2017 Oscar nominations: La La Land lets Hollywood revel in its own image, Mel Gibson is back, and black nominees most ever

Record-tying 14 Academy Awards nods for Damien Chazelle’s throwback musical a reminder Tinseltown loves celebrating itself, but nominations also celebrate racial diversity – up to a point – and include Netflix, Amazon films

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 25 January, 2017, 11:27am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 25 January, 2017, 11:34am

There are few things Hollywood loves more than celebrating itself and, true to form, the nominations handed out on Tuesday for the 89th Academy Awards reflected an industry happy to revel in its own glittering self-image. But they also showed a tradition-bound institution embracing the future with record levels of diversity, both in demographics and format.

The effervescent, brightly coloured musical La La Land – a love letter to the city of Los Angeles and the movies themselves – danced its way to 14 Oscar nominations, including best picture, tying the all-time record held by Titanic and All About Eve.

People want to see their own stories up on the big screen. The problem is nobody in Hollywood is really paying attention
Donna Gigliotti

One of nine films to score a best picture nod in this year’s crowded and varied field, La La Land has been widely embraced as a balm in these politically turbulent times and a fresh twist on a genre that had largely fallen out of favour.

“It’s a film that uses all the tools of cinema – performance and music and design and storytelling – and masterfully combines them to deliver a joyful experience,” said one of the film’s producers, Marc Platt. “No cynicism, no irony – just joy.”

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But beyond the resurgence of the musical, Oscar voters gave the recently embattled motion picture academy something bigger to cheer about. Unlike last year’s telecast, which host Chris Rock scathingly branded “the White People’s Choice Awards”, the 89th Academy Awards will not be dominated by hot-button questions of discrimination in the film industry.

After two years of bitter controversy over back-to-back slates of all-white acting nominees, seven actors and actresses from ethnic minorities earned nominations this year.

The diversity of this year’s nominations – which, in a further break from tradition, were announced via a pre-recorded, live-streamed video instead of the usual news conference – is a testament to a strong group of recent films, including Fences, Moonlight and Hidden Figures, that deal head-on with issues of race in ways that have resonated with critics and audiences.

“It goes to the heart of what I say over and over again and that is, frankly, that diversity pays,” said Hidden Figures producer Donna Gigliotti, who helped bring the real-life story of female African-American mathematicians in the space race to the screen. “People want to see their own stories up on the big screen. The problem is nobody in Hollywood is really paying attention, so it falls on independent producers to find and tell these stories.”

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To help encourage the telling of those stories, and in response to last year’s #OscarsSoWhite furore, the academy’s leadership has taken dramatic steps to broaden the organisation’s overwhelmingly white and male membership ranks. Of the 683 industry professionals invited to join last year, 46 per cent were female and 41 per cent from ethnic minorities.

And while it is impossible to know what impact that new class had on the nominations, six black actors and actresses earned nominations. Among them were Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, who share the screen in Washington’s adaptation of August Wilson’s play Fences, and Mahershala Ali and Naomie Harris, who earned nods for their work in Moonlight, a coming-of-age film about a gay African-American boy growing up in Miami that earned eight nominations in total, including one for its African-American director, Barry Jenkins.

Even so, writer and activist April Reign, who first created the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag in 2015, says there is still much work to be done before the problem is truly solved.

Noting the lack of Latino or Asian-American acting nominees, Reign said that “we can’t forget just because we have black nominees this year. #OscarsSoWhite is about everybody”. Studios, she said, need to be “actively seeking the stories of the marginalised – and that’s not happening yet”.

Indeed, the lists of nominated directors and writers were overwhelmingly male. There were no women nominated in the directing category, and in the screenplay categories there was only one: Hidden Figures co-writer Allison Schroeder.

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While La La Land emerged from Tuesday’s nominations as the odds-on favourite to win the top prize, Oscar voters spread their love far and wide, with films across a range of genres competing for best picture, including the cerebral sci-fi hit Arrival, the crime thriller Hell or High Water and the second world war epic Hacksaw Ridge .

For Hacksaw Ridge director Mel Gibson, the nominations capped a noteworthy comeback. The onetime megastar, who spent years as an industry pariah for his alleged anti-Semitism and other controversial offscreen behaviour, picked up six nominations for his film, including nods for his directing and for lead actor Andrew Garfield.

“This was definitely a film that had to overcome a lot of stuff to get in,” said Hacksaw Ridge producer Bill Mechanic. “Only by the quality of the movie being so strong did the love overcome the hate. … It was emotional to see Mel be embraced and all the stuff of the past finally being forgiven.”

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The wrenching drama Manchester by the Sea, though an odds-on favourite for the six nominations it received including best picture, was also a milestone. As the boundary between film and television grows ever porous, Manchester marks the first time Amazon Studios, or any streaming service, has earned a best picture nomination. The story of an emotionally broken man who becomes the guardian of his late brother’s teenage son, the film earned six nominations in total, including for its director and writer, Kenneth Lonergan, and for stars Casey Affleck, Lucas Hedges and Michelle Williams.

The documentary O.J.: Made in America blurred formats even further. The 7½ -hour documentary that was shown in five parts on ESPN as well as in a limited cinema release earned a nomination for best documentary feature, as did director Ava DuVernay’s Netflix film about racial discrimination in the criminal justice system, 13th.

La La Land, Moonlight and Manchester by the Sea expected to scoop lion’s share of Oscar nominations

With a crowd-pleasing Hollywood confection such as La La Land dominating the nominations and the #OscarsSoWhite controversy abated for now, the Oscar telecast – which will air on ABC on February 26, with Jimmy Kimmel hosting – promises a return in many ways to the old-school and the feel-good.

“We want to inspire people with memories of what a best friend the movies have been over the course of their life, and we want to have a lot of laughs,” Oscar telecast co-producer Michael De Luca told the Los Angeles Times in November. “Get in, get out. No homework. All joy.”

That said, with many in liberal-leaning Hollywood staking out full-throated opposition to US President Donald Trump and diversity so strongly on display, these Oscars are sure to be freighted with political messages, overt and otherwise.

“These are very wild times,” said industry stalwart Jeff Bridges, who earned a supporting actor nod for his role as a Texas Ranger in Hell or High Water. “We’re all in it together.”