Today, my final four choices for this year’s Oscars. How close are these races? So close that I wouldn’t be shocked if I went 0-for-4 in today’s picks. Betting tip: Take the words “close second” as a synonym for “too close to call.”
Best Writing — Adapted Screenplay
Jason Hall, American Sniper
Graham Moore, The Imitation Game
Paul Thomas Anderson, Inherent Vice
Anthony McCarten, The Theory of Everything
Damien Chazelle, Whiplash
The writing branch had a chance to make this category more interesting (and worthy) by including Gillian Flynn’s script for Gone Girl and Nick Hornby’s for Cheryl Strayed’s Wild. It declined to do so; this was apparently a No Girls Allowed year, both onscreen and in the list of nominees. Nonetheless, we also have the branch to thank for livening up a bland field considerably by its own weird decision that Whiplash is an adapted screenplay — adapted, it turns out, from a short film called Whiplash also written and directed by Chazelle, which in turn was adapted from the very same feature-length script that is now considered adapted. Nicely reasoned, human centipedes!
Without Whiplash in the field, this award would almost certainly go to Moore’s script for The Imitation Game; the movie boasts eight nominations overall and Moore won the Best Adapted Screenplay award from the WGA (which slotted Whiplash as an original). The Imitation Game’s support is broad, but is it deep? The script has come under fire, most prominently in The Guardian and The New York Review of Books, for taking liberties with its subject’s life — in particular, for inventing a slur of a plotline in which his homosexuality compromised his ability to report the presence of a Russian spy. That issue doesn’t seem to have gnawed much at Oscar voters — Alan Turing is just some dead gay Brit genius; it’s not like he’s Lyndon Johnson! — but there are signs that enthusiasm has waned; BAFTA had a chance to honor the film, honor the man, and in this category, they honored neither and gave its prize to The Theory of Everything.
This is a two-film race. Inherent Vice slid through out of respect for Anderson but has no overall Academy support, American Sniper isn’t seen as a writer’s movie, and voters have a chance to reward Theory elsewhere, whereas this is probably The Imitation Game’s best shot. The case I can make for Whiplash is that Academy traditionalists have a lot of options in this race, whereas if plucky, dynamic American indies are your thing, you’ve got one candidate. This comes down to a head-versus-heart choice. Never let it be said that I’m heartless.
Close Second: The Imitation Game
Open Road Films
Best Writing — Original Screenplay
Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris Jr., & Armando Bo, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Richard Linklater, Boyhood
E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman, Foxcatcher
Wes Anderson (screenplay), Wes Anderson & Hugo Guinness (story), The Grand Budapest Hotel
Dan Gilroy, Nightcrawler
Another close race, but this one is in a far richer field of deserving contenders. We’ll never know what would have happened if Whiplash had landed here, but my guess is that it would have split the wet-hot-American-darkness vote with Foxcatcher and Nightcrawler; as it is, those two fantastic scripts will almost certainly be sidelined in favor of the three Best Picture contenders nominated here. I would be very happy to see this prize go to Boyhood, but there seems to be a bizarre perception on the part of some Academy members that, you know, it’s not really written, it’s more kinda improvised — didn’t they just sort of make it up as they went along? No, you knuckleheads, they did not. Linklater, Anderson, and Iñárritu are all basically in the same boat — they’re head-to-head-to-head both here and in the Best Directing category — but conventional wisdom seems to be that this isn’t the place to reward Boyhood. Which leaves us with the two most nominated films of the year vying for the same prize.
The WGA is no help here — Budapest won, but perhaps that was only because Birdman wasn’t eligible. But recent Academy history may shed a little more light. The last three winners were Woody Allen for Midnight in Paris, Quentin Tarantino for Django Unchained, and Spike Jonze for Her. If Best Original Screenplay is a means of rewarding a writer-director who clearly isn’t going to win the Best Directing prize, then …
Winner: The Grand Budapest Hotel
Close Second: Birdman
Dark Horse: Boyhood
Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Richard Linklater, Boyhood
Bennett Miller, Foxcatcher
Wes Anderson, The Grand Budapest Hotel
Morten Tyldum, The Imitation Game
… which therefore means that Anderson is not going to win Best Directing. (Directing, not Director, by the way — which is why the nominees are read in alphabetical order by movie, not by last name.) Who will take the coveted Academy Award for Best Directing Person? This is, I think, a pretty clean two-way contest between Linklater and Iñárritu. Which means it’s time to wade into waters in which prognosticators almost always end up drowning — the Gulf of Split. Indiewire’s Anne Thompson, whose levelheaded analysis of the divide between the Academy’s mainstream and its larger-than-you-think non-mainstream is well worth reading, is guessing Iñárritu for Director and Boyhood for Picture. The Hollywood Reporter’s Scott Feinberg, whose track record is impressive, is also predicting a split, but in reverse. Fandango’s Dave Karger, my longtime EW colleague and an awfully good guesser, has both prizes going to Boyhood; Deadline’s Pete Hammond is betting the Birdman ticket. That may not reflect how close a race this actually is — that will remain a mystery, since the Academy never reveals vote totals — but it certainly reflects how close it feels.
