Nominated for Nothing: Was the Academy scared of Us?
They’re destined to score zero Academy Awards, but they won our hearts throughout 2019. Ahead of Sunday’s 92nd Oscars ceremony, EW is breaking down the year’s best movies, performances, and directorial achievements that were nominated for nothing.
The film: Director Jordan Peele’s follow-up to his Oscar-winning debut Get Out got much more imaginative in its horror. While the villains of Get Out were just rich white people (and scary at that), Us’ monsters presented a unique aesthetic: Matching red jumpsuits, scissors for weapons, and one biker glove each. They are the Tethered, and they are doppelgängers.
In the world of Us, every human being has a secret clone, forced to live below the surface of the world miming out a pathetic mimicry of their brethren’s lives up above. But as the movie opens, a revolution has been set into motion, led by Red (Lupita Nyong’o), the doppelgänger of Adelaide Wilson. When Adelaide and her family — husband Gabe (Winston Duke), daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph), and son Jason (Evan Alex) — arrive in Santa Cruz for a beach vacation, they soon find themselves under assault by their shadow selves: Red, Abraham, Umbrae, and Pluto.
The whole movie, Adelaide is haunted by an encounter she had with her Tethered as a young girl in the ‘80s. It’s not until the end of the film that we learn the full extent of that confrontation: After wandering into a hall of mirrors, the real Adelaide was knocked out and dragged down into the underground tunnels where the Tethered live off raw rabbit meat, while her doppelgänger took her place in the world above. This is why Red made such a good revolutionary, you see: She knows exactly what she and her comrades are missing, and is hungry to get it back. But her experiences stunted her development; in some ways, she’s still a little girl at heart, whose idea of revolution is entirely based on the “Hands Across America” T-shirt she was wearing when she was kidnapped. Individual success is always going to be harder than collective action: Though the final shot of Us tells audiences that many of the Tethered were able to form a continuous human chain across some of the American landscape per Red’s master plan, Red herself finally dies at the hands of Adelaide, cementing the original doppelgänger’s usurpation. It is heavily implied that Jason and Pluto underwent a similar switch at some point.
Why it wasn’t nominated: Us has two strikes against it when it comes to traditional Oscar standards: It is unambiguously a genre movie, and it is a film about black characters by a black director. Best Picture wins for both Moonlight and The Shape of Water in the last few years indicate the Academy’s traditional biases are weakening, which makes it even more mysterious why Us wasn’t able to garner any nominations. Only six horror movies in history have ever been nominated for Best Picture (including Get Out), but Us could have been competitive in other categories, such as Best Actress and Best Original Screenplay.
Another possible explanation is that the main people behind Us have already won Oscars. Peele won Best Original Screenplay for Get Out, and even earned a Best Director nomination for his debut feature. Aside from Quentin Tarantino, none of this year’s Best Original Screenplay nominees have ever won before, and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood has the advantage of being a movie about Hollywood’s history, which is one of the Academy’s favorite topics.
Nyong’o, too, is a winner: She won Best Supporting Actress for her feature film debut in 12 Years a Slave. That may have stayed the Academy’s hand from nominating her again. Though likely Best Actress winner Renée Zellweger also has a previous Best Supporting Actress trophy, a lot more years have passed in between.
What makes Nyong’o’s lack of nomination for Us doubly frustrating for some award-watchers is that her performance was a wholly original role rather than a black stereotype. Nyong’o imbued 12 Years a Slave’s Patsey with grit and grace, but she was still an overly-familiar slave character. By contrast, “overly-familiar” is not how anyone would describe the dual role of Adelaide and Red, which culminates in a balletic duel between the two halves of the same woman. Though the performance did not require the kind of effort that typically earns Oscar attention (losing weight, faking a disability), it was still a herculean task for the actress, as she told EW in November: “Because I was playing both the hero and the villain, as I was preparing my action, I had to be banking my reaction so that I could do it the next day. That took a focus that was depleting. I never had my scene partner there. One of the joys of being an actor is just the relationship with another human being that you get to throw a ball, and the other person throws it back and inspires something in you. They change your chemistry. It becomes this human exchange. It becomes a living, breathing thing. I had to create that in my own absence.”
Why history will remember it better than the Academy did: Will anyone who’s seen Us ever forget the sound of Red’s voice? The only Tethered who talks does so in the most uncomfortable way imaginable: Nyong’o manages to sound like she really has been living off raw rabbit meat for decades. After years of roles in big blockbusters including Black Panther and Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Nyong’o reminded viewers that her acting ability can reach dark and strange depths. For all the horrific delights of her portrayal of Red, the scariest stuff in the movie might be Nyong’o’s monstrous, triumphant howls and cackles after Adelaide finally dispatches her double. As Nyong’o’s filmography inevitably expands in the coming years, this is sure to be a performance that fans will come back to again and again.
Us was also thematically of a piece with other acclaimed 2019 films that took aim at class conflict. Like Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite, Us draws a direct link between the privileged lifestyle of those luxuriating in the sunshine of capitalism and an exploited underclass forced to subsist underground in the darkness. Some of the Tethered even take a similar approach to bettering their lives as the Kim family in Parasite: That is, slowly replacing members of the surface world one by one. Other films this year also examined class dynamics from different angles but with the same basic ideas in mind. Some, like Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers, were similarly nominated for nothing. Others, like Parasite and Todd Phillips’ Joker, could do very well on Oscar night. Anyone looking to understand the cultural context of these films, whether future historians or contemporary cinephiles, would be foolish to leave Us out of that conversation. You never know what might be lurking in the dark, hungry for vengeance.