Much has been said about the supposedly unpredictable and crazy Best Picture year ahead of the 90th Academy Awards. Today we take a look at a bit of Oscar history—all the way back to an old little movie called Grand Hotel, to see what if anything we can learn about this year’s Best Picture race. We will also look at some of the history of the Oscars since the switch back to the preferential ballot in the 2009-2010 race, to see what if anything we can learn about the Best Picture race. By the way, if you’ve heard of it, bonus points. If you’ve seen it (it’s great) tweet me or Instagram message me for a prize.
They Shoot Oscar Prognosticators, Don't They?
Best Picture Revisited
By J. Don Birnam
March 2, 2018
But first: The Only Best Picture Stat You Need to Know
Before I make your head spin with statistics and history, let me make it easy for you. Three Billboards Over Ebbing, Missouri is going to win the Best Picture Oscar at the 90th Academy Awards. I swore to myself I would be very careful before making such definitive statements again after my colossally embarrassing, multiple post declaration that La La Land was going to win and nothing could beat it.
But it is hard to not see what is staring me in the face and report it as I see it. Of course, last year my prediction for that musical (like everyone else’s) was based on two solid bases: the objectively verifiable near clean-sweep of precursor awards that La La Land had achieved, and the fact that it is right up their alley. We clearly did not realize then that there was a new Academy whose tastes we did not yet understand. If I fail again this year, I will be blaming it on that.
The truth of the matter is, everybody f*ing loves Three Billboards Over Ebbing, Missouri. Everybody. No, not literally. There is a corner of the world we now know as “Film Twitter” that we know hates the movie. They hate it for various reasons (many of which, frankly, I agree with). But that corner is a bubble if there ever has been one. Fair, true. That bubble loved Moonlight and predicted it. That same bubble this year has an insane obsession with movies like Call Me By Your Name and a slightly smaller one with Get Out, Dunkirk. If one of those wins, I shall never dismiss the Twitter cacophony again. In the meantime, however, I am going by what I am hearing on the street.
I ask people, at film festivals, in other countries, young, old, men, women, gay and straight. They love it. They laughed. They simply love it. How could a movie like that lose? What proof do you want that they love it? And this gets us into the stats…it has won in Toronto, it has won the Golden Globes foreign press, and it has won in England, at the BAFTA. It is quite literally universally loved. The last there movies to win all three of those is called 12 Years a Slave, and I hope you remember how that ended.
What is the only piece of objective evidence that people in the industry do not like this movie? The only piece of actual proof? There is ONE: That the Director’s Branch of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences (about 400-500 of the 8,000 or so) like 5 other movies more (not that they didn’t like it). And, not to get political, it may as well be evidence that they were worried after Natalie Portman’s zinger at the Golden Globes that having five white guys may make them look bad this year.
With that ONE piece of objective evidence, let’s go look at the stats and the history.
The Steepest Mountain To Climb: The Grand Hotel Stat
This has been called the year in which all of the Best Picture nominees is missing something, and it is true. As follows.
If you are an Oscar nerd, a true devoted, fan, you’ve probably done a combo of these (a) read the seminal book “Inside Oscar”; (b) obsessively studied the lists of winners; (c) watched all the Best Picture winners and nominees. If so, you would know that in the early days, it took the Oscars a little bit to get their footing. For example, Production Design and Cinematography were the first two technical categories, present since year one, while things like Costumes, Editing, and Sound did not appear much later. The Supporting Acting races did not show up will into the 15th or so Oscars.
Another thing you will see is that the winners were all over the place, not consolidated around this or that Best Picture nominee. So it is that my favorite of all time Oscar stats (or one of them at any rate), emerged. At the Fourth Academy Awards in 1933, a little movie with a star-studded cast that included Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, and John and Lionel Barrymore won Best Picture. What other Oscars did it win? None. What other Oscars was it nominated for? None. Other movies have won only the Best Picture Oscar, though that has not happened since the 1930s also. But Grand Hotel remains the only movie in the history of film to be nominated only for Best Picture, and win only that prize. Pretty cool, no?
The implications of that are also that Grand Hotel is one of the few films to win Best Picture without having a Best Director nomination, or without having an acting nomination, or without having a screenwriting nomination, or without having a technical nomination. Those statistics happen every thirty or so years on their own. But more than one together does not happen, let alone all four.
