Calvin College alum nominated for Oscar


Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons user Bart Ryker

Paul Schrader at the Montclair Film Festival.

Calvin College added another Oscar nominee to its ranks when Paul Schrader, Calvin class of 1968, was nominated for a 2018 Academy Award.

Schrader is the first Calvin College alum to receive a nomination for screenwriting, but he is the second to be nominated for an Oscar; production designer Jeannine Oppewall, who graduated from Calvin around the same time as Schrader, has been nominated four separate times for Best Art Direction.

The nomination in question was Best Original Screenplay for the 2018 film “First Reformed,” which Schrader also directed. The film follows a pastor of a severely under-attended church in upstate New York as he suffers a crisis of faith in the wake of a congregant’s suicide.

Schrader is perhaps best known as the author of the screenplay for Martin Scorsese’s 1976 film “Taxi Driver,” considered by many critics to be an American classic, and featured on the American Film Institute’s (AFI) list of the 100 greatest American movies. Although that film was nominated for several Oscars in 1977, Schrader’s screenplay was not among them.

Carl Plantinga, professor of Film and Media at Calvin, weighed in on the nomination. “This… means a lot to Calvin College,” said Plantinga. “The college needs to celebrate the arts, and this is another sign that we can do art, in this case screenwriting, well.”

This marks Schrader’s first Oscar nomination in any category, a notable feat for a man that has written and directed 23 films, many of which have been well-received critically (and others have not). However, Schrader’s response to the nomination wasn’t as grateful as one might think with such a long and illustrious career. In a recent interview with IndieWire, Schrader displayed conflicted feelings about the nomination, saying, “You know, this is a very difficult conversation because I have never really respected the Academy for their choices. On the other hand, I’m enormously gratified that they have selected me.”

Ethan Hawke plays a haunted ex-military chaplain in “First Reformed.” Killer Films/Arclight Films/Omeira Studio Partners

Some cinemagoers have still found the awards-season reception of “First Reformed” underwhelming. Lead actor Ethan Hawke, despite nominations and awards from numerous smaller organizations such as the Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), failed to even receive a nomination. In the same IndieWire interview, Schrader remarked that he told Hawke, “‘Ethan, you’ve won. You may not have gotten nominated, but you won. Your performance has made an impact, and never forget that.’”

Plantinga shared a similar sentiment, adding that he felt Schrader’s film deserved both a best actor and best picture nomination. Still, in his opinion, “it is never a good idea to look to the Best Picture nominations to determine what the actual best pictures are in any given year.” While the Oscars are often considered the biggest award in the film industry, Plantinga noted that “the Academy has a history of favoring big budget films, though there are exceptions.” He emphasized, “‘First Reformed’ won many other awards and received many other nominations. The film is also on many top critics’ ten best lists for 2018.”

This is, of course, not to diminish the importance of Schrader’s nomination. “For the students [of Calvin College], this is a reminder that no matter what your background is, it is possible for you to do great things. Aim high. But do it for the sake of your contribution, and not the accolades.”