After months of Oscar anticipation and speculation, the story finally shifted on Thursday when the Academy unveiled its 2016 nominations. For now, the discussion will revolve around who made the cut (Room!), who got snubbed (Ridley Scott?), and which films landed the most nominations (The Revenant).
But Friday and beyond, the real race begins. We finally know who the contenders are, and there are already narratives developing around certain candidacies. For the next six weeks, you will hear about them all — but certain subplots and themes are sure to emerge through the white noise to dominate the conversation. Whether you’ve been fanatically following the pre-Oscar horse race or you just want to sound smart around your film buff friends, here are the five stories that you’ll be hardpressed to ignore from now until February.
1. Is this finally Leo’s year?
Poor Leonardo DiCaprio. From What’s Eating Gilbert Grape to The Wolf Of Wall Street, DiCaprio has been so good for so long that the Academy has occasionally taken him for granted. He wasn’t nominated for Titanic (Kate Winslet was) or The Departed (Mark Wahlberg was) or Django Unchained (Christoph Waltz won), and even though he has been nominated five times, he’s never won the Oscar. But now, at 41, he’s suddenly become the poster child for brilliant, dedicated actors who are due. And he might have the perfect performance to finally take the Oscar, thanks to its degree of difficulty. The guy ate raw bison liver to play 19th-century fur trapper Hugh Glass in The Revenant. He might deserve an award for that alone.
But is that enough to earn him his first-ever Oscar? After all, plenty of movies are difficult to make. If we’re choosing a winner based solely on difficulty and strenuous circumstances, than Malcolm McDowell (Clockwork Orange) and Martin Sheen (Apocalypse Now) would like to have a word with you. And does this “It’s time…” logic justify an Oscar win? (See Ridley Scott, below.) When the Oscars are supposed to honor the best performances of the year, why should it matter if we all think a certain nominee is overdue to win?
DiCaprio gave an incredible performance, and after his Golden Globes win, he’s emerged as a heavy favorite. But until the Oscar is in his hands, expect a lot more memes and GIFs like this.
2. Can Mad Max break all the rules and drive off with Best Picture?
Going into the nominations, one of the biggest questions was whether the Academy would be willing to “die historic” on Fury Road, George Miller’s relentless thrill ride starring Charlize Theron and Tom Hardy. And the answer was yes! Mad Max: Fury Road took home 10 nominations, second only to The Revenant’s 12. So now that Fury Road has its foot in the door, can it translate that success into Oscar gold? Or are the nominations themselves the reward for realizing such an uncompromising vision, 36 years after Miller’s original cult classic with Mel Gibson. Don’t be so sure: some prognosticators thought Miller and Ridley Scott would hinder each other’s chances in the race for Best Director, splitting a bloc of like-minded voters. But with Scott out, the road might be clear for Miller to win Best Director. And if Miller wins for Best Director, then Best Picture might be within reach, too.
3. For the second year in a row, all the acting nominees are white
Last year, all 20 acting nominees were white, and it sparked a firestorm of criticism (and spawned the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite). Host Neil Patrick Harris even kicked off the 2015 show by welcoming Hollywood’s “best and whitest.” And after all that outrage, it happened again this year. Not a single person of color earned an acting nomination, and films like Straight Outta Compton and Creed were mostly ignored. The only nominations they did receive — Best Original Screenplay for Compton and Best Supporting Actor for Creed’s Sylvester Stallone — went to white people. Do you think Oscar host Chris Rock might have something to say about this?
Back in September, Oscars producer Reginald Hudlin discussed what the Academy is doing to address diversity concerns, but he said the responsibility ultimately falls on the movie studios. “The most important part of the show — not just in terms of diversity, but period — is the thing we have no control over,” he told EW. “A decision is made 18 months ago about what movies get greenlit, and those are the pool of potential nominees.”
Still, a 2012 estimate by the Los Angeles Times indicated that more than 90 percent of the Academy was white. The Oscars have been trying to broaden its voting pool by inviting younger, more diverse actors and filmmakers, and Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs recently announced a new initiative called A2020, a five-year plan to actively address diversity issues.
4. Will Rooney Mara and Alicia Vikander’s “category fraud” hurt their chances?
Fraud might be a harsh term, but it’s difficult to objectively argue that Mara’s naive young shopgirl in Carol and Vikander’s understanding wife of transgender woman Lile Elbe in The Danish Girl were supporting roles. Even the Golden Globes refused to play along, instead nominating each star in the lead actress category, as they had roughly as much screen time as their lead acting peers. The Oscars, however, complied with studios’ preference and placed both in the supporting category.
These aren’t the first films in Oscar history to play category politics, but there’s a risk that annoyed Academy voters may rebel and opt for a nominated performance that is truly supporting — Kate Winslet, Rachel McAdams, and Jennifer Jason Leigh are better suited to the category.
5. Can Ridley Scott’s snub actually help The Martian win?
One of this year’s most shocking snubs was Ridley Scott, who, like Leo, has never won an Oscar despite multiple nominations. The 78-year-old director was a heavy favorite to at least score a nomination; instead, he settled for being one of the producers attached to The Martian Best Picture nod.
Something similar actually happened in 2013, when Ben Affleck was snubbed in the director’s race even though Argo had scored seven nominations. The oversight became a Hollywood cause celebre, and many believed the outrage over Affleck’s omission actually buoyed Argo’s chances and paved the way for its Best Picture win. There’s a chance that Scott could do the same for The Martian. Scott has worked for decades, directed classic films of every genre, and is much admired by the current generation of leading actors. He has never won an Oscar… a lot of voters would like to give him one.
The Oscars air Feb. 28 at 7 p.m. ET on ABC. See the full list of this year’s nominations here.