Predicting the Oscars: Best Director and the Three-Way Race for Best Picture

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Something unusual is going to happen on Sunday when, after Ellen and the songs and the speeches and the death applause-meter and the (sigh) “tribute to heroes,” we finally get around to Best Director and Best Picture. Wins for Alfonso Cuarón and Gravity would represent an almost unprecedented achievement for a sci-fi(-ish) blockbuster. Wins for Steve McQueen and 12 Years a Slave would mark the first Oscar ever for a black director and an extremely rare Best Picture victory for a film that touches on the black experience in America. A Cuarón/12 Years split (or, for that matter, any other kind of split) would be its own kind of rarity — it’s happened only eight times in the past 40 years. And any other winners would so completely upend the collective wisdom of Oscar guessers that people might stop taking us so seriously (which would be a good thing, but that’s a story for another time). Enough preamble! Let’s get to it.

Best Director

5. Alexander Payne, Nebraska

Sometimes a surprise fifth nominee can vault all the way to no. 2 just because the choice makes people happy (see Amy Adams in American Hustle). More often, though, the surprise fifth nominee stays at no. 5 (see Christian Bale in American Hustle). On Sunday, Alexander Payne will be sitting in a seat that could just as easily have been occupied by Paul Greengrass or Spike Jonze or the Coen brothers if Ethan sat on Joel’s lap. For him to stand a chance, six-time nominee Nebraska would have had to surge at the box office and in public discussion after the nominations. Instead, with a gross of just $16.7 million, this fine, worthy film remains the least-seen of the nine Best Picture candidates. Payne is out of the running.

4. Martin Scorsese, The Wolf of Wall Street

If all the Academy voters who feel comfortable referring to a man they’ve never met as “Marty” (“Marty is a god!”) voted for him, he’d take this thing in a walk. But he’s already won an Oscar, the movie is polarizing, and no matter how loudly its devotees love it, they still don’t get to vote twice.

3. David O. Russell, American Hustle

One thing I love about Russell is that he’s almost physiologically incapable of masking his desire to win. He looks the way all nominees feel, and good for him; few things are a greater waste of psychic energy than the effort to simulate indifference. Russell, like Hustle, is a good choice for people who think a Best Picture winner should be a polished, super-professional, smart piece of studio moviemaking; it resembles Argo more than any other contender this year. However, nothing in the race suggests that people who want to reward the film feel an impetus to reward it in this category.

2. Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave

Sometimes narratives take hold; sometimes they don’t. Four years ago, the idea of making Kathryn Bigelow the first woman ever to receive Best Director caught on so powerfully that not only did she win, but The Hurt Locker was also able to become the lowest-grossing Best Picture victor in at least 50 years. But the idea of making history by giving an award to McQueen never struck sparks with either Academy voters or the media surrounding them.

There are many reasons for this, none particularly heartening. It certainly doesn’t help that the Academy, numerically speaking, is even more white (94 percent as of 2012) than male (77 percent), nor does it help that McQueen is British. The Hurt Locker also had the advantage of underdog status, which nicely matched up with Bigelow’s public image, whereas 12 Years was noisily heralded as a front-runner far too early in the cycle to do anything but hurt it.

One more big difference: Bigelow worked in a “male” genre — a comfort to voters who wanted to imagine their vote was some kind of proof that gender “doesn’t matter.” Those voters, who want to believe that we live in a post-problematic world, would have been delighted if McQueen had directed American Hustle instead of a movie that painfully reminded everyone that our historical horrors shape the world long after they seem to have abated. To his credit, McQueen seemed utterly uninterested, throughout this campaign season, in selling himself as an example or symbol of anything (something Bigelow also scrupulously avoided); the pressure to narrativize himself must have been immense. His good taste in declining to do so probably cost him votes. As did, to be fair, the fact that a lot of voters just liked other movies more.

1. Alfonso Cuarón, Gravity

There’s not much to say about the heavy favorite in this category — winner of the DGA award, among countless other honors — except that he has two extremely powerful constituencies: voters who think Gravity is the best movie of the year, and voters who don’t but still feel that honoring him is the perfect way to spread the wealth. I’d be shocked if that isn’t enough to put him over the top.

Best Picture

9. Dallas Buyers Club
8. Nebraska
7. Captain Phillips
6. Philomena
5. The Wolf of Wall Street
4. Her

No. No. No. No. No. And no. Last month, I wrote about one reason a larger Best Picture nominees list has diminished the Academy Awards, and here’s another: In a five-way contest, every movie has a chance of being considered and discussed on merit. But a list of nine films quickly subdivides into “real” contenders and also-rans, because people don’t want to “waste their vote” — as if voting for the movie you think is the year’s best could ever constitute a waste. It’s cynical to suggest that the media anointed American Hustle, Gravity, and 12 Years a Slave the front-runners in this category — they are, after all, the three movies with the most nominations — but there’s no question that public noisemaking about odds too often serves to close down discussion of movies rather than broaden it. Let’s pretend for a moment we had only five nominees this year — and that the last two were, say, Her and Nebraska. Each film would have stood out more sharply; we might have gotten into an interesting discussion of the degree to which Payne and Jonze represent different definitions of “independent” filmmaking. What if the last two had been Dallas Buyers Club and Philomena, movies that each explore, in a way, the recent historical guilt of established institutions and how they dealt with “sinners”? Five movies sharpen our focus; nine blur it. In the context of this year’s Oscars, these six have ended up as the movies that don’t stand a chance, nothing more. In any case, I’m rooting for Her to win and blow the roof off my whole theory and the Academy.

On the other hand: Let’s be grateful for a show that will end in suspense generated by the rare phenomenon of three credible winners!

