Spreading the Oscars wealth

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If you’re in the habit of looking back at the list of nominees and winners of the Academy Awards over the years like I am, you’ve probably also noticed that there are years when the Academy has heaped a huge number of awards on a single film and there have been years in which the wealth has been spread around more evenly.

For example, there was the 1960 ceremony in which Ben-Hur won eleven of the fourteen categories it might have been qualified to be nominated for, including two acting awards. The saving grace that year appears to have been that there were still several “split” categories, in part due to the fact that so many movies were still being made in black and white. Because of this, you had The Diary of Anne Frank winning Oscars for black and white cinematography and Art Direction and Some Like it Hot winning for black and white Costume Design without ever stealing from Ben-Hur. Titanic‘s parade to the stage in 1998 was thankfully blunted for viewers at home by wins for other movies in all of the acting and writing categories. Return of the King, while also getting shut out in the acting categories, actually did win in the Adapted Screenplay category and for both Original Score and Original Song. This kind of dominance can get a little boring for the fans at home if they’re not completely in the bag for the favored film of the year.
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In contrast, there are clearly years in which the big winners are not so oppressively dominant. Take last year’s awards for example. The film with the most wins was George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road, with six. In the eighty-eight years of the awards, only twenty-six films have won more Oscars than that, but all of those wins were in technical and craft categories. Best Picture, Best Director, and all of the acting and writing awards went to other films. In 1951, All About Eve was clearly the big winner, taking home six awards, including for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actor for George Sanders. Despite these high profile wins, All About Eve actually won less than half of the awards it was nominated for, with films like Sunset Boulevard, Samson and Delilah, and King Solomon’s Mines each winning more than one Oscar each. This seems to me like a good example of the Academy clearly identifying a favorite film while still spreading the wealth around to other worthy productions. Unless you’ve got a clearly superior film, this appears to be the ideal situation for most years.
How can we achieve this sort of result for this year’s awards? I thought you’d never ask.
The set of wins in the full-length categories I’m going to present here are not going to reflect my choices as I’ve laid out over the past week or even which nominees I necessarily think will win tonight, but rather a sort of middle ground between the two that I think might succeed in identifying the best films of the year while giving wins to a variety of productions. Shorts and documentaries will not be reflected here, since those categories are self-contained and don’t really “steal” from other movies chances of winning. Let’s get going.
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La La Land, with its fourteen nominations is clearly the favorite this year and could easily become a juggernaut at the ceremony tonight if the voters just went down the line on their ballots and kept choosing their overall favorite movie. But I don’t personally believe it is necessarily deserving of wins in all of the categories it is nominated in. Double digit wins for Damien Chazelle’s production might over-represent it to future generations even if we agree that it is worthy of Best Picture. Let’s start with some of the technical and other categories to show how the Academy could legitimately represent the quality work done this year.
Best Visual Effects
None of the nominees here are competitors in the major categories, so this can be given out without a major effect on overall optics. The Jungle Book is the favorite here, but Rogue One: A Star Wars Story could also win without causing shock waves.
Best Sound Mixing
Productions with heavy musical elements often have an advantage in this category, and it would not be a surprise if La La Land did indeed win here. Unfortunately, I think sound mixing was actually one of the film’s weak spots. Too often, especially in its first two musical numbers, the group vocals were buried too far down in the mix and resulted in both a muddled sound and difficulty in understanding the lyrics in a first viewing. Generally, most onlookers believe the runner-up in this category is Arrival, so let’s give the award to what is another of my favorite films of the year.
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Best Sound Editing
Arrival is already a slight favorite in this category, so there’s no reason not to go ahead and honor that here. The use of sound in that movie was indeed particularly effective.
Best Animated Feature
I’m including this category because two of the nominees here are also nominated in other feature categories. Of course neither of those movies is the favorite here, with Zootopia generally considered likely to win Oscar gold this year. So no, this doesn’t really end up effecting what we’re talking about.
Best Original Score
While there is some definite support for the scores of both Jackie and Lion, the musical hooks which will be recognizable to future generations are those contained in the La La Land score.
Best Original Song
Look, I’m a big fan of both Lin-Manuel Miranda and Disney in general, but “How Far I’ll Go” doesn’t represent the peak performance of either of them. My personal favorite here is “Audition,” but the La La Land song which is most likely to win is “City of Stars.” It’s going to be the Best Picture winner. It’s a musical. La La Land will take this category either way.
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Best Costume Design
As our costuming expert Allison explained, while the costumes in La La Land are appropriate for its purposes, they’re not particularly brilliantly conceived or executed. While Allison’s personal choice for the honor is Allied, Oscars observers do not include it among the likely winners in the category. Jackie is a much more viable candidate for collecting enough actual votes.
Best Production Design
While my personal preference in this category would veer toward either Arrival or Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, the generally agreed upon favorite is, again, La La Land. This is a perfectly valid choice, so let’s allow the 800 pound gorilla a victory here.
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Best Cinematography
While a win here for La La Land wouldn’t be an outrage, the work in both Moonlight and Arrival stands above it in their depth and tonal perfection. I’m going to err in favor of many people’s favorite film of the year and my actual choice for this category despite my lack of enthusiasm for the film as a whole. I’m talking about Moonlight there.
Best Film Editing
Here is another example of a category in which La La Land‘s favorite status is perfectly reasonable. Wins here and in Production Design would effectively reflect the film’s visual appeal while leaving other categories open for success from other deserving movies.
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Best Original Screenplay
According to Oscars pundits, this category appears to be a horse race between La La Land and Manchester by the Sea. While Damien Chazelle’s script is certainly the structure on which the pleasures of La La Land are built, I’m going to favor the more subtle and deeply human work of Kenneth Lonergan.
Best Adapted Screenplay
Here’s one of the few remaining “split” categories which allows for a film to compete without facing La La Land at all. The slight favorite here is Moonlight, but the film’s rather predictable plot and average dialogue leave me favoring Arrival instead.
Viola Davis plays Rose Maxson in Fences from Paramount Pictures. Directed by Denzel Washington from a screenplay by August Wilson.
Best Supporting Actress
Who are we kidding? This award is going to Viola Davis from Fences. Let’s move on.

