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Wednesday, March 29, 2023

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Brian Hu Brian Hu

The Academy Awards, Explained by SDSU Professor Brian Hu

School of Theatre, Television, and Film assistant professor Brian Hu answers questions about Hollywood's biggest night.
By Ryan Schuler

The 92nd Academy Awards, a night of glitz and glam celebrating the best films of 2019, take place Sunday, Feb. 9 and will be televised live in more than 225 countries and territories worldwide.

“Joker,” starring Joaquin Phoenix, received the most nominations with 11, including the categories of Best Picture, Actor, and Directing. Other films with multiple nominations include “The Irishman,” “1917” and “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” with 10 nominations each.

The SDSU News Team sat down with San Diego State University School of Theatre, Television, and Film assistant professor Brian Hu to discuss the criteria and history of Best Picture and other major categories to give readers a deeper understanding of how certain films come to be nominated.

Generally, who is the voting pool made up of and how are these people selected? Also, how does voting work? 

This has been the subject of a lot of conversation in recent years, especially as people are noticing the nominations are not diverse. First and foremost, these are people who worked in the film industry from all generations. These could be people who worked in the industry in the ‘60s and ‘70s who are now retired as lifetime members.

To get into the Academy, you have to get invited by someone already in the Academy or get nominated, which is obviously harder. These are like-minded people. For instance, you’re not going to have many people in the Academy who are indie (independent) filmmakers. It’s very much a Hollywood definition of being in the industry.

Is there something specific that the Academy looks for when voting for Best Picture? 

Everyone is looking for something different. These are all people working in the film industry. Often times, they define excellence by how they define excellence for themselves and for their peers. Sometimes they are prioritizing technical excellence or a commercial excellence because they all want to make successful movies, so sometimes the films that make money or receive a certain type of acclaim are privileged. 

Do other award shows like the Golden Globes have any influence on the nominations or is it truly merit-based?

That is a great question. It speaks to the fact that ultimately the Academy Awards are a popularity contest. How do you define excellence? It’s about popularity. The people who know this the most are the studios who have the most to gain from this. 

Every voter gets stacks and stacks of DVDs that the studios want them to consider. But the studios also realize that with the other award shows, especially the Golden Globes, winning there can build momentum for you. If something gets nominated or wins a Golden Globe, as an Oscar voter, you tell yourself, “I probably should watch that one.” There’s not influence in the sense that there’s overlap in voters, but it’s the creation of momentum.

The last two winners of the Best Actor category portrayed historical figures (Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill in “Darkest Hour” and Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury in “Bohemian Rhapsody”). Do you believe voters are more inclined to vote for actors or actresses taking on portrayals?

I think so. There’s a joke in the Academy that if you want to get nominated, you just play a famous figure. It’s easier to evaluate their supposed excellence. It’s easier to say, “Wow, that person did a great job” because they made a historical figure come to life. It’s very easy to measure that; they either did or they didn’t.

Whereas, a character not from the “real world,” it’s harder to say whether they hit it or not. That standard can be anything. There’s also the sense that you’ve transformed into another person. For example, Daniel Day-Lewis has never been (Abraham) Lincoln before. It seems like an absolute transformation. And this is nothing new. Going back to the early decades of the Academy Awards, people who played famous figures have been winning.

Brad Pitt is widely considered to be the favorite for Best Supporting Actor for his role in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.” Do you think star power plays a role in voting?

Yeah, definitely. There’s the sense that someone that’s been in the game for a long time and they’ve never won before, are they owed or is it their time? Brad Pitt is someone who has never won an Oscar for acting before. He’s been nominated multiple times. Because people know him, his career, and he radiates stardom. Perhaps that’s why Brad Pitt is the frontrunner.

What do voters look for when evaluating nominees for Best Director?

We seem to see the hand of the director, so these might be films that are a little more stylized or they’re films that seem to be major feats in craft. Like, “That looks like it was a tough shoot” or “that’s a tough thing to balance all these elements.”

Like “Birdman” wins, what an achievement in directing because you can see it onscreen. It’s a single take and you have to balance all these other aspects. I think there’s a little bit of showiness being awarded. 

I’m thinking about “Marriage Story,” the Noah Baumbach film from this year, which is not very “directed” because it almost feels like a play. But I think that was very intentional. He’s not really showing off. But you think about “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” and it’s very showy. “The Irishman” too. It makes those films stand out more.

What is something about the Best Director category that you find interesting? 

To me, it’s interesting when the Best Director doesn’t win Best Picture. It goes to show you that there’s a certain kind of belief that filmmakers have in this director. When “Roma” won best director, but not best picture, it shows that even though there was not consensus around this being the best film, that kind of directing is worth that much more. That really shows you what the Academy cares about in how they value directors.