Oscar nominations were announced in the wee hours of the morning on Tuesday and a narrative soon emerged that the voting bloc — formerly so tunnel-visioned that two years ago it spurred the #OscarsSoWhite campaign — actually got a few things right.
Among the reasons to celebrate are that first-time feature director Jordan Peele earned a directing nod for Get Out (his prescient horror tale about race), while the film landed a Best Picture nomination. Legendary Mary J. Blige became the first person to earn acting and Best Original Song nominations in the same year for Mudbound, and Greta Gerwig became the fifth woman nominated for a directing prize in the history of the Oscars. Dee Rees, a queer woman of color, was nominated for the screenplay for Mudbound (which she also directed). Meanwhile, Rachel Morrison, who is also part of the LGBT community, became the first woman ever to earn a nod in the field of cinematography for Mudbound. If all that weren’t great news enough, Sebastian Lelio’s A Fantastic Woman, which stars a transgender woman, Daniela Vega, in a transgender role, was nominated in the foreign film category.
Still, there was even was more good news for queer cinema in this year’s nominees. Timothée Chalamet landed a much-deserved Best Actor nomination for his turn as Elio, a young man discovering same-sex desire in Call Me by Your Name, and the exquisitely crafted film earned a Best Picture nod, even if its out director, Luca Guadagnino, was snubbed. Also left out of the running for Call Me by Your Name were Armie Hammer, who played Elio’s statuesque love interest in the film, and Michael Stuhlbarg, who played Elio’s father and delivered the film’s pivotal monologue.
While the director and acting snubs for Call Me by Your Name may have surprised those who’ve championed the lush film about sexual awakening over the course of a lazy Italian summer in 1983, the fact remains that the Academy voters rewarded it with a Best Picture nod. At the same time, Academy voters, in the year of women’s equality, completely snubbed the biopic Battle of the Sexes, which tells the story of how tennis great Billie Jean King fought for equal pay and respect for women while also falling in love with a woman for the first time.
But ignoring stories about women in love who don’t repent, pay for their transgressions through death or endless misery, or sleep with a man somewhere in the narrative is nothing new for Academy voters. Battle of the Sexes, from directors Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton, stars Emma Stone as King and Steve Carell as her on-court rival Bobby Riggs — both actors earned nods at the Golden Globes, while Carell was nominated for a Screen Actors Guild Award. Stone, who transformed from a wisp of an actress into the physically formidable King, arguably delivered a more nuanced, challenging performance in Battle of the Sexes than she did in La La Land, for which she won the Oscar last year, but the Academy didn’t see fit to reward the film with nominations in any category.
It may seem unfair to pit Battle of the Sexes, a thoughtful if not easily readable film against the decidedly more European, slow-burn sensibility of Call Me by Your Name, but its exclusion is notable as it contains the markers of everything the Academy loves — a hopeful biopic with an important sociological message that stars loveable Hollywood darlings. But Battle of the Sexes' central love story excludes straight, cisgender men, and the film ends with its lesbian protagonist triumphant rather than having paid in some way for the sin of being queer.
Andrea Riseborough and Emma Stone in Battle of the Sexes
When will queer women get their own Call Me by Your Name? For many gay and bi women, that opportunity came and went two years ago, when the Academy nominated nine films rather than the allotted 10 because the same voting bloc that inspired #OscarsSoWhite by failing to nominate a single person of color in a year when there were plenty of options, also couldn’t see fit to reward out director Todd Haynes’s Carol. The reason for the snubbing of the pristinely detailed, quiet film about a love affair between women in 1952 would appear to be due to its unapologetic presentation of desire between women. The protagonists have eyes only for each other, making the men in their lives and the film ancillary and unnecessary to anything but providing conflict, something the straight white male Academy voters failed to get behind in a year that they nominated the trifle The Martian for Best Picture.
Last year the Academy made history by rightfully awarding the important, heartrending Moonlight (a coming-of-age story about a queer man of color that was directed by a man of color) with its top prize. But Moonlight aside, Oscar voters have generally done better with honoring stories about queer men than women throughout its history, although the men don’t always get their happy endings either. Still, the Academy has over the years bestowed The Imitation Game, Milk, Capote, Brokeback Mountain, Kiss of the Spider Woman, and Cabaret (which features a bisexual leading male character) with Best Picture nominations.
The Academy's predilection for honoring films about queer men over queer women isn't shocking considering it's the same group of voters that largely awards stories about men made by men anyway. It's a good time for a reminder that Greta Gerwig is only the fifth woman nominated for Best Director out of the approximately 450 Best Director nominations the Academy has doled out in its 90-year history. And throughout its history, the Academy has nominated at least a third fewer movies about queer women than it has about queer men.
Among the films that have made the cut is 2002’s The Hours, in which two of the queer women attempt suicide, with one succeeding, and 2010’s The Kids Are All Right, a dramedy from Lisa Cholodenko that revolves around a lesbian couple played by Julianne Moore and Annette Bening connecting with their children’s sperm donor (Mark Ruffalo). It was a film that critics adored that inspired think pieces and wrath from queer women confused by a plot point that had Moore’s character cheating on her wife with the donor. Regardless of one’s response to that particular plot, the Academy was clearly more at ease nominating a film in which a cisgender straight man disrupts the lives of a family headed by two moms than it was rewarding the artistry of Carol, in which men were beside the point and plot. Furthermore, Carol received a 95 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes while The Kids Are All Right has a 93 percent rating. Not that Rotten Tomatoes really matters, until it highlights a point that the Academy has its biases.
There is one outlier in the history of films about queer women and the Academy. More than 30 years ago The Color Purple, a story in which the lead character, Celie (Whoopi Goldberg), ends up happily with her female lover, Shug (Margaret Avery), landed a Best Picture nomination. But the romance in Steven Spielberg’s film was staight-washed from the overt queerness in Alice Walker’s novel.
In the two years since #OscarsSoWhite lit up Twitter and queer women raged and mourned over Carol’s pointed snub, the Academy, then under the leadership of Cheryl Boone Isaacs, has worked to course correct from its voting bloc that was 91 percent white and 76 percent male in 2016 by inviting a more diverse group to the Academy and by instilling new rules that require voters to be active in the industry within the past 10 years of any given voting year. It’s not certain that changes to the Academy helped usher in a win for Moonlight, a queer-themed film with a hopeful ending about men of color, but it likely didn’t hurt, and LGBT people and people of color need more of that.
It's a boon for LGBT representation that Call Me by Your Name will represent for stories about same-sex love at this year’s Academy Awards. Even if voters spurned the crowd-pleasing Battle of the Sexes, there is hope that with changes to the Oscars voting bloc that one day in the near future, queer women will have their Carol moment. Because, as Carol told Therese in the film, “Everything comes full circle.”
TRACY E. GILCHRIST is the feminism editor of The Advocate. Follow her on Twitter @TracyEGilchrist.