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15 January 2016updated 14 Sep 2021 2:57pm

White bias, bland acting, self-indulgent films: why are the Oscar nominations so bad?

Perhaps it's time to cancel the Oscars temporarily to allow the industry to gather its strength and recover.

By Ryan Gilbey

Some of the obituaries written about the late Alan Rickman, who has died aged 69, have mentioned the answer he gave when asked about never having won an Oscar. “Parts win prizes, not actors,” he said in 2008. “You always know a part that’s got ‘prize winner’ written all over it, and it’s almost like anybody could say those lines and somebody will hand them a piece of metal.”

How wise. Impossible not to think of those words in light of the Oscar nominations this year in the category of Best Actor. Don’t get me wrong – the nominations in general this year are fairly bad across the board. Stupefyingly so. Enough to make you ponder firstly the state of movies and secondly the sensibility of an entire awards body that can think it appropriate to actually reward filmmaking like this, rather than cancelling the Oscars temporarily to allow the industry to gather its strength and recover – much as the Glastonbury festival has been known to skip a year so that the ground might recover from the casual pummelling it receives.

But in the matter of Best Actor, we have really hit rock bottom. This is a new kind of badness.

Bryan Cranston is nominated for Trumbo, in which he plays the blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo. It’s a TV-movie kind of film with a performance to match.

For The Martian, Matt Damon is nominated: a generally bland actor playing an Ordinary Joe in a movie that explicitly favours DIY practicality over any spiritual or intellectual nourishment. It’s Blue Peter in space.

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Leonardo DiCaprio is the favourite, it seems, for playing the explorer and trapper Hugh Glass, savaged by a crazed bear and left for dead by his companions in The Revenant. If DiCaprio wins, this will really be a prize for endurance. Not only what he endured on set – being savaged by a crazed director (Alejandro González Iñárritu) might be closer to the truth – but also his staying power as an actor. An award for DiCaprio’s highly limited work in The Revenant will be a case of right actor, wrong film. He should have won two years ago for his best performance: The Wolf of Wall Street.

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For Steve Jobs, Michael Fassbender is up for the prize. He reads Aaron Sorkin’s lines at the necessary breakneck speed but the role is so intensely overwritten that all the life is squeezed out of him (and the movie). It’s all so over-thought that the work itself feels like a formality – dotting the “i”s and crossing the “t”s.

Finally, the ultimate joke: Eddie Redmayne is in the running for playing Lili Erbe, one of the first people to undergo gender reassignment surgery, in The Danish Girl. Not only is this a dreadful film, it is blighted ultimately by one of the most stunted and condescending performances in recent memory.

As I wrote recently in my review for the NS, Redmayne’s work here is all mannerism and no inner life. He has one facial expression (gaze lowered, lashes fluttering, face half-turned away in a simpering smile) and no apparent understanding of who Lili is. But then, neither does the movie.

We know Academy voters have also seen 45 Years because Charlotte Rampling is nominated for Best Actress. So it’s especially galling that they disregarded Tom Courtenay in that film in favour of Redmayne. We know also that they saw the terrific Mad Max: Fury Road, because it notched up an impressive ten nominations in other categories.

But there’s no Best Actor recognition for Tom Hardy in that picture, despite his Robert Mitchum-esque levels of poetic minimalism. (You may be surprised to learn that minimalism is a quality not generally rewarded come Oscar time.) Hardy is nominated instead in the Best Supporting Actor list for The Revenant, where his work is fun but much more in the nature of pantomime.

If Best Actor is the pits, the other categories aren’t much better. Depending on the percentage of votes, as many as ten nominees can slug it out for Best Picture. Only eight made the cut this year. There’s one great movie (Mad Max: Fury Road, which won’t win), three good ones (Room, which I’ve reviewed in this week’s NS, Brooklyn and Bridge of Spies), one adequate-but-safe (Spotlight), one drab (The Martian).

There is also one outright terrible choice (the financial crisis comedy-drama The Big Short, which I’ll be reviewing next week). And there’s The Revenant, which would have been perfect if it had ended after 40 minutes and had been the story of a man killed by a bear. In short, if it had been a short. With another two hours lumped onto its running time, it becomes seriously overwrought and self-important. It has delusions of Herzog – let’s call it Fauxcarraldo.

Moan, moan, moan. You may by now be wondering if the Academy got anything right. Well, the Best Actress category is very strong. Along with Rampling, there is Cate Blanchett (Carol), Brie Larson (Room), Jennifer Lawrence (Joy) and Saoirse Ronan (Brooklyn). All fantastic choices.

I was happy to see Mark Rylance up for Best Supporting Actor for his nuanced performance in Bridge of Spies. And thrilled also to see the Irish director Lenny Abrahamson nominated in the Best Director category for Room. It isn’t a perfect movie by any means but it must have been difficult to pull off – it’s about a kidnapped woman who raises her child in captivity – and the nomination provides recognition of Abrahamson’s role in handling difficult material so deftly, and in shaping brilliant performances by Brie Larson and the eight-year-old newcomer Jacob Tremblay.

It was good to see the Rocky sequel/reboot Creed get a nomination – just a shame that it is only Sylvester Stallone rather than his African-American colleagues (the film’s star, Michael B Jordan, and its director, Ryan Coogler) who are in the running. Stallone is very good in the picture but it’s hard not to resent the white bias in the voting. Especially as the NWA movie Straight Outta Compton is nominated for its godawful script, which incorporates every biopic cliché in the book, rather than for its accomplished cast.

Does that mean black subject matter is (just about) tolerable but not black faces? We can expect Chris Rock to have something to say on the matter when he hosts the Oscars ceremony on 28 February.