Spreading the Oscars Wealth (90th Academy Awards)
Prior to last year’s Oscars telecast, I presented conjecture on a series of winners for all of the feature film categories in an effort to show how the Academy could honor a wide range of films while still clearly identifying their choice for Best Picture (beyond simply awarding that specific award, that is). This concept is based around the fact that so many years over the history of the Academy Awards, the voters have seemed to lock in on a single favorite film and just started throwing Oscars at it to the relative exclusion of almost any other. For example, in April of 1960, Ben-Hur won in eleven of the twelve categories it was nominated in, including Best Picture, Director, Actor, and Supporting Actor and two years later West Side Story won in ten of its eleven categories, with wins for Best Picture, Director, and in both of the Supporting performance categories. In years like 1997 and 2003 audiences got a little respite from powerhouses Titanic and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King over the course of the ceremony because neither managed to win any of the acting awards.
My contention is that it’s possible to honor the top film of the year without making it a monumental bore and ignoring other deserving artists. In last year’s article I showed how the understood front-runner, La La Land, could win a nice-sized haul of seven statuettes without shutting out some of the other well-liked nominees. On the night of the awards, when La La Land was called out as the winner for Best Picture, it looked like that’s exactly what had happened! I sent out a self-congratulatory tweet bragging about how I’d laid out a plan for the movie’s seven wins and had basically been right on the nose as far as the numbers went….then something very unexpected happened. We all know about the mix-up with the envelope at last year’s awards and Moonlight‘s surprising win, knocking La La Land down to just six wins and spreading the Oscar wealth just a bit more than I’d envisioned. That’s all well and good. It’s a good story.
This year’s awards don’t appear to have a possible behemoth like last year’s did. While Guillermo de Toro’s The Shape of Water is way out ahead in its sheer number of nominations (13 as compared to just 7 for the next most highly nominated film of the year), most prognosticators aren’t calling for a runaway freight train engineered by a super-powered fish man. In fact, based on the results at both the Golden Globes and the BAFTAs, it looks like Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri might be the Best Picture favorite. But no matter which movie takes Best Picture, it’s still very possible for the wealth to get spread out pretty well, reflecting not just our expectations, but genuinely admired work in the individual categories. Follow along and let’s see what I can construct this year…
As with last year, this won’t be a pure game of predicting each category accurately or of just selecting my own favorites without regard for who actually stands a chance of winning, but will try to balance the two while effectively spreading the wealth in a way that accurately represents the year in film for future generations. I’ll only be covering those categories that cross over into those populated mostly by non-documentary feature films, because those are the ones that are most likely to steal from one another and contribute to the final tally.
Best Visual Effects
Perhaps it won’t be too surprising to realize that all five of the nominees in this category are sequels or reboots of sorts. Big action series require fancy special effects and the established success of an intellectual property makes it more likely that producers will be willing to spend the kind of money it takes to deliver the best visuals and sounds available. The two primary competitors for the Oscar in Visual Effects are sequels to films that might have felt a little undervalued by the Academy in the past. While the general critical consensus favors Blade Runner 2049 it’s a pretty big favorite in one other category, and the motion capture character creation in War For the Planet of the Apes is pretty impressive, so I’m going to start there when I’m spreading the wealth.
Best Film Editing
Sometimes on the evening of the awards, the film editing category can be pretty revealing about where the rest of the night is heading…or they give it to something like Hacksaw Ridge and it means nothing. This year we’ve got three top candidates for Best Picture vying for this category, and a win for one of them could be a sign of things to come, especially if that win goes to The Shape of Water or Three Billboards… More likely in this category would be a win for either Dunkirk or Baby Driver, and either one would serve to increase the suspense for Best Picture. Never mind that they’re both better artistic choices. While I’d love to see the fun and stylish work on Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver take this prize, I think it’s more probable that Christopher Nolan’s punishing World War II spectacle Dunkirk will stark sneaking into the Best Picture race in people’s minds here.
Best Makeup and Hairstyling and Best Costume Design
Take a couple of the Best Picture nominees that are pretty much universally agreed to have no chance at the big prize and throw them each a bone in a lesser category without really raising expectations for either of them. Despite some well-deserved accolades in cinematography and production design, nobody thinks Darkest Hour stands a chance there. Instead, it looks to be the overwhelming favorite in Makeup and Hairstyling for assisting in Gary Oldman’s transformation into Winston Churchill. Meanwhile Phantom Thread‘s six nominations will likely be headed by a win for Costume Design.