Best Supporting Actor
Although I favor Michael Shannon slightly and some experts believe Dev Patel has crept into true contention, Mahershala Ali from Moonlight has been the favorite through most of awards season, and not for no good reason. He and the cinematography are the two elements from Moonlight which are undeniable.
Best Actress
Amy Adams from Arrival got left out of this field to many folks’ dismay. Meanwhile, former winner Natalie Portman from Jackie has the advantage of playing a historical figure who required a transformative performance. Both of these factors seem to favor her, but well…not many people were huge fans of Jackie overall. I’m guessing Emma Stone will grab another win for La La Land.
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Best Actor
Ryan Gosling’s turn in La La Land is generally less esteemed than his co-star’s, with Casey Affleck and Denzel Washington as the agreed-upon pair of favorites. I’ve discussed my feelings about Washington’s scene-chewing in Fences elsewhere, but I’d also consider Fences to be less deserving overall of multiple awards than Manchester by the Sea, so let’s honor the more subtle work of Affleck.
Best Director and Best Picture
Look, the whole idea of this article is how the Academy could honor its favorite movie without leaving too many other deserving artists wanting for attention. In that scenario, these two top categories belong to La La Land. Now let’s look and see how the math works overall.
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La La Land7 total wins
Arrival3 total wins
Manchester by the Sea2 total wins
Moonlight2 total wins
This leaves a few other films with single wins, including FencesThe Jungle Book, Jackie, and Zootopia. Of course it will be up to everyone’s individual tastes to determine whether or not this layout constitutes a good distribution of awards. But it does definitively honor the awards season film with the most buzz and the greatest chance for long term mainstream appreciation while still honoring three other highly praised films with multiple Oscars. If things shake out this way this evening it would put La La Land in the same general neighborhood as Best Picture winners like The StingPattonOut of Africa, and Shakespeare in Love, but with fewer wins than those such as AmadeusGone With the Wind, and On the Waterfront. This seems like a pretty appropriate state of affairs in the long run to me.
Here’s hoping you all enjoy tonight’s show no matter how your favorites fare!

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