Another year, another Academy Awards ceremony, but sadly, no Canadian winners. Ben Proudfoot, a young Nova Scotian filmmaker, was the sole nominee this year in the category of Best Documentary Short Subject for his directorial work on A Concerto is a Conversation, along with his American co-director Kris Bowers. While no one ever wants to lose, I am sure that Proudfoot and Bowers would agree that few ceremonies better characterise the phrase “It’s an honour just to be nominated” than the Academy Awards…unless you’re Glenn Close, who now equals Peter O’Toole’s record of eight acting nominations without a win.
All jokes aside though, as has become something of a trend in recent years, the Academy once again passed some significant milestones that, while great to see, makes you wonder how in the hell they took so long to get there in the first place.
To give credit where it is due, the Academy has made noticeable strides in recent years by not just nominating minorities and international productions, but actually awarding them statues. The outstanding Danish dramedy Another Round netted director Thomas Vinterberg the Best International Feature statue, but his deft work on the film also earned him a deserving nomination in the Best Director category, even in spite of some stiff U.S. competition.
Since the turn of the century, recognition of international productions has been somewhat sporadic. In fact, the year 2000 saw Ang Lee’s classic Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon storm the awards with four wins out of a whopping ten nominations, including Best International Feature, yet it lost Best Picture to Gladiator and Best Director to Steven Soderbergh for his work on Traffic. For the next couple of years, the closest the Academy came to nominating a foreign language production in either category was Chocolat and Moulin Rouge, which are French in title but entirely American as productions.
For much of this century, the Academy would see an international production earn a nomination here and there in either category, acting more as consolatory gestures than actual hopefuls for either award. And before you say it, yes, 2011’s The Artist is a French production that won Best Picture and Best Director, in addition to a Best Actor for Jean Dujardin, but it is almost entirely silent and based in 1920s/1930s Hollywood, so it is not a foreign language film.
However, 2019 saw a shift in how the Academy awarded foreign language productions. Although Best Picture controversially went to Peter Farrelly’s Green Book, Alfonso Cuarón won Best Director for his Mexican production Roma, in addition to two other wins out of ten nominations, which was the most for a foreign language production since Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. However, unlike the many ceremonies that followed Ang Lee’s Oscar success, the Academy has not taken its foot off the pedal since, which is likely in response to the whole #OscarsSoWhite fiasco in 2015 and their blatant inaction the following year.
Last year, for instance, felt like a cumulative celebration of South Korean cinema, with Bong Joon-ho’s massively acclaimed Parasite taking home Best Picture, Best Director, Best International Feature and Best Original Screenplay. By that logic, then, 2021 will likely be seen as a watershed year in its recognition of women in cinema.
While the academy continues to recognise the work of Asian peoples in the industry, with Youn Yuh-jung’s Best Supporting Actress win for Minari making her the first ever South Korean actress to receive the award, it was Emerald Fennell, Chloe Zhao and Frances McDormand who stole the show with their respective successes on the night.
Fennell, who was previously better known for her work in front of the camera, made history with Zhao before this year’s ceremony ever aired, as both were nominated in the Best Director category, shockingly making it the first time two female directors featured in the category at the same time. While Fennell ultimately lost Best Director to Zhao and Nomadland (more on that in just a moment), she did win Best Original Screenplay for her writing in Promising Yong Woman, the first woman to receive the award since Diablo Cody for Juno in 2007.
Zhao, meanwhile, became the first woman of colour to win Best Director, and only the second woman ever after Kathryn Bigelow’s win for The Hurt Locker in 2009. For her performance in the film, McDormand earned her third Oscar for Best Actress, making her only the second actress to do so after Katharine Hepburn. For further context, Hepburn won four times with twelve nominations, Meryl Streep has won twice with a stunning seventeen nominations. McDormand, on the other hand, is a perfect three-for-three. Zhao, McDormand and three other producers–one of whom is also a woman–would go on to Best Picture for Nomadland.
All this being said, while it is important we acknowledge the positive steps the Academy is taking to ensure that the awards are more inclusive, and it is great to see that with each new year the ceremony sees more benchmarks, the fact that they come so late into the 21st century is a not a sign of how far they have come, but rather how far they still have to go. Nevertheless, here’s hoping that next year’s ceremony continues to recognise the works of varying peoples and cultures, whose artistic voices need to not just be heard, but recognised.