It’s hard not to view the first year of a decade as a turning point, the place where the trends of the last 10 years start to give way to the trends of the next. That might be little more than an illusion, a way to impose order on history where there is none, but those nice, round numbers can be useful when talking about what changes and what stays the same over many years — including when it comes to Oscar nominations. The Academy has picked up a reputation as an institution that’s resistant to change, which extends to who wins its top acting honors. But that doesn’t mean it’s impervious to change, especially since the film world has undergone so many shocks over the years, from studios’ increasing dependence on the big-budget blockbuster to the disruptions of the streaming world.
A look at the performances nominated for films released in 1990, 2000, 2010, 2020 reveals an institution that’s stayed firm in some habits while also bending — at least a little — with the times, particularly in terms of diversity. Its history meant it had a long way to go. The acting categories for films released in 1990 included only one Black nominee. That’s a step down from the previous year, when Denzel Washington won the Best Supporting Actor prize for Glory and Morgan Freeman received a nomination for Driving Miss Daisy. But even a single Black nominee was still an improvement on much of the ’80s, which saw only nine acting nominations go to Black actors (and only two wins).
In the years that followed, the absence of representation would flare up from time to time. In 1996, People magazine published a story on the “Hollywood Blackout” inspired by the all-white field of nominees. Halle Berry’s 2001 Best Actress win for Monster’s Ball, the first for a Black woman, was a landmark but also served as a reminder for many of how intensely the Oscars tended to white nominees. The issue would change from a simmer to a boil in the mid-’10s in ways the Oscars is still grappling with today. Looking at the nominees that kicked off each decade tells a story of considerable change, moving from a point when diverse nominees were the exception to one in which attempts at inclusion became an expectation — even in the face of continuing, and justifiable, concerns about the levelness of the Hollywood playing field.
The other profound shift over the past few decades has been in terms of what sort of films got nominated. A whole category of movies that used to eat up Oscar nominations has largely disappeared or migrated to streaming services. The mid-budget studio films that dominate 1990’s nominees — whether dramas like Awakenings, upscale genre movies like The Grifters, or rom-coms like Pretty Woman — largely don’t get made by studios and released to theaters anymore. Those who might create them have gone the indie route or partnered with a streaming service or some combination of the two. Darius Marder’s Sound of Metal, for instance, went through ten years of stop-and-start development and near-collapse before Marder could complete it. It was then distributed by Amazon Studios. Thirty years out from 1990, after years of being primarily studio productions, nominated films now come from more sources and appear on more platforms than ever, particularly as outlets like Prime, Hulu, and Netflix try to establish an Oscars beachhead.
The changes from one decade to the next are a story of give and take. Studios might have abandoned the mid-budget film, but others have moved to fill in the gap. And it’s probably no coincidence that the increased recognition of diverse talent has coincided with the fracturing of the old ways of doing things. It may not be any easier to succeed in the film business than before, but the addition of more outlets and a lack of dependence on studios for greenlights has provided more points of entry — and helped foster more diverse talent.
With that in mind, let’s look at the performances nominated as each decade turned to see what they say about where the Oscars (and movies in general) were at each point — and where we might be headed next.
Best Actor: Jeremy Irons, Reversal of Fortune
Best Actress: Kathy Bates, Misery
Best Supporting Actor: Joe Pesci, Goodfellas
Best Supporting Actress: Whoopi Goldberg, Ghost
Looking back thirty years, it’s striking how many nominated names still turn up in awards conversations. Meryl Streep, then up for Postcards from the Edge, remains a regular nominee and, with varying degrees of likelihood, we could still see performances from Jeremy Irons (who won Best Actor for Reversal of Fortune), Robert De Niro (a Best Actor nominee for Awakenings), Julia Roberts (a Best Actress nominee for Pretty Woman), Anjelica Huston (Best Supporting Actress nominee for The Grifters), Kevin Costner (nominated for Best Actor for Dances with Wolves), Kathy Bates (Best Actress winner for Misery), Al Pacino (a Best Supporting Actor nominee for Dick Tracy) and others pick up nominations in the years to come. (Apart from The Irishman, Best Supporting Actor winner Joe Pesci seems happily retired.)
