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Oscars so white or Oscars so wrong?

When host Chris Rock takes the stage this Sunday for the 88 th annual Academy Awards, you can be sure he’ll be making jokes – not so much about the movies nominated (or not nominated) – but about the controversy surrounding the Academy since the nominations were announced last month.

This year’s Oscar season has been dominated by the issue of racial diversity in the Academy, which compelled the powers that be at AMPAS to revise and revamp their membership, essentially putting some older voters out to pasture. Some celebrities threatened to boycott the Oscars because of the lack of black nominees, including the neverbashful Spike Lee and Jada Pinkett Smith, evidently miffed that hubby Will wasn’t nominated for Concussion. Racial diversity has become the talk of the Oscars, and everyone it seems has an opinion – and that includes yours truly.

It should be pointed out, however, that since the turn of the 21 st century, the Oscars have absolutely nominated more black and minority actors and filmmakers than ever before. Denzel Washington, Halle Berry, Morgan Freeman, Jamie Foxx, Forest Whitaker, Octavia Spencer, Jennifer Hudson, Mo’Nique, and Lupita Nyong’o have all won acting Oscars, while Will Smith, Don Cheadle, Gabourey Sidibe, Queen Latifah, Djimon Hounsou, Sophie Okonedo, Terrence Howard, Eddie Murphy, Ruby Dee, Viola Davis, Taraji P. Henson, Quvenzhane Wallis and Barkhad Abdi have all been nominated.

The last two directors to win the Oscar, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (Birdman) and Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity), hail from Mexico, as does cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who has won back-to-back Oscars (Gravity and Birdman) – and is nominated again this year. Does that sound like a lack of diversity? The infusion of more international Academy members over the last several years has widened the Oscar spectrum, although evidently not immediately enough or to the satisfaction of Lee, who incidentally received a lifetime Oscar this year. (You know what? He deserved it, too.)

I’m not saying that racism and discrimination don’t exist, either in the Academy or society at large, but no Academy member I’ve met has ever voted for or against someone on account of their race or ethnicity. Likewise, when I’ve voted in critics’ awards, race and ethnicity have never played a part. We vote for what and whom we think are the best.

We have not heard the last of this debate, which will likely rage on long after the winners (and losers) have gone home.

Best Picture: It’s the one I liked the least of the nominees, but The Revenant – as bloated, self-indulgent (and admittedly beautifully made) as it is – looks to be a lock. (Hey, I didn’t like Titanic, either.) Since the Academy expanded the Best Picture category, for reasons more financial than artistic (in my humble

opinion), a few of the nominated films – Brooklyn, Mad Max: Fury Road, Room – are merely taking up space. The initial groundswell for The Martian – including a Golden Globe win in the comedy/musical category (what the hell …?) – seems to have dried up. The Big Short could surprise, and I’d like nothing better than to see Spotlight – my #1 film of last year – pull off an upset. But I’m not holding my breath.

Best Director: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu won last year, and he’s on track to repeat – yes, for The Revenant. Adam McKay (The Big Short) and Lenny Abrahamson (Room) are long shots. George Miller (Mad Max: Fury Road) is the dark horse here. If Academy voters want to spread the love around, it’s not inconceivable that Miller wins. Once again, I’d like to see Tom McCarthy win for Spotlight. He might … but, again, I’m not holding my breath.

Best Actor: Not unlike Jeff Bridges (Crazy Heart in 2008), Kate Winslet (The Reader in ‘08) and Julianne Moore (Still Alice last year), it’s simply Leonardo DiCaprio’s time. Six nominations without a win, and although I didn’t like The Revenant that’s no reflection on his fine performance or his consistently good work over the years. Matt Damon (The Martian) seemed early on to be his closest competition, and Eddie Redmayne (The Danish Girl) won last year. Had more people seen Steve Jobs, Michael Fassbender would have a significantly better chance, but he could be a spoiler. So too could be Bryan Cranston (Trumbo). The movie wasn’t perfect, but his turn as blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo was astonishing. Cranston has also proven his versatility on stage and television. He’s well-liked, well-respected – and he could pull it off. But, let’s face it, DiCaprio’s got to win some time … and it looks like that time is now.

Best Actress: Saoirse Ronan (Brooklyn) is the only obstacle standing between Brie Larson (Room) and the Oscar.

Jennifer Lawrence (Joy) has won, Cate Blanchett (Carol) has won two, and Charlotte Rampling’s nomination (45 Years) is, with all due respect, as much for her 50-year career as her (fine) performance in the film. Larson’s a lock. Hollywood loves to crown a new queen, and she’s it.

Best Supporting Actor: Christian Bale (The Big Short) has already won, Tom Hardy (The Revenant) has had a hell of a year, with Mad Max: Fury Road and his dual act as the twin British gangsters Reggie and Ronnie Kray in Legend, and stage veteran Mark Rylance (Bridge of Spies ) is unrecognizable as taciturn Soviet spy Rudolf Abel. Mark Ruffalo, one of our best young actors, is up for the third time. Any one of these actors could pull it off were there not the white elephant in the room … or, should I say, the Italian Stallion in the room? If there’s a sentimental favorite in any category at this year’s Academy Awards, it’s Sylvester Stallone (Creed). He’s had a durable career – surviving any number of big-screen bombs and countless jokes about his acting – and he’s made an awful lot of money for an awful lot of people in Hollywood. Sly’s a survivor, and don’t think the Academy doesn’t know it.

Best Supporting Actress: Despite all the love lavished on Alicia Vikander (The Danish Girl) – which has apparently made her the front-runner – this is one of the toughest categories. Rooney Mara (Carol) seems to have faded a bit, and Rachel McAdams (Spotlight) never really had a chance. But keep your eye on Kate Winslet (Steve Jobs). It’s another great performance from a great actress, and she could surprise. The dark horse here is Jennifer Jason Leigh (The Hateful Eight). Remarkably, this is her first Oscar nomination despite a career marked by fearless work. An Oscar win would be as much for her career as this performance, and the Academy loves Quentin Tarantino, so this might be the way to reward his epic Western, in which Leigh more than holds her own against a macho cadre of co-stars. !

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