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This year’s Oscars list short on diversity again

January 14, 2016 at 6:30 PM EDT
This year’s Academy Award nominations have been announced and “The Revenant” and “Mad Max: Fury Road” are among the most honored films. But the lack of diversity among the contenders is raising eyebrows. Jeffrey Brown takes a look at the nominees, and remembers actor Alan Rickman, who died at the age of 69.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Next, the Motion Picture Academy today named its top picks for the best performances and films of 2015.

Jeffrey Brown has our look at who’s in this year’s field, and getting just as much attention, who’s not.

When it comes to Oscar nominations this year, it is a very cruel world, indeed. “The Revenant,” a revenge tale set in the American wilderness in the 1800s, gained the most nominations, 12 in all, including for best picture, best director Alejandro Inarritu, who won last year for “Birdman,” and in the leading actor category for Leonardo DiCaprio, a megastar who famously has never won an Oscar.

The second most honored film with 10 nominations portrayed a different kind of struggle for survival. “Mad Max: Fury Road” is set in a not-so-distant future that we can all only hope to avoid. It’s a sequel to the popular trilogy that began in 1979. Director George Miller, who also created and directed the earlier series, gained a nomination for the new film, this time using a female lead.

CHARLIZE THERON, Actress: This is the best shot I will ever have.

Mike Sargent is a film critic for Pacifica Radio.

MIKE SARGENT, Film Critic, Pacifica Radio: And they’re both definitely about survival, but they both are taking, in many ways, simple stories and just telling them really well. “Mad Max” is essentially one long chase film, but it’s shot and staged and mounted in a way no one’s ever seen.

KATE MARA, Actress: That’s tracking right towards us.

JEFFREY BROWN: Unlike many other years, though, the races in this and other key categories are considered up for grabs. Six other films join “The Revenant” and “Mad Max” on the best picture list, “The Big Short,” “Bridge of Spies, “Brooklyn,” “The Martian,” “Room,” and “Spotlight.”

There were some familiar names in the acting categories. Among the men, in addition to DiCaprio, Matt Damon in “The Martian,” Bryan Cranston in “Trumbo,” and last year’s winner, Eddie Redmayne, among women, former winner Cate Blanchett for “Carol,” and Jennifer Lawrence for “Joy.”

But a relative newcomer, Brie Larson, seems to be the odds-on favorite for her performance in “Room” as a woman held captive for years with her young son now adjusting to the outside world.

BRIE LARSON, Actress: I just want him to connect with something.

JEFFREY BROWN: Slate film critic Dana Steven.

DANA STEVENS, Film Critic, Slate: Brie Larson is absolutely wonderful in “Room” and a genuine breakthrough kind of performance. And she is not a name that is widely known outside of cinephilic circles in the last few years. And, suddenly, she’s burst into stardom and greater visibility with this role.

JEFFREY BROWN: Most notably missing again for the second straight year, actors of color, an issue that’s put its own spotlight on Hollywood for its lack of diversity at every level.

MIKE SARGENT: And though I think Cheryl Boone Isaacs, who is the head of the Academy now, has made great strides in the last couple years to include more people of color, more women, more people under a certain age in the academy, it still is dominated primarily by men, primarily by white men over 60, 65, and the choices of films and actors often reflect a sensibility, and maybe let’s just say a sensibility that’s time perhaps has come and gone.

JEFFREY BROWN: Among those left off the best actor list was Idris Elba for “Beasts of no Nation,” and Benicio Del Toro for “Sicario.”

The film “Straight Outta Compton” about the rap group NWA had been wildly praised, but was shut out of major nominations.

DANA STEVENS: I always sort of think, well, it’s earlier up the pipeline that things should have been fixed. Right? The problem is that there aren’t people of color and women out there making movies and getting the directing jobs and acting jobs. And if they were there, we would have more choices to pick from.

However, there are exceptions to that even this year, for example, Ryan Coogler, the director of “Creed,” African-American director, and a great performance by Michael B. Jordan in that role. But neither of them was recognized. Instead, it’s the white supporting actor, Sylvester Stallone, who got recognized for “Creed.”

JEFFREY BROWN: “Star Wars,” the top grossing film of 2015, won nominations in several technical categories.

Just how important are these nominations for these films?

MIKE SARGENT: All films benefit from getting nominated, especially the Oscars. There’s something they call the Oscar bump. And I think we’re going to see these films make at least 20 percent more than they would have if they didn’t get nominated.

JEFFREY BROWN: The Academy Awards ceremony itself remains a very big deal, one of the most watched programs of the year.

But after last year’s 15 percent drop in viewership, from 43 million to 37 million, producers are aiming for a bit of a reboot. Chris Rock will host the Oscar broadcast on February 28.

There was also sad news in the film world today with the passing of Alan Rickman, a classically trained British actor who performed with the Royal Shakespeare Company and earned two Tony Award nominations, and who often showcased that pedigree in film roles, such as Colonel Brandon in “Sense and Sensibility.”

READ MORE: Alan Rickman, the villain you loved to love, dies at 69

ALAN RICKMAN, Actor: I have described Mr. Willoughby as the worst of libertines, but I have since learned from Lady Allen that he did mean to propose that day.

DANA STEVENS: It was hard for me to pay attention to those breaking Oscar nominations this morning after hearing the news that Alan Rickman had died, because, to me, that’s just such a blow for the world of cinema. He was such a great performer with incredible range.

ALAN RICKMAN: Get them back.

JEFFREY BROWN: On screen, Rickman became best known for his roles as the villain, playing German psychopath Hans Gruber in “Die Hard.”

ALAN RICKMAN: Yippee ki yay, mother-.

JEFFREY BROWN: And he was the dastardly sheriff of Nottingham in “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.”

ALAN RICKMAN: And call off Christmas.

JEFFREY BROWN: For which he won a British Academy and Film Award.

And, of course, for a new generation, he was master of the dark arts of magic, Severus Snape, in the “Harry Potter” franchise.

ALAN RICKMAN: Should anyone, student or staff, attempt to aid Mr. Potter, they will be punished.

JEFFREY BROWN: In another vein, in the Christmas favorite “Love Actually” Rickman was a husband to Emma Thompson, pathetically flirting with adultery.

ALAN RICKMAN: I’m so in love with you, a classic fool.

JEFFREY BROWN: During his 30-year career, Rickman never won an Oscar, but once said, “Parts win prizes, not actors.”

Alan Rickman’s family announced today that he died from a battle with cancer. He was 69 years old.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Jeffrey Brown.

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