The Explainer

01.16.15 6:17 PM ET

Oscar Conspiracy Theories Debunked: Explaining the 5 Biggest Oscar Snubs

Were the ‘Selma’ snubs really because of race? Do the Oscars just hate Jennifer Aniston? No ‘LEGO Movie’? Really? We dive into the real reasons behind the biggest Oscar snubs.

With the hangover from the hoopla of Oscar nomination morning subsiding—oh, you didn’t mourn Selma’s snubs with a bottle of whiskey?—it’s finally time to look at the year’s biggest snubs less from a place of ARE-YOU-KIDDING-ME-RIGHT-NOW??? burning passion, and more from a place of logic.

With that in mind, we’re diving deep into five of the biggest Oscar snubs from Thursday morning, unpacking conspiracy theories about why they may have happened, and providing a step-by-step analysis to explain why maybe—just maybe—their exclusions aren’t so crazy.

So is the Academy really racist for snubbing Selma? Does everyone simply just hate Jennifer Aniston, explaining her exclusion from Best Actress? And what in god’s name can be the reason The LEGO Movie got passed over? Nerd out with us, as we navigate the world of Oscar politics and voting rules to explain it all.

1. What the HELL happened with Selma?

With regards to the outrage over the snubs of Selma in every category but Original Song and Best Picture (mercifully—imagine the snubs if it hadn’t eked out that one), it’s understandable to question whether, as Mark Harris says at Grantland, “a particular kind of soft racism is in play” when a voting body made up of predominantly older white men turns it back on a movie by a young black female director about a pivotal moment in black history—and shameful one in the history of white men in powerful positions. Those questions cannot and should not be dismissed, and almost certainly were in play when the Academy did not vote for Selma’s creative team in a number of deserving categories.

But, as Harris suggests, Selma’s snub also has a lot to do with some aggravatingly boring factors, things like the timing of its release and the campaign strategy. Late December releases can be a boon or a bust for Oscar hopefuls, and the case of Selma (not to mention Big Eyes, Unbroken, and A Most Violent Year) proved how a late release can harm. Even more catastrophic, though, was the fact that Selma was barely ready in time for that late-December release. Ava DuVernay was finishing up edits on the film down to wire, and as such failed to get screeners out to most of the guilds, killing an opportunity to build enthusiasm and allegiance from those voting bodies. (Something that American Sniper, also a late December release, was able to do).

Then came the controversy over the historical accuracy of its depiction of LBJ, which is a kind of controversy weathered but pretty much every based-on-a-true story Oscar contender in recent memory. The difference with Selma is that when these accusations surfaced (in a blistering Washington Post op-ed, for one), Paramount, perhaps owing to the film’s 11th hour preparations, seemed caught completely off guard by it. Normally an Oscar contender’s campaign team is braced for these controversies and rebuts them head on and convincingly.

Unprepared to stand up for itself and without the time to banish the stink of the controversies from voters’ minds, Selma suffered more from these “political problems” than other contenders like American Sniper and The Imitation Game did.

2. Why did they snub poor Jennifer Aniston?

Poor Jennifer Aniston. The former Friends star and her awards consultant Lisa Taback launched one of the most impressive Oscar campaigns in recent memories. Spotting a weakness in the Best Actress category, Aniston and Taback launched a PR onslaught, aggressively screening Cake for voters and in turn getting the teeny-tiniest (and middlingly reviewed) of indie films notice as an awards player; scoring nods for Aniston at the Golden Globes, SAGs, and Critics Choice Awards; and getting an actress who many voters didn’t take seriously viewed in an entirely different light by the awards voters. Oscar pundits all thought it was a done-deal that she would score an invite to the big show, too.

But then, in one of Thursday’s biggest surprises, Marion Cotillard was nominated for her performance in Two Days, One Night despite taking the opposite approach to Oscar season: Cotillard barely campaigned at all.  The explanation for this likely has nothing to do with voters being unable to look past Aniston’s sitcom roots, or take her seriously. Instead, it probably has to do with the way the Academy tabulates its votes using a preferential ballot.

It’s more important for an Oscar hopeful to be ranked number one on a small number of ballots than it is to appear on every single ballot, but ranked four or five. I suspect that Aniston actually did appear on an overwhelming majority of ballots, but towards the bottom. Cotillard, on the other hand, gave one of the most well-reviewed performances of the year in Two Days, One Night, and had a small army of passionate supporters that likely ranked her number one and helped her into the Oscar race.

3. Wasn’t Jessica Chastain supposed to be nominated?

The Best Supporting Actress category this year is pretty silly. With the exception of Boyhood’s Patricia Arquette and Into the Wood’s Meryl Streep, none of the contenders delivers any semblance of a performance that you watch and then think, “Give that girl an Oscar!” It’s not that Keira Knightley is bad in The Imitation Game. She’s perfectly good, even great in it! But it’s hardly an Oscar-worthy film.