Does that mean the class of ’90 was filled with exceptionally enduring stars? It’s not a slight to any of the names above to say not really. Mostly it suggests the Academy, like the movie industry itself, tends to favor known quantities, a tendency it’s unlikely to surrender. (Anthony Hopkins does amazing work in The Father, but it’s not like the Academy needed much prompting to nominate him.)
Not that Oscars success guaranteed longevity. Goldberg first became famous for a one-woman show in which she played a wide variety of characters and her Ghost win made her only the second Black woman to win an acting Oscar. (The first went to Hattie McDaniel in the same category for Gone with the Wind 51 years earlier. And, though Black actresses received several Best Actress nominations over the years, none would win until Halle Berry for 2001’s Monster’s Ball.) After an acceptance speech in which she expressed her love for acting, she increasingly became pigeonholed as the wisecracking lead of broad comedies. Four years later, she co-starred opposite a talking dinosaur in Theodore Rex. Goldberg’s remained a lasting presence, but movies are now just part of her portfolio.
Taking the longview also means seeing how much the Academy overlooked or misjudged at the time. 1990 is infamous as the year Dances with Wolves beat out Goodfellas for Best Picture and, correspondingly, Kevin Costner bested Martin Scorsese. But it’s also the year the Academy passed over Laura Dern’s turn in Wild at Heart , Michael Gambon’s explosive performance in The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, Helen Mirren’s work in the same film, and everyone in Miller’s Crossing, just to name a few. Hindsight is 20/20, sure, but the Oscars is prone to flare-ups of shortsightedness.
Best Actor: Russell Crowe, Gladiator
Best Actress: Julia Roberts, Erin Brockovich
Best Supporting Actor: Benicio del Toro, Traffic
Best Supporting Actress: Marcia Gay Harden, Pollock
For more evidence, look no further than the year 2000. Which now feels like the more enduring performance: Judi Dench in Chocolat or Catherine O’Hara’s unnominated work in Best in Show? Christian Bale in American Psycho (overlooked by the Oscars) or Geoffrey Rush in Quills? (That’s an easy one since no one has watched Quills in 20 years.) Two decades on, 2000 now looks like the high-water mark for a certain strand of studio-backed indie film, the moment when mini-majors like Fox Searchlight, Fine Line Features, and Sony Pictures Classics went all in on playing Miramax’s game and big studios and stars could get behind a film like Erin Brockovich (for which Roberts won Best Actress a decade after her Pretty Woman nomination).
The results proved mixed, resulting in nominations for florid performances in otherwise unmemorable films (see Quills), solid work in respectable projects like Pollock (which earned Ed Harris a Best Actor nomination and yielded a Best Supporting Actress trophy for Marcia Gay Harden), undue elevation of pleasant but inessential arthouse diversions like Chocolat, and acknowledgment for daring efforts like Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic (and Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream).
But it was also the year that confirmed nothing still succeeded at the Oscars like success; the summer hit Gladiator won both Best Picture and a Best Actor prize for Russell Crowe. 2000 also indicated that the Academy could find room for the new and unusual but not that much room. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon picked up a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar but never really threatened to win Best Picture. It also couldn’t place Michelle Yeoh, Chow Yun-fat, or Zhang Ziyi amidst a sea of white acting nominees. Meanwhile, Love & Basketball and Bamboozled went unnoticed. Ditto Forest Whitaker’s work in Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, Jeffrey Wright in Shaft, Marlon Wayans in Requiem for a Dream and so on. The first Oscars of the new millennium suggested it would take more than the turning of the calendar to change the practices of the previous century.
Best Actor: Colin Firth, The King’s Speech
Best Actress: Natalie Portman, Black Swan
Best Supporting Actor: Christian Bale, The Fighter
Best Supporting Actress: Melissa Leo, The Fighter
Gladiator’s wins in 2000 continued a long tradition of box office dominance translating into Oscars, capping a decade that made Oscar winners of Titanic, Braveheart, Forrest Gump and other huge hits. By the end of the ’00s, that had changed. Though Hollywood would increasingly focus on blockbuster franchises, no Best Picture winner since Lord of the Rings: Return of the King in 2003 can be called a runaway mainstream financial success. By 2010, the acting nominees had started to reflect this split as well. Of the year’s nominated performances, only Jeff Bridges’ and Hailee Steinfeld’s performance in Joel and Ethan Coen’s remake of True Grit remake qualifies as work in a multiplex-friendly movie — and then only broadly.
