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To get nominated for an Oscar, it’s still best to be a mediocre movie about a white guy

The Theory of Everything (starring Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne) has some nice acting. But one of the best movies of the year? Really?
The Theory of Everything (starring Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne) has some nice acting. But one of the best movies of the year? Really?
Focus Features
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Every year, the entertainment-news clearinghouse Movie City News gathers some of the best Oscar predictors together and tallies their predictions to create a consensus of which films will be nominated at the Academy Awards. This group is called the "Gurus of Gold," and it has a solid track record.

That track record — like all predictors' track records — has suffered a bit since the Academy switched to nominating anywhere between 5 and 10 films that cross a certain voting threshold for Best Picture. It means, after all, that predictions need to accurately gauge not just which films will be nominated but also where the cutoff in support will be.

However, all three years under this new system so far have resulted in nine actual Best Picture nominees, so let's see what the top nine are in the Gurus' estimation. In order of likelihood, they are:

Other prominent prediction sites — like Goldderby, Awards Daily, Awards Watch, and In Contention — mostly name these nine films as well, shuffled around in different orders, with some excluded, and Foxcatcher (10th place on the Gurus' chart) occasionally shuttled in. This, for better or worse, seems to be the field.

Notice anything about those movies? With the exception of Selma and maybe Gone Girl (depending on whom you believe to be the protagonist of that film), they're all movies about white dudes doing white dude things. Some, like Boyhood, are stupendous. But most are deeply mediocre.

That's a problem, and it only underscores just how safe and conservative this year's Oscar race is, especially compared to what happened last year.

12 Years a Slave

Chiwetel Ejiofor stars in 12 Years a Slave, which won Best Picture just last year. (Fox Searchlight)

The Oscars have diversified

The standard response I get when I make this argument is that a.) Hollywood still largely makes movies about white guys and b.) the handful of films it makes about women, gay people, or people of color tend to be outside the Oscar mainstream, save for your occasional 12 Years a Slave or Brokeback Mountain. To be fair to those arguing against me, both of these data points are largely accurate.

If I were to quibble, it would be with that second point. See, the Academy has been making efforts to diversify and lower the age of its average members, in hopes of similarly diversifying the slate of films it honors each year. The increase from five nominees for Best Picture was also meant to accomplish this feat.

These efforts have largely been successful, at least in terms of the films honored. Big blockbusters like Inception and Toy Story 3 have cracked the lineup, as have incredibly tiny indie films like Winter's Bone and Beasts of the Southern Wild. Standard-issue movies about white men triumphing over adversity in hopefully inspirational fashion still dominate the proceedings, but movies that break that mold have increasingly gotten nominated — and even challenged for the win.

This all culminated in last year's matchup, in which the two most likely winners were a harrowing story of the legacy of slavery, centered on black characters (12 Years a Slave), and a movie where a woman was the only person on screen for the bulk of the running time (Gravity). Both films were, in and of themselves, great movies. But it also felt like some kind of new watershed moment.

Yet here we are with this year's crop. Of the Gurus' top five candidates, only one (Selma) doesn't feature a white man as its protagonist. This might be okay if the other four were truly groundbreaking, amazing films, but only Boyhood, to my mind, fits the bill. Others will stump for Birdman — a film I found hilariously overbaked — but you'll find few saying anything too glowing about The Imitation Game or The Theory of Everything, both largely standard-issue biopics.

Boyhood is probably going to win, too, from lack of serious competition. (Selma might have made a dent, had it entered the game sooner, but it has too much ground to make up now. It's also dealing with a minor controversy over, ironically, the historical accuracy of its presentation of a white man — a question The Imitation Game, with its much more substantial alterations to history, has yet to face.) Boyhood will be one of the most unique, unusual Best Picture winners ever, too, and I don't want to minimize its success in any way. But it's still a movie about a largely typical, white middle-class upbringing. Too often, that's still how Oscar sees America.

Get on Up

Chadwick Boseman played James Brown in the fun biopic Get on Up. (Universal)

There are other options

The usual response here is that there simply weren't other Oscar-friendly films out there that centered on anyone other than white dudes. And at first blush, when you consider the field, that seems true. Certainly something like The Babadook — a tiny Australian horror film, featuring women in most major creative roles — is never going to pop up on the Oscars' radar.

But what about the James Brown biopic Get on Up, far more engaging and arresting than either Imitation or Theory? Or Chris Rock's Top Five, a deeply flawed but still interesting film about the nature of being black and famous in America? Or the surprisingly, unjustly ignored Beyond the Lights, the kind of show-business movie the Oscars have salivated to award in the past but just couldn't be bothered by this year?

These movies have struggled at the box office, to be sure, but it's also not as if the Oscar frontrunners are titans in this regard either. Only Gone Girl, which is far from assured of a nomination, has made over $100 million domestically.

The question gets even more bizarre when one considers all of the solid, Oscar-friendly movies led by women that are mostly just being ignored. The magnificent period piece The Immigrant has suffered for not having its studio campaign for it, to be sure, but, then, why not the harrowing foreign film Two Days, One Night, about a woman trying to save her job, featuring Marion Cotillard in an Oscar-friendly lead role? Or why not Still Alice, a by the numbers issue movie about Alzheimer's, centered on Julianne Moore, that seems like it could push Oscar's buttons?


Reese Witherspoon plays Cheryl Strayed in the film version of Strayed's memoir Wild. (Fox Searchlight)

The most perplexing absence of them all

Above all else, the most perplexing question here is why Wild has seemingly been given up for the Oscar dead, despite featuring work from Reese Witherspoon (in its lead role) that seems nomination-bound. I am in no way, shape, or form going to argue that Wild is a great film, but it's certainly a good one, and it's much better than several of the assumed nominees.

Wild has received good reviews and performed just as well at the box office as many of those other prospective nominees. Its director, Jean Marc Vallée, made Dallas Buyers Club, a film that was very successful at the Oscars just last year (and Wild is also much better than that film). The film's struggles may have to do with its studio, Fox Searchlight, having two other films in the above list, in Birdman and Grand Budapest. But Fox Searchlight is a savvy Oscar campaigner, and even without that, Wild is doing well enough to start a groundswell on its own. At the very least, it should be in the hunt. But it's just not.

Literally the only answer I can find here is that Wild isn't about the great struggle of a white guy to overcome something or other. It is, instead, the story of a woman's personal struggle to overcome her own self-destructive tendencies. And we too often look at a story like that and suggest, "Huh. Nice enough, but it's no great shakes."

This is a failure of imagination, then. It's a failure of imagination from Oscar voters and Oscar campaigners and Oscar prognosticators. It's a failure of imagination from people who write about film, or just cover film awards. It's a coded message that, despite the differences present in the films honored in 2013, Oscar movies still look a certain way — and their protagonists do too.

I should hasten to add that the votes are not completely tallied yet. We won't know who the actual nominees are until the 15th. But it's enormously rare for a film that's completely off the radar to score a Best Picture nomination, and in an age when every single Oscar tea leaf is carefully considered by multiple sites, it's all but unheard of.

On its face, none of this is "important," really. The winner of Best Picture will be forgotten by the vast majority of people a few weeks after the ceremony is over. But the film industry, which has so often dedicated itself to progressive causes, at least on a spokesperson level, is too often ruled by quiet artistic conservatism in what movies "should" look like.

We see it in the kinds of movies that are made, and we see it in the kinds of movies that win awards. And yet the world reflected in the Oscars looks little like the one outside our windows. It's time for that to change.

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