Oscar nominations for this year’s ceremony have recently been announced, so now it’s time to play “Why the heck was X nominated/snubbed?” In doing so, it’s easy to see that for every theory you may come up with, there’s always an exception. Still, between the view that the best actor (of either gender) wins because their performance is so moving that even non-movie criers choke up, and the belief that there are vendettas against certain directors, actors, etc. is the more moderate stance that talent plays a role, but so does luck and politics.
Making a movie that has a shot at being nominated for an Oscar can be like playing poker. Let’s say you’re holding a hand with three kings (say, British protagonist overcoming handicap in the World War II era), there still is a chance, however slim, that someone else will be holding a suit that trumps yours. However, if you won with three kings the year before, and again are holding the same hand, it’s likely that you won’t repeat your victory, at least not in the same category. The timing of your movie matters, along with a lot of factors that cannot be controlled.
However, taking the following into consideration while making your film won’t guarantee you’ll win an Oscar, but they may increase your odds.
1. Morally Un-Ambiguous Protagonist
A protagonist should have some kind of flaw or obstacle to overcome on the way to success, but he should also be a decent person at heart. Ideally, he should be imperfect, but not sociopathic.
2. Morally Un-Ambiguous Antagonist
A little ambiguity in your villain can be a good thing. But not too much. Note: an antagonist can be either a person or an issue. The Holocaust and slavery during the Civil War era are undeniably wrong. With the police or “the Establishment”, there is a bigger divide.
3. The Class Factor
Or: The Corset Factor
As many critics have noted, Hollywood loves to nominate period pieces. For one thing, it’s easy to pretend that all the issues raised have also gone firmly out of fashion, along with the clothes, and we are currently living in a more enlightened era. For another, it announces that you are a classy person yourself if you like these kinds of films, even if your secret favorite film of the year made you laugh so hard you squirted soda out of your nose.
4. The Gun Factor
Or: Enough With the Corsets Already Factor
Every now and then, Academy voters go rogue and nominate a film which harkens back to a time (or future) where men were men and did manly things without women getting in their way or even in the vicinity. Wars and the Wild West are two examples. But it also helps if these men are mostly Caucasian. It doesn’t take a sophisticated critic to note that white guys toting guns in movies are more likely to be more palatable to Oscar voters than non-white characters doing the same. But whatever their skin color, the characters should be firmly on the side of justice.
5. The Last Year Factor
Or: Give Someone Else a Chance Already Factor
In which a well-regarded role or movie that resembles a recent Oscar-winner is bypassed. See above poker comparison.
6. The Catch Up Factor
Or: The Fairness Factor
In which an actor wins for a role that they technically should have won the year before, or say in an actor like Leonardo DiCaprio’s case, that they should have won multiple prior years. It may seem like some actors can get nominated playing a mute, while the odds are stacked against others for no discernible reason, but every now and then, there’s a curveball.
In both 5. and 6., the concept of fairness plays a role. Americans are generally big on the belief that if someone works hard enough, their effort will ultimately pay off. However, effort isn’t always rewarded at the right time and for the right reasons.
Are there exceptions to each of these generalizations? Absolutely. For example, “Black Mass” featuring lots of white guys with guns was snubbed this year. But then there was no real “hero” in the movie, just characters that were marginally less bad than others. And of course, talent does play a role, though sometimes not quite as big as it should.