Denzel Washington received his ninth Academy Award nomination this year, for his performance in Roman J. Israel, Esq. Although Washington’s performance has been lauded, the movie is, by most accounts, pretty bad.
Roman J. Israel Esq. has a rating of 51 out of 100 on Rotten Tomatoes, by far the worst of any movie nominated for a major award this year. Darkest Hour, the second-lowest rated movie, has an 86.
So how did such a poorly reviewed movie get nominated? According to a Quartz statistical analysis of major Oscar nominations over the last 40 years, it’s because nominations are sticky—they tend to “stick” to individuals. Once you get your foot in the Oscars door, you don’t have to make quite as good a movie to be nominated again.
We found that the average movie with a first-time nominee for best actress, actor, or director had an 88 on Rotten Tomatoes, compared to an 84 for movies with actors or directors that were previously nominated. It’s not huge difference in ratings, but it’s significant.
Where the previously nominated really have an edge is in terms is getting nominated for less than stellar movies. While only 17% of first-time nominees come from movies that scored 80 or less on Rotten Tomatoes, that was true of about 30% of actors or directors that had been previously nominated.
Besides Washington’s nomination this year, Jennifer Lawrence’s 2015 nomination for her performance in the poorly regarded Joy is another recent example of the low bar for the previously nominated. (She had been nominated for 2010’s Winter’s Bone and 2012’s Silver Linings Playbook.)
Our finding could demonstrate a bias towards the known quantity, but another possible explanation is that great actors and actresses can shine even in ordinary movies. Exhibit one for this more upbeat argument is Meryl Streep. Streep, who has been nominated 17 times for Best Actress, is perhaps the greatest film actress of her generation. Streep has been nominated for some poorly reviewed films including Ironweed, Music of the Heart, The Iron Lady, and August: Osage County. Her performance in each of these movies was highly regarded.
Maybe Streep would have been nominated for these movies even if she wasn’t already such a renowned actress. I doubt it though. The data suggest a less revered actress in a so-so movie would have been ignored, no matter how stellar her performance was.