Iñárritu won the DGA award. In terms of precedent, that’s huge but not insurmountable. It has led to Best Directing Oscars 16 times in the last 20 years, which is completely meaningful unless you’re one of the three exceptions. Here’s my logic: There’s been a lot of Oscar press, up to and including Wednesday’s New York Times piece by Carpetbagger Cara Buckley (thanks for the shout-out!), about what a close race this is. One of the effects of extended discussion about a close race is that it gives voters a kind of permission to do whatever the hell they want — including to split Picture and Director, which used to be an extraordinary rarity (it happened only twice between 1973 and 1997) and has since become no big deal (it has happened six times in the last 16 years). There’s been some buzz lately about how Boyhood is really a critical/media darling that lacks industry love; I’m not sure I buy that. It’s a small, homespun movie that got nominated for pretty much every Oscar it had a shot at, and six nominations indicates a healthy affection for it within the Academy. In this race, Linklater has two big constituencies going for him: people who love Boyhood and will vote for it for Best Picture, and people who love Birdman but respect Boyhood enough to give it a consolation prize. I think that might just do it.
Winner: Richard Linklater
Close Second: Alejandro G. Iñárritu
Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Imitation Game
The Theory of Everything
Get up, stretch your legs, take a bathroom break: It’s time for a brief reading of the rules. Best Picture is decided differently than the other 23 categories I’ve just spent the week sorting through. Those are all straight-up, pick-your-favorite votes and the winner is the winner, whether it’s with 23 percent of the total in a close five-way split or 97 percent in a landslide. But this category doesn’t work that way. Voters are asked to rank the Best Picture nominees in order of preference — asked, not forced, which means that some will simply pick their favorite, others will rank the three or four or five movies they like and then stop rather than cross the “If it’s not one of those, I don’t care what piece of crap they pick” line, and others will rank all eight. When that’s done, the ballots are sorted into eight piles. If one movie is ranked no. 1 on more than 50 percent of the total ballots, it wins. If that doesn’t happen — and anecdotal research this year strongly suggests it won’t — then the nominee with the lowest number of first-place votes is disqualified and its ballots are redistributed according to their second-place votes. If that still doesn’t put one of the remaining seven movies over the 50 percent mark, the seventh-place movie is then disqualified — and remember, the seventh-place movie might have changed as a result of that ballot redistribution. And so on, until there’s a winner.
If you want to know why it’s been the hardest year in memory to guess what will take the Academy’s top prize, that’s why. For weeks, handicappers have had byzantine conversations about what kind of movie might have a lot of second-place support, and about whether people who vote for, say, American Sniper are more likely to support Birdman or Boyhood as runner-up. But I think that’s probably going about it the wrong way. This is all guesswork, obviously, but let’s start from a couple of not-unreasonable premises. Let’s assume, to begin with, that Birdman and Boyhood are, in no particular order, our top two vote-getters. Let’s further assume that there is substantial first-place Best Picture support for (in no particular order) American Sniper, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Imitation Game, and Whiplash. Finally, let’s assume that Selma (which still has some fervent supporters) and The Theory of Everything (the only movie for which I couldn’t find a first-place vote among AMPAS members) are bringing up the rear.
What that shows us is strange: Depending on how close either Boyhood or Birdman is to winning in the first round, this whole thing could be decided by the second-place votes of the people who wanted one of the two or three least popular movies in the race to win. And if you think you have a bead on what movie most gets helped by, for instance, the Selma ballots, you’re several chess moves ahead of me.
Where Birdman and Boyhood finish may depend on where they start. If each movie begins with 25 percent of the overall vote, then one of them may not be pushed over the top until five or even all six other movies are eliminated. If each starts with 40 percent of the vote, then all of those Imitation Game and Grand Budapest Hotel ballots may never even be a factor. And if there’s a secret Academy consensus second choice that powers a different movie all the way to the podium, we’ll be analyzing this for years.
For most of this season, I thought Boyhood might take Best Picture. Love makes you hopeful, but you never know whether it’s blinding you or giving you greater clarity. Linklater’s film seemed to withstand everything in its path, including Birdman. Sure things like Unbroken came and went; dark murmurs (“Harvey is going to make sure The Imitation Game takes this”) rose to a furious buzz, then subsided; Selma came from nowhere, built to steamroller strength, and was then stopped in its tracks by one of the ugliest and most disingenuous smears in recent Academy history. Meanwhile, Birdman built and built, storming through the guild awards and turning into a consensus choice for an increasingly inward-looking Academy. In the end, it may come down to what’s more relatable. Birdman is about an artist fed up with exactly the kind of movies Academy voters are fed up with. Boyhood is the alternative, but an alternative that reminds people how hard it is to make something completely original. Individually, Academy votes are a matter of taste, idiosyncrasy, and eccentricity, but collectively, they often feel like a referendum on the state of the industry itself. Those questions, and the mood that animates them, change with every year, every headline, and every new crop of nominees: What are our roots (The Artist)? Can studios still make fun, mass movies with impeccable craft and some meat on their bones (Argo)? Where are we now on race (12 Years a Slave)? Can’t we do more than comic-book blockbusters? (I think you know where I’m going.)
Close Second: Boyhood
The Rest (in Order of Likelihood): The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Imitation Game, Whiplash, American Sniper, Selma, The Theory of Everything
Good luck to all — movies, nominees, and bettors. I’ll be back here first thing Monday morning to survey the wreckage.