It’s not that the nominated actors would stay away from the blockbuster industrial complex. Natalie Portman, who won for Black Swan, had already starred in the Star Wars prequels and would soon appear in Thor. Best Actor winner Christian Bale was already two films into a Batman trilogy and his fellow nominee James Franco had appeared in Sam Raimi’s Spider-man movies.
In the ‘10s, the Oscars would have nothing against actors who donned tights and fought supervillains and otherwise appeared in effects-laden movie spectacles. But the Academy also wouldn’t have much interest in nominating actors for their work in such films. Where Russell Crowe could kick ass inside the Colosseum and win a trophy for his efforts a decade before, what was popular and what earned Oscar acclaim would become increasingly siloed. Aware of the issue, and fearing the Oscars’ ratings were suffering because of it, the Academy announced the creation of an Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film award in 2018, a half-assed notion that never came to fruition.
Best Actor: Riz Ahmed, Sound of Metal; Chadwick Boseman, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom; Anthony Hopkins, The Father; Gary Oldman, Mank; Steven Yeun, Minari
Best Actress: Viola Davis, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom; Andra Day, The United States vs. Billie Holiday; Vanessa Kirby, Pieces of a Woman; Frances McDormand, Nomadland; Carey Mulligan, Promising Young Woman
Best Supporting Actor: Sacha Baron Cohen; The Trial of the Chicago 7; Daniel Kaluuya, Judas and the Black Messiah; Leslie Odom Jr., One Night in Miami…; Paul Raci, Sound of Metal; Lakeith Stanfield, Judas and the Black Messiah
Best Supporting Actress: Maria Bakalova, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm; Glenn Close, Hillbilly Elegy; Olivia Colman, The Father; Amanda Seyfried, Mank; Youn Yuh-jung, Minari
The growing rarity of performances in mega-popular films resulting in Oscar nominations raises an interesting question for 2020: Is it possible, given studios’ increased concentration on superhero movies and other tentpoles, that the nominees in this odd year, one dominated by smaller movies thanks to a pandemic that largely kept big studio releases out of theaters, would look the same even without Covid-19? Given that awards-friendly films like In the Heights and Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story remake were scheduled for release, probably not. But, if nothing else, the paucity of major studio releases has allowed more breathing room for films like Nomadland and Minari that might otherwise have to compete for attention with more deeply pocketed awards campaigns.
Nonetheless, it seems likely that 2020 would look like an unusual year — maybe even a turning point — even without the pandemic disruption. Films as memorable as Nomadland, Promising Young Woman, Sound of Metal, Judas and the Black Messiah, and Minari should have commanded attention in any year. (Admittedly, that’s a big “should.”) So should performances as strong as those from Daniel Kaluuya, Lakeith Stanfield, Riz Ahmed, Youn Yuh-jung, Leslie Odom Jr., Andra Day, Chadwick Boseman, Viola Davis, and Steven Yeun. It would be a mistake to say a renewed push for inclusion that began with #OscarsSoWhite in 2015 has succeeded, but this crop of nominees looks much different than the year that nominated Selma for Best Picture but found no room on the list of nominees for any members of its cast.
Still, it’s best to be cautious about seeing the Oscars as trending to a broader view of who deserves. Nonetheless, it’s also possible that, ten years for now, it will look much like the list of 1990 nominees, a field of names we’re destined to hear about year after year. In addition to many of those listed above, Olivia Colman, Carey Mulligan, Amanda Seyfried, Maria Bakalova, Sacha Baron Cohen, and Vanessa Kirby, are all under 50 and should have decades of work ahead of them. Where that work will take place — in theaters (whatever the theatrical landscape looks like post-pandemic), on streaming services, in indie films, or major studio movies — remains an open question, however. Even if the Academy Awards remain largely committed to the same traditions, the movie worlds of 1990, 2000, 2010, and 2020 all look strikingly different from one another. So will 2030, 2040 and so on, as what movies get made, and who gets to excel in them, continues to shift in ways that may only seem clear looking backward.