTHE DANNER, “I’ll See You In My Dreams”
BEL POWLEY, “The Diary of a Teenage Girl”
CHARLOTTE RAMPLING, “45 Years”
KITANA “KIKI” RODRIGUEZ, “Tangerine”
SAOIRSE RONAN, “Brooklyn”
I’m Snubbing… SARAH SNOOK, “Predestination.”
SARAH SNOOK’s jaw-dropping, gender-bending performance in this under-seen sci-fi film should have launched her into the public consciousness. But this year gave us even better performances from actual transgender actresses, so she doesn’t quite make the cut. At least she’s still better than Eddie Redmayne.
While the discussion of diversity continues on, one fact that deserves some attention is that this was an outstanding year for women in film. While I struggled to complete my “Best Actor” list, I could have filled this category at least four times over with excellent performances by multiple generations of our greatest actresses, both old and new. On the young side we have BEL POWLEY, an astonishing find from England, who offered one of the bravest and most honest portrayals of a teenager I’ve ever seen on film; a truly powerful debut. SAOIRSE RONAN has also been honing her craft with fine performances over the years, but she came of age in BROOKLYN, channeling the kind of acting rarely seen outside of films of the 1940’s. But some of our oft forgotten and more experienced actresses also impressed this year. BLYTHE DANNER had her first true lead role to date in the moving showcase I’LL SEE YOU IN MY DREAMS. If the movie had been the sleeper hit it deserved to be I’m sure Danner would have gotten more attention for it. CHARLOTTE RAMPLING got a lot of unwanted attention in the last few weeks for some comments that were dismissive of diversity and tokenism, but I’m still somewhat sympathetic to her, given that aging actresses like her and Danner have been met with their own discrimination over the years. Rampling’s views are a little old fashioned (and very European), but I can’t deny her remarkable performance as a wife coping with a lifetime of betrayal. And to drop something fresh into this light pigment, there’s KITANA “KIKI” RODRIGUEZ, a transgendered actress who gave one of the wildest performances all year in TANGERINE. You can’t take your eyes off her and she wouldn’t let you if you tried. Tough choice.
And the winner is… CHARLOTTE RAMPLING.
If I want the Academy to award on merit over politics, I must follow that example. I could make a statement and punish someone with outdated values, but it would be dishonest on my part because RAMPLING was stunning in 45 YEARS and even weeks after I’ve seen the film I can’t get her out of my head. She doesn’t even speak in the last ten minutes of the film, and that wordless performance is deeper and richer than almost any other I saw all year. Rampling is deserving of a “body of work” award just for her career of daring and shocking performances, but we needn’t qualify her this year, as her work in 45 YEARS is some of the best of her already stellar career.
So when you watch The Academy Awards on February 28th, just remember who the REAL winners are. Eligibility for the 2017 JOHNNY AWARDS starts right now.