As such, many people thought Jessica Chastain, who does actually deliver a give-that-girl-an-Oscar caliber performance in A Most Violent Year, would be nominated. Laura Dern took the slot most pundits thought would go to her for her performance in Wild, a feat that is probably owed to one thing: campaigning.

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A very juicy article in The New York Times chronicled the publicity tug of war Chastain found herself in back when critics and Oscar pundits started to catch wind that the film everyone thought she’d be nominated in Best Supporting Actress for, Interstellar, kind of sucked and that A Most Violent Year was actual her worthy awards pony this year. That was an unfortunate turn of events for Chastain, however, because according to the Times Chastain had an agreement with Christopher Nolan and the Interstellar team that she’d be barred from campaigning for any other film but that one from early October through early December.

That means that while Laura Dern was gamely flitting about Hollywood giving fabulous interviews in support of Wild, Chastain was not allowed to do the same for A Most Violent Year. Sure, there are other factors here (there always are)—for one, Dern is simply beloved in Hollywood and there was sense that this was her time to be recognized. But being allowed to campaign in the first place helps. It helps a lot.

4. Are they serious with this Steve Carell in Best Actor nonsense?

A better title for this conspiracy theory might be: What in god’s name is Robert Duvall doing with an Oscar nomination for The Judge? It’s all tied to one of the more egregious instances of category fraud in recent years: Steve Carell’s nomination in Best Actor, instead of Best Supporting Actor, for his performance in Foxcatcher.

Everyone marveled about Carell’s funnyman to Grade-A creep transformation in Foxcatcher, and mocked the “Oscar by a nose” idea that he was guaranteed a nomination because of the prosthetic nose he wore in the film, a la Nicole Kidman. And they may have been right about that. But the truth about Foxcatcher is that it is not Steve Carell’s film. It is Channing Tatum’s film. More, Tatum is as good, if not better, than Carell in it. So why did Sony Pictures Classics, which distributed Foxcatcher, push Carell so aggressively as the film’s lead, and at Tatum’s expense.

The first reason is shrewdness. There’s history at the Oscars of actors playing sinister villains, but in secondary roles, scoring Best Actor nods instead of the film’s true lead, whose roles are less showy. There’s Forest Whitaker instead of James McAvoy for Last King of Scotland, Meryl Streep instead of Anne Hathaway for The Devil Wears Prada, and Denzel Washington instead of Ethan Hawke for Training Day (though Hawke did get a supporting nod, even though he was the real lead). The Carell-Tatum dynamic fits this pattern.

The other reason, though, is selfishness. Sony Pictures Classics had another Oscar contender, Whiplash’s J.K. Simmons, that it was pushing in the supporting category. They wanted to secure a victory for Simmons while still ensuring that Carell had a shot at glory, so they vaulted the latter to lead.

Not everyone was playing by their game, though. The BAFTAs nominated Carell in supporting instead of lead, forcing pundits to wonder whether the Academy would follow suit. They’ve combatted category fraud by ignoring a studio’s campaign before, most recently in nominating Kate Winslet in lead for The Reader despite her campaign in supporting.

If the Academy had done this, it would’ve solved two problems. Carell would’ve replaced the most embarrassing Oscar nomination of the morning, Robert Duvall’s for The Judge in supporting, and a slot would’ve been opened for Selma’s David Oyelowo or Nightcrawler’s Jake Gyllenhaal in Best Actor in his place.

5. Were we dreaming, or was The LEGO Movie really not nominated?

There were few sure things heading into the Oscar nominations, but one of them was that The LEGO Movie would not just be nominated for Best Animated Feature—it would also eventually win. After all, it wasn’t just the public’s favorite animated film, grossing $257 million at the box office, its 96 percent Rotten Tomatoes score made it better-reviewed than six of the Best Picture nominees. So how in the hell was it snubbed?

For one, Best Animated Feature is one of the Oscar categories that is chosen, at the nomination stage, exclusively by animation professionals. Public and critical opinion may have ruled LEGO the best, but the it may not have reflected the kind of artistry the animators value. Not only that, this particular voting body has a historical allegiance to handmade movies over computer animated ones. Like in 2009 when Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs was ignored in favor of The Secret of Kells, The LEGO Movie missed out to a 2D film (Song of the Sea), hand-drawn film (The Tale of Princess Kaguya), and a painstakingly made stop-motion film (The Boxtrolls).

Not only that, the way the animated category is scored is different. There is no preferential ballot. Unlike other categories, voters are actually required to watch all 20 contenders on the shortlist and then score them on merit. This means that factors like campaigning and popularity are less likely to factor in than they are in other categories, allowing the truly best animated films to rise to the top. Maybe, just maybe, The LEGO Movie was snubbed because it simply wasn’t one of the five best animated features of the year.

Everything is surprising.