Here’s another category in which wins for a couple of films could be seen as the Academy showing its hand. If The Shape of Water takes the statuette in this category, for instance, it could indicate that the Academy is leaning in that direction for at least Best Director and maybe even Best Picture. The same could be said for Dunkirk. But there is a real groundswell in sentiment for the legendary Roger Deakins to be finally rewarded on his fourteenth try for his amazingly beautiful work on Blade Runner 2049. Everything I’m seeing tells me this is what’s going to happen.
Best Production Design
Interesting trivia on this category: the title of “production designer” originated with the work of William Menzies’ work on Gone With the Wind since he and producer David O Selznick thought his contributions weren’t fully described by the title “art director.” This category basically encompasses the visual quality of the film as a whole and how the costumes, sets, lighting, colors, cinematography, and other elements come together to produce a unified “look” for the entire production. while some of its fans favor Blade Runner 2049 for this honor, the overwhelming opinion is that this is where The Shape of Water starts making its case for Best Director and Best Picture.
Best Sound Editing and Best Sound Mixing
It’s not unusual for these two awards to be lazily handed to the same film, and it’s hard to blame the thousands of Academy members trying to fill out their ballots for that. How many people reading this article can tell me right now (without looking it up) what the difference is between these to categories? Right. While Baby Driver has some support here, the general consensus is that Dunkirk will pick up two more little gold men here, and it would certainly be well-deserved. If you’re counting along, that means Christopher Nolan and company are currently out ahead in this little exercise of mine.
Best Original Score and Best Original Song
Although Dunkirk will likely dominate in overall sound, its musical offerings aren’t going to keep that grip on the ears of the Academy, and two of the year’s other best movies will probably take the opportunity to close the gap in overall wins. While I have a mild preference for Jonny Greenwood’s wonderful music for Phantom Thread, it is much more likely that Alexandre Desplat will take home the Oscar for his charming and mysterious score for The Shape of Water.
Meanwhile, though I’m a little nervous that the aspirational individualism and big flashy sound of “This Is Me” from The Greatest Showman will repeat its Golden Globes upset, I’m sticking with my heart and my belief in the superiority of the simpler song used multiple times in Coco, “Remember Me.” A second win for the Pixar film that will almost certainly triumph in the Best Animated Feature category brings it even with a couple of others, but this is the last award it is nominated for, so the best it can do is going home with two statuettes. In a better world, Coco would have also been nominated in the Best Picture category, but here we are in this world. Two it is.
Best Adapted Screenplay
This is one of the simpler calls of the year, based completely on just two simple facts. First off, if all you do is look down the list of nominees in the category you will see that Call Me By Your Name is the only one of them that is also nominated for Best Picture. Secondly, its screenwriter James Ivory, is an eighty-nine year old veteran mostly known for directing well-respected prestige pictures such as A Room with a View, Howard’s End, and The Remains of the Day. This win will serve both as a consolation prize for Call Me By Your Name and as a career achievement award for Ivory. It will be one of those feel-good moments the Academy loves so much.
Best Original Screenplay
Here’s where things start to get a lot trickier! Four of the five nominees in this category are also nominated in the Best Picture category, and so a win for Original Screenplay could be seen as either a consolation prize, or as an indication of the Academy’s intentions in the Best Picture race. In the latter group would most likely be either The Shape of Water or Three Billboards… while a win here for Get Out or Lady Bird would probably reflect the voters’ wish to recognize one of their favorite films that will probably not win anything in the “big six” categories. I’m going to guess that this year the voters will be trying to do a little of what I’m doing here by spreading the wealth to either Get Out or Lady Bird, and while I personally believe that Greta Gerwig’s script is superior, in the interest of both being accurate to the actual result and trying not to shut out any of the top Best Picture nominees, I’m going to push the Best Original Screenplay Oscar to Jordan Peele for Get Out.
Best Supporting Actress
So where is Lady Bird supposed to pick up its own consolation prize? Well, that’s what became so tough for me as I started planning this article. In order to present something reasonably realistic while “spreading the wealth” and also leaving myself mildly pleased I found that I had to make at least one significant sacrifice. Allison Janney is the favorite in the Supporting Actress category and I really loved I, Tonya quite a bit. It was one of my favorite movies of the year, alongside Coco, The Florida Project, The Big Sick, Ingrid Goes West, and, yes, Lady Bird. A win for Margot Robbie for Best Actress is not likely at all, and neither is a win in Film Editing, so I had to leave it wanting in favor of Laurie Metcalfe’s more naturalistic and nuanced work in Best Picture nominee Lady Bird.