3. American Hustle

This is the least credible credible winner. As I noted above, Hustle is a great choice for Academy neo-traditionalists, and with 10 overall nominations, including massive support from the actors’ branch, it shouldn’t be discounted. That said, last year, Silver Linings Playbook had eight nominations and massive actors’ branch support, and that added up to one win — for Jennifer Lawrence.

People have offered two theories about how American Hustle could take Best Picture. One of them deserves to be discredited immediately and permanently: the split-vote theory, which posits that support for two putatively stronger contenders will divide so evenly that a third can sneak through. Do you want to know what happens if support for 12 Years a Slave and Gravity divides evenly? One of them wins, the other finishes second (or they tie, as they did at the Producers Guild Awards), and American Hustle still finishes third. The split-vote theory works only when the two contenders that are said to be splitting the vote appeal to the exact same constituency. Without going into great detail, let’s just agree that 12 Years a Slave and Gravity don’t fit that definition.

The other way American Hustle can win is via the preferential ballot, which is a real, not-to-be-discounted issue. (People with math allergies are advised to skip ahead and wait patiently at the bottom of this paragraph.) In every other Oscar race, voters are asked to pick a winner. But for Best Picture, they’re requested to rank their choices, either from 1 to 9 or from 1 to whatever rank at which they stop liking the options. (Voters may also choose to pick a no. 1 and leave it at that; the Academy has never provided data on how many voters skip ranking altogether.) If no film gets a clean majority of no. 1 votes, the Best Picture candidate with the fewest no. 1 votes is eliminated, and its ballots are redistributed according to their no. 2 votes. Still no majority? The film with the fewest votes of the eight still in contention is then eliminated, and its ballots redistributed according to their second-place votes (unless any of those second-place votes are for the film that got knocked out in round one, in which case the third-place vote is counted instead.) And so on, until one movie tops 50 percent.

In other words, second- and third-place votes may count for a lot this year. And that seems likely, rightly or wrongly, to provide more of a boost to American Hustle — which feels like a viable runner-up selection for many voters — than to 12 Years a Slave, a more divisive film that feels like it’s either your first choice or not in your top three. The only problem with using that logic to predict an American Hustle win is that you could say the very same thing about …

2. Gravity

… which also has 10 nominations and widespread appeal (it was nominated by more different branches of the Academy than any other movie this year). It’s true: Movies set in outer space don’t win Best Picture Oscars. Until one does. It’s really hard to win Best Picture without a lot of support from the actors’ branch. Except that Slumdog Millionaire did it. Movies directed by foreigners have a hard time winning the top prize. Except for four out of the last five years. And so on. Precedents like these are not only meant to be broken, but are actually broken every year.

Here’s a tougher issue: the script. Only twice in the last 50 years has a movie won Best Picture without a screenplay nomination (in both cases, the films, Titanic and The Sound of Music, were box-office behemoths on a scale that dwarfs even the success of Gravity). This isn’t just a stat but a stat that connects to Academy thinking about whether a movie like Cuarón’s is “serious” enough to win Best Picture. Will support for a movie made with technical mastery that isn’t about much more than a New Age–y crisis about fate and the cosmos and life and death stop at Best Director (like last year’s Life of Pi), or can it go all the way?

You bet it can. Gravity is going to get a lot of first-place votes and a lot of second-place votes, and I wouldn’t be surprised in the slightest if it won Best Picture. So consider that I’m predicting, I don’t know, a four-vote margin when I say the winner will be …

1. 12 Years a Slave

If Steve McQueen’s movie wins Best Picture, it will do so by extending one fingernail over the finish line before any other movie can. In the last two weeks, its distributor, Fox Searchlight, has resorted to a print ad campaign with the slogan “It’s time.” This is special pleading — a barely disguised request for Best Picture votes as an act of atonement or a rectification of past Academy (or non-Academy) injustices. It’s arm-twisting and guilt-mongering, and also manifestly unworthy of the stern, hard, coolheaded movie it is attempting to turn into a cause. “It’s time” is what you bust out when you’d rather sell the idea of the movie than the movie itself; it’s also what you bust out when you’re worried, which Searchlight is, and should be. I don’t doubt the rumors that some older, violence-averse Academy members didn’t bother to watch the film, but I suspect they’re a small minority. A greater issue for the movie is prove-it-to-me voters — the portion of the membership that heard too much about 12 Years a Slave too soon and were put off when they encountered the strangeness and singularity of what McQueen had done, rather than the national act of catharsis they thought they’d been promised. If the film can still be called a front-runner at this point, it’s a badly bruised one.

However, bruised front-runners win all the time. 12 Years a Slave is a serious movie about a dark and painful part of history, made with very little compromise. As unusual as it is, that also places it comfortably within a long-standing aspirational tradition of Best Picture winners, and its adherents are passionate and numerous. A very close call, so feel free to place your bets for either of these top two. But I’m putting my nickel (I’m not confident enough to spend more) on this one.

♦♦♦

There you have it — all 24 of my choices. And I’m already wincing at a few of them. Several Oscar watchers have said “not so fast” to my guess that Best Film Editing is going to Gravity; they think Captain Phillips, which beat Gravity at the American Cinema Editors Awards, is a likelier choice. And I’m also being told I should expect American Hustle to shimmy past The Great Gatsby for Best Costume Design. I’ll stick with my original picks, but will add a reminder that two years ago in this space, I went an unimpressive 14-for-24. You’ve been warned! See you Monday, when I’ll sponge up the tears and spilled milk.

Filed Under: Academy Awards, Oscars, best picture, Best Director, nebraska, Martin Scorsese, David O. Russell, american hustle, Steve McQueen, 12 years a slave, Alfonso Cuaron, gravity, Her

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