2019 was a great year for horror movies, both critically and commercially with Us, It Chapter Two, and Midsommar making their mark on the box office and in wider conversation. During award season, horror is not revered in the same way as biopics or drama, which is why we end up with categorizations such as “social thriller” to temper those afraid of honoring a scary movie. Last year, before Us hit theaters, I wrote about genre bias and this year’s Oscar nominations further underscore this assessment.
There are a number of big snubs across the various categories, with Lupita Nyong’o’s name featuring prominently in those conversations. In the follow-up to Jordan Peele’s Get Out, Nyong'o delivered the kind of dual performance which ticks so many awards-worthy boxes. As Adelaide, she is trying to protect her family with as much force as necessary, while also harboring the burden of a childhood secret. In doppelgänger Red, she embodies a figure who is unpredictable in both her speech and movements. As both women, she brings new meaning to what a haunted performance should look like. They are inextricably linked as characters, but at no point does it feel like simple mimicry. Actors unleashing two very different portrayals in the same movie is not new, but when it is done well, it is captivating.
Nyong'o falls into the latter category, and considering she is already an Oscar winner, she likely had the edge over other actors — not that this previous accolade status was beneficial to the actress when the nominations were read out by John Cho and Issa Rae early Monday morning. As we have seen from the 2020 nominations, #OscarsSoWhite is depressingly still very much in contention. Even with the Academy member shake-up, it is the same faces and types of movies getting recognized.
Admittedly, Get Out did break the horror barrier in 2018 — it was nominated in four categories (including Daniel Kaluuya for Best Actor) and Peele won Best Original Screenplay, but it was only the sixth movie that could be categorized as a horror to be nominated for Best Picture in 90 years (with the other five being The Exorcist, Jaws, The Silence of the Lambs, The Sixth Sense, and Black Swan). The Academy is clearly not that excited by this particular area of filmmaking, and the bias against a category that has featured groundbreaking performances in 2019, as well as striking costume design, editing, writing, directing, and production design, is not particularly veiled.
Us didn’t have the same momentum as Get Out did going into this award season, as it didn't hit the same critical chord and appeared to have been mostly forgotten until Nyong’o was feted by the New York Film Critics Circle in the Best Actress category, reigniting talk of a potential nomination. Nyong'o isn't new to the awards conversation, but it hasn’t gone unnoticed that she won her Oscar for playing an enslaved person. There are certain types of roles that are seen as more "worthy" than others; this bias and gatekeeping can spread in numerous ways, but it is notable that for her "untethered" dual role, she was not invited to the party. Furthermore, it isn’t as if Nyong'o hasn’t been working the circuit, appearing on the cover of The Hollywood Reporter’s coveted award season actress roundtable conversation issue and making the various rounds (including the recent Critics’ Choice Awards).
Florence Pugh is nominated for her excellent portrayal of Amy March in Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Little Women, but she made her mark earlier in the year as Midsommar’s grief-stricken Dani. Ari Aster’s follow-up to Hereditary wasn’t as critically beloved, and the intricate production and costume design by Henrik Svensson and Andrea Flesch have also been ignored. Only cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski has received a nomination for Midsommar this season at the Independent Spirit Awards.
If former nominee Toni Collette (ironically enough, for The Sixth Sense) couldn’t break the horror barrier for her portrayal of a mother tormented in Hereditary, then it was sadly never going to happen for Pugh in this role. The lengths actors go to deliver transformative performances typically play into the award season narrative, which is not something these actresses have leaned into. Rather, Collette has referred to method acting as "utter wankery," which goes against the tormented actor routine that often elicits praise.
Instead, the thoroughly deserving Parasite takes up the mantle as a film that has threads of horror running through it. Meanwhile, 1917 has imagery straight out of a scary movie but even if you note the terrifying aspects of war (and how the one-take tracking design of the theme heightens the fear), this is a tenuous link to horror as a genre. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood does enter home invasion horror territory as it reimagines the Manson murders, but the historical revisionist approach is genre blurring in its depiction of the frightening events. Joker, which at times leans into something that could be considered frightening, is far too concerned with being the Martin Scorsese film of Todd Phillips' dreams; it is a genre movie afraid (or embarrassed) of its own origins.
It doesn't help that category bias is often born out of filmmaker remarks about what the film is and isn’t meant to be. These prejudices go against movies that want to wear the title of horror with pride, a rarity when accolades are being discussed. The call is coming from inside the house and that call is denying its scary DNA, which is something Exorcist director William Friedkin only recently accepted as his iconic movie's fate: "I thought it was a film about the mystery of faith ... but I didn't set out to make a horror film. But by now, I have accepted that it is [a horror film]."
For now, horror will have to wait at least another year to take center stage at the Academy Awards.