Oscars 2021: Five years since diversity debate, is The Academy likely on the verge of making award-season history?

The New York Times
·6 min read

Five years after back-to-back bouts of #OscarsSoWhite put a spotlight on award-season diversity, could the Academy Awards be on the verge of a major breakthrough where people of colour win every single acting trophy?

There are no guarantees in this unusual year, but there is now a precedent: On Sunday, the Screen Actors Guild gave its lead-acting awards to the Ma Rainey's Black Bottom stars Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman, while the supporting-actor awards went to Daniel Kaluuya (Judas and the Black Messiah) and Yuh-Jung Youn (Minari).

If the same people prevail at the Oscars €" and over the last decade, the SAG quartet has held firm half the time €" then it will be the first year in Oscar history that actors of colour will have triumphed in all four acting races.

But even if that record doesn't fall, plenty more are poised to. Already, the lineup of acting nominees is the most diverse ever, and 70 women were nominated across 23 categories, a record.

This year's eclectic mix of newcomers and veterans practically ensures that Oscar history will be made when the 93rd Academy Awards ceremony is broadcast on 25 April, and until then, here are some of the potential breakthroughs I'll be keeping my eye on.

Best Picture and Best Director

How far can Chloé Zhao go? The Nomadland director has already become the most nominated woman in a single year, and if she sweeps all four categories she is recognised in €" editing, adapted screenplay, directing and picture €" she will become the winningest woman ever featured at an Oscar ceremony.

Chloe Zhao on the sets of Nomadland
Chloe Zhao on the sets of Nomadland

Chloe Zhao is the first woman of colour to be nominated in the directing category and could become the second woman ever to win there, joining Kathryn Bigelow.

Even just a few of those wins would make history. Zhao is the first woman of colour to be nominated in the directing category and could become the second woman ever to win there, joining Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker). She is up against the Promising Young Woman director Emerald Fennell, who is the first woman to be nominated in this category for a debut film; only five women have ever been nominated for best director before, and this is the first time we've ever gotten two in the same year.

And if Zhao and Fennell pull off wins in their screenplay races €" Fennell, the Writers Guild victor, is nominated for her original screenplay €" it will mark the first time that both screenwriting categories have rewarded a woman in the same year.

Can Netflix finally pull off a best-picture win? The Trial of the Chicago 7 just took SAG's top prize, a feat no streaming service has ever before accomplished. In a year when most people watched movies from home, a streaming win would feel appropriate; still, for all the inroads Netflix has made with Oscar (Roma nearly won the top prize two years ago, and the streamer's period drama Mank earned the most nominations this year), that best-picture trophy has remained tantalizingly out of reach.

Best Actor and Best Actress

Chadwick Boseman's best-actor victory for Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is so assured that you'd be forgiven for forgetting how rare a posthumous Oscar win actually is. Boseman is just the eighth actor to be nominated after his death, and only two have won before: Heath Ledger for The Dark Knight, and Peter Finch for Network. Both men had previously been nominated, so Boseman is poised to become the first actor to win a posthumous Oscar for his only time at bat.

In the unlikely event that the best-actor Oscar goes to someone else, there's still plenty of history to be made. Anthony Hopkins (The Father) would become the oldest man to prevail in this category, and at 83, he's already the oldest best-actor nominee ever. The Sound of Metal star Riz Ahmed is the first Muslim to be nominated for best actor, and theOscapatriarch Steven Yeun is the first Asian American; if either wins, that would make their cultural breakthroughs even more resonant.

The inclusion of Viola Davis and Andra Day (The United States vs. Billie Holiday) in the best-actress race represents only the second time in Oscar history that the category has featured more than one Black contender; the last time was 1973, when Cicely Tyson was nominated for Sounder and Diana Ross for Lady Sings the Blues (and like Day, Ross was also playing Billie Holiday). If Davis wins this year, she would become the second Black actress after Halle Berry to prevail in this category.

Dual wins for Davis and Boseman would also make Ma Rainey's Black Bottom the eighth movie to take both lead-acting Oscars €" a feat not managed since 1997's As Good as It Gets €" and the first to ever do it without a best-picture nomination. That snub feels especially egregious now since the film is well-positioned for two other wins, both of which would also make history: Mia Neal and Jamika Wilson may become the first Black women to win the Oscar for makeup and hairstyling, while the 89-year-old costume designer Ann Roth is poised to become the oldest woman to ever win an Oscar.

Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress

The supporting-actor race has never before featured three Black nominees in the same year, nor two Black nominees from the same film (Daniel Kaluuya and Lakeith Stanfield from Judas and the Black Messiah). The other Black nominee, the One Night in Miami star Leslie Odom Jr., was also nominated in the best song category, a once-rare double dip that has now happened each of the last four years, with Cynthia Erivo for Harriet, Lady Gaga for A Star Is Born and Mary J. Blige for Mudbound rounding out the list.

Speaking of Oscar two-timers, Olivia Colman won best actress just two years ago for The Favourite, and if she gets a statue for The Father (she's up for supporting actress) she'll become one of the speediest actresses to nab two Oscars: Only Katharine Hepburn and Luise Rainer have done it faster, with back-to-back wins. If the supporting-actress Oscar instead goes to Yuh-Jung Youn, she'd be the first Korean actor to ever win an Academy Award.

And then there's Glenn Close, nominated for supporting actress for Hillbilly Elegy. Close is already the only actress to earn seven nominations with no win, and if she loses again this year, she will tie Peter O'Toole's record of eight winless nominations for acting. (O'Toole was given a non-competitive, honorary Oscar in 2002, when he was younger than the 74-year-old Close is now.)

The closest Close has come to winning was probably two years ago for The Wife, when she lost the best actress Oscar to €¦ well, Olivia Colman. And Close was nearly forced into a face-off with another ghost from Oscars past this year, when Jodie Foster won the supporting-actress Golden Globe for The Mauritanian and very nearly made the Oscar lineup, too: Back in 1989, it was Foster's The Silence of the Lambs performance that prevailed over Close in Dangerous Liaisons.

Kyle Buchanan c.2021 The New York Times Company

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