What is the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences so afraid of? Besides the larger concerns like “female directors” and “actors who aren’t white”, the simplest answer is horror, the most oft-ignored genre in the Oscars’ 92-year history. Sure, there’s been exceptions, like The Silence of the Lamb‘s 1992 Best Picture win, The Exorcist‘s massive 10-nomination night in 1974, or even as recently as Jordan Peele‘s Original Screenplay snag for Get Out in 2018. But horror performances have historically been ignored on Hollywood’s biggest night. No matter how much pathos, depth, or full-bodied transformation a performer brings to a role, Oscar voters leave it off the ballot if it happens to be across from, like, a spooky ghost. We got one hell of a reminder of that fact last year when Toni Collette‘s heart-wrenching turn in Hereditary went unrecognized, and it was hammered home today, when the 2020 Oscar nominations for Best Actress boldly excluded the best performance of the year: Lupita Nyong’o in Us.
Now, taste is subjective and there’s no accounting for what “best” means when it comes to art, but I’d also invite you to subjectively sit the hell down, pop in an Us Blu-ray, and tell me what part of Nyongo’s house-on-fire performance isn’t Oscar-worthy. In Peele’s doppelganger horrorshow, Nyong’o embodies two roles: Adelaide Wilson, strong mother of two who suffered a supernatural tragedy as a child, and Red, Adelaide’s raspy-voiced mirror-twin, a member of The Tethered who have risen from the sewers to take revenge on a privileged society that looks just like them.
When I say embodies, I do mean capital-letter Embodies. Nyong’o pulls off a bit of a miracle here that elevates Adelaide/Red past many other dual-role gimmicks. She’s essentially playing two people who are opposites and exact equals simultaneously, and Nyong’o layers familiarities into both of them. There is tragedy to her monster. There is a fierce edge to her motherliness. Nyong’o gives shape to two distinctly different characters who nevertheless work as funhouse mirror images of each other. The film’s climactic deadly dance works so well because of Nyong’o, the two personalities she’s conjured up overlapping. Intertwining. Through her whirlwind physicality, she brings to life Peele’s entire thesis, that the thing that’s going to kill us in the end is…us.
The real sting of the non-nomination comes mostly from the fact that it isn’t surprising. We knew Nyong’o was brilliant in the role, that it was one of the year’s best, that it deserved acclaim, but even just days ago I still straight-up assumed she wouldn’t be nominated. It’s just how this long-running dumbassery works. It’s the unchanging state of things. It’s a horror movie, so the role almost doesn’t “count”, despite the fact it has everything else the Academy usually looks for in a winner: physical transformation, showiness, a unique novelty aspect, a ton of yelling, etc etc.
And, of course, the flip-side argument is that it doesn’t matter, which, admittedly, it largely doesn’t. Going Oscar-less doesn’t make Nyong’o’s performance less masterful or take away anyone’s ability to enjoy the hell out of Us. Boiled down to their basic parts, award shows are bullshit. Ranking art over art is a useless endeavor when taste, as I said, is subjective. But the Academy Awards are “important” in the sense that they set a noticeable bar of what kind of art is also “important.” The more we only nominate biopics and above-average makeup jobs, the more accepted it becomes that a certain type of effort isn’t eligible.
We’re living through a fantastic time for the genre—to be honest I think Ready or Not deserved a few nods too, a different conversation for a different time—but it’s also a time when studio heads placate audiences by calling it “elevated” horror. Screw that in the harshest possible words. Horror is art in its most blood-splattered form. Just because Lupita Nyong’o gave the best performance of the year with a gore-covered fire poker in hand and a ragged scream in her throat doesn’t mean it wasn’t award-worthy. Great horror might make you cover your eyes, but that doesn’t mean it should be ignored.
For more on the 2020 Oscar nominations, here is Adam Chitwood’s rundown of the biggest surprises and snubs.