Best Supporting Actor
…and I still haven’t addressed one of the top competitors for Best Picture at all yet, have I? Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is second in overall nominations to only The Shape of Water and has beaten out Guillermo del Toro’s film for the big prize at BAFTA, the Golden Globes, and SAG. For starters, I’m going to go with the common wisdom and say that Sam Rockwell will cement his legacy as an actor’s actor by winning in this category…
…with Sam’s co-star Frances McDormand probably even more certain to win in the Best Actress category despite practically begging voters to honor younger actresses, which three of her fellow nominees most certainly are. All five nominees in the category gave extraordinarily skilled performances in their respective films, and all five embody the picture themselves. A vote for any of them could be easily defended, but right now it doesn’t look like any one of them can muster the support to knock off McDormand, meaning that Three Billboards… now has joined the group of nominated films with more than one award so far.
Believe it or not, here come another. Gary Oldman’s transformative performance as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour is one of the biggest sure thing winners of the evening, with the rest of the actors in the category either already possessing Oscars for more indelible performances in better films (Daniel Day-Lewis and Denzel Washington) or being much younger than Oldman, with the assumption that they’ll have plenty of other chances at Oscar gold (Timothee Chalamet and Daniel Kaluuya). While this last point didn’t help Michael Keaton out a few years ago when he lost to the much younger Eddie Redmayne, that was a situation in which the younger actor was the one who had been disappearing under a severe physical change while the older actor pretty much just looked like himself. That’s not the case here, and despite plenty of support for Timothee Chalamet’s rightly-admired work in Call Me By Your Name, the longtime favorite without a win is the slam dunk of the night. The film rests almost entirely on Oldman’s performance and his resemblance to the famous British statesman, so wins in Best Actor and Best Makeup define it pretty well.
So let’s pause for a second and take a look at the awards distribution as it stands in my exercise here so far-
Dunkirk – 3
The Shape of Water – 2
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri – 2
Darkest Hour – 2
Coco – 2
In addition, four of the five remaining Best Picture nominees have a single win so far. That’s important because the Best Picture winner hasn’t been a film without at least one other statuette since Mutiny on the Bounty did it more than eighty years ago. Two years ago, Spotlight won Best Picture with just a Best Original Screenplay win to its name, but it did have that one other win.
With just two more awards to be given out, adding the honor for Best Director could do quite a lot to boost the hopes of that film’s makers when it comes time to give out the Best Picture trophy. I hate to act like these other awards are just tune-ups for that category, but let’s be honest here, many laypeople tend to look at a list of the Best Picture winners without taking the time to consider who won Best Director or Best Original Screenplay, or Best Editing. That one film stands as representative of the year in film whether we like it or not. As an Oscars fan, I have plenty of space in my world for nuance on the subject, but we’re going to carry forward in this article knowing that Best Picture is a pretty darned big deal.
The traditional connection between getting a nomination in this category and winning Best Picture (Ben Affleck and Argo notwithstanding) is also very strong, with only four films pulling the trick, and only two in my lifetime. That could be a real concern for Three Billboards…, because Martin McDonagh failed to get the nod the morning of nominations, so they’ll be sitting this one out. Correlation between a Best Director win and a Best Picture win has decreased in recent years, however, so we’ll see how that develops, won’t we? All of this said, the overwhelming favorite in this category this year appears to be Guillermo del Toro, whose The Shape of Water sports more overall nominations than any other movie and will probably already have a couple of wins when it comes time for him to cross his fingers. Dunkirk‘s Christopher Nolan is well-respected, but looks to be the runner-up here by a pretty hefty margin.
Like I said, this win is definitely good news for The Shape of Water, but we shouldn’t jump the gun here because at each of the last three big awards shows, del Toro has won Best Director, but his film has lost out to Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. So that’s sure to happen again, right? Well…hold your horses just a minute there. If you read my article about the importance of the Best Picture category that effectively kicked off my coverage here at LeBlog three weeks ago, you might remember me spending some time going over the way in which the Best Picture votes are counted up using a preferential ballot.
With that in mind, I’d like to present an idea floated by Variety contributor Daniel Joyaux about how Dunkirk could actually sneak back into the driver’s seat on Sunday night. The key, according to Joyaux, is that the rounds of vote tallying are followed by the expulsion of the lowest vote-getters and that the next ranked films on those ballots are then assigned the ballot’s vote. What this means is that if you have a rooting interest in one of the nominees, what you’re hoping for is that the first few nominees to be dumped will be those that have support from voters who are likely to rank your favored movie highly. Consider this year’s lowest-rated Best Picture nominees if you will. The general consensus is that Darkest Hour and The Post will likely be the first two films to get eliminated, leaving the ballots with them at number one to contribute their votes to their second and maybe third ranked choices. What movie with decent support seems likely to get a high ranking from voters who like Darkest Hour? Well, considering that the two movies are covering the same historical event from different perspectives, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Dunkirk was to pick up a lot of those votes once Darkest Hour gets eliminated.
Let’s say the next film to get ash-canned is indeed The Post. While the connection there isn’t quite as direct as the one between Darkest Hour and Dunkirk, this is another movie that was probably supported by more traditionalist voters (the ‘steak eaters’ as they are sometimes called in Hollywood). It’s a historical drama, just like the two World War II pictures, so it’s pretty reasonable to assume that at least some of its second or third-ranked spots will be assigned to Dunkirk. The low placement of these two more traditional films could actually turn out to be a big advantage for Dunkirk because by the time other films start picking up more second and third-round votes it might be too late. All that has to happen for a film to win Best Picture is for it to pick up half of the available votes plus one. At that point, whatever the second and third ranked films were on ballots with highly rated films in the number one slot doesn’t matter at all. In other words, if you’re an Oscar voter this year and your number one choice is something like The Shape of Water or Three Billboards… it is more than likely that your second or third place films will never see the light of day. That’s why the overall taste of voters who rank early exiting films at number one end up mattering more than yours does.
Another thing to remember is that this preferential ballot rewards films with solid overall support over those that may be loved greatly by some, but disliked by others. Just last year, although La La Land could very well have started the counting process with the most first place votes, it was a divisive movie for enough of the voters that it apparently didn’t pick up very many second or third round votes, leading to a comeback victory for Moonlight which might have had lots of support from voters who had ranked Fences (ranked 8th by prognosticators last year prior to the ceremony) and Hidden Figures (ranked 7th). I’m not sure where 9th ranked Hacksaw Ridge‘s votes went (maybe to Hell or High Water?), but it possibly wasn’t concentrated enough to make a big difference.
I’ve given Joyaux’s hypothesis serious thought, though, and it has real merit. Enough that I won’t be particularly surprised if Dunkirk really does re-assert itself come Sunday evening. But not enough that I feel good predicting such a thing when the movie is generally believed to be ranked in the middle of the pack when it comes to being voters’ number one choice.
But I do believe that the preferential ballot may have a significant impact on the Best Picture winner anyway, for a very different reason. I’m hearing a significant amount of noise indicating that Three Billboards… is disliked by a decent number of voters, meaning that it may be ranked too lowly on many ballots to ever end up contributing to the final vote, giving a more uniformly liked film the chance to feast in those second, third, and fourth rounds of counting. My guess is that The Shape of Water will both have a strong starting position and then grab second and third place rankings from voters who like Call Me By Your Name and Phantom Thread. Yes, I’m thinking the votes will be so spread out to begin with that the accountants doing the job will have to go through at least four or five rounds to determine a winner.
Am I a fan of this style of ballot counting? I’m not sure yet. My maverick tendencies suggest to me that it’s actually the best films that will garner the most negative reactions while also getting a lot of positive admiration. Working the system to favor movies that nobody hates seems like a recipe for mediocrity in the long run. On the other hand, I do like that it’s making the Best Picture race so difficult to call in what has otherwise been a pretty easy to predict year of movie awards.
In the end, what I have here is The Shape of Water winning Best Picture with a total of 4 category wins, Dunkirk getting 3 awards, but all ‘below the line,’ and Darkest Hour, Three Billboards…, and Coco each nabbing just 2.
I am in no way confident in some of my choices here being the real world results, but I do believe this is a pretty realistic version of how Oscar could get doled out to a variety of recipients based on the actual expectations and unique nature of the Academy Awards. The prediction I think stands a good chance of coming true here, though, is that the film with the most wins will hit three to five total Oscars. If we get a Three Billboards… win, with Best Original Screenplay and Best Picture triumphs that would put it at four wins total. With seven total nominations, four wins seems like a cap, considering that one is a duplicate in the Supporting Actor category, and it is lowly rated in Best Editing and Original Score. All that would have to change here for Dunkirk to get to four wins would be that Best Picture trophy that, as I detailed, would not actually be that surprising. Less likely Best Picture winners like Lady Bird and Get Out would probably cap out at four or three wins tops respectively. Only a Shape of Water parade to the stage could result in an impressive win total – – but even if it does win Best Picture, I don’t see that happening.