All of that got us thinking and, courtesy of Variety, some cool stuff emerged. Let’s look at the “steepest” mountain to climb for each nominee, meaning, the stat or precursor that they are missing that hasn’t happened in the longest time. Dunkirk for example, has no acting nominations. The last two movies to win Best Picture like that are Slumdog and Return of the King. But Dunkirk also does not have a screenwriting nomination. The two movies to win without one are, of “late,” Titanic and The Sound of Music. But the last movie to win without either an acting OR a writing nomination? You guessed it, Grand Hotel. So, Dunkirk’s mountain is 85 YEARS OLD.
Let’s take a look at a couple more. Darkest Hour and The Post do have acting nods but they don’t have a directing nod. The last movie to win like that was Argo in 2012. But those two movie also don’t have nominations for screenplay. The last movie to win without EITHER a directing nomination or a writing nomination? Right again: Grand Hotel. You begin to see why those three movies have a historically difficult road, right?
What about Call Me By Your Name and Get Out? They have writing, acting nods. CMYBN does not have a directing nod but that happened with Argo just 5 years ago. Well, the problem for both of these movies is that they only have four Oscar nominations. In 2006, The Departed won with five nominations, but four? Well, that hasn’t happened since…ok, you were going to say Grand Hotel but it was actually the movie that won the year after that one, Cavalcade, which only had four Oscar nods. So their steepest mountain is 84 YEARS old. Pretty steep too.
From then on it gets slightly “better” for some of the remaining battered contenders. Lady Bird has five nods, including in directing, writing, and acting, so it bests all of those stupid Grand Hotel stats. BUT, Lady Bird has not received a single nomination for a craft, not even film editing. The last movie to win like that was Ordinary People, 37 years ago. A pretty steep climb too, though not as much as the others I guess.
We come then to Phantom Thread, which seems to have it all, including nominations in acting, writing, directing, and technical. The problem for this movie is that it was basically a ghost with the guilds. The last movie to win Best Picture without winning a single major guild award was Out of Africa, which was 34 years. And Phantom Thread is missing another key stat: it did not get nominated for the SAG Ensemble award. Remember that actors are about 25% of the Academy, so they really matter.
And, speaking of that stat. You know who else does not have a SAG Ensemble? The Shape of Water. Does that remind you of any movie? If things like La La Land, Gravity, and The Revenant come to mind, you may see a pattern. The Directors like those movies—they won at the DGA and the Best Directing Oscar. But the actors seemingly did not love them *that* much, all missed a SAG Ensemble nod (though two won acting Oscars anyway). And all three of those eventually lost Best Picture. Indeed, a movie without a SAG ensemble has never won Best Picture except during the first year of the SAG Ensemble award, when Braveheart did it. So that stat is about 22 years old.
So, we are left after this process of elimination with Three Billboards Over Ebbing, Missouri, right? Well, not quite. Though it has a SAG ensemble, writing, acting, and tech nods, it does not have a Best Director nod. The last movie to win like that was Argo five years ago, before that Driving Miss Daisy in 1989. Before that…Grand Hotel! In any case, Three Billboards’ miss seems steep—specially because it reflects a lack of support within one of the Academy branches—but not that steep, at least not when compared to the others.
A Quick Recap of Precursors
Two years ago we looked at a chart of Best Picture winners and the precursors they all got. It led me to think The Revenant was going to win, because we did not (all) focus so much on the strength of the SAG Ensemble nod. Back then, specially after Birdman, I gave more weight to the guilds. The Guilds still matter of course (SAG is a guild after all) but consider that the Directors’ Guild has done its own thing now for two and likely three years in a row.
The chart reveals interesting things about the Best Picture race since the start of the preferential ballot in the 2009-2010 season. Argo is the movie that had the cleanest sweep of precursors, missing only the audience award at TIFF. Its lack of a director nod seems now almost like an afterthought. Three Billboards is not quite in that territory if you take a look, but it is close.
Birdman is the movie that swept the three key guilds, although it missed in a lot of the “foreigner” guilds like TIFF, BAFTA, and Globes. So the question becomes: is Three Billboards secretly Boyhood? A movie that foreigners like but that states-side has not had as much love (only the SAG win?). Perhaps 3BB is a movie about how outsiders perceive our society (it is after all the creation of a Brit) but does not fit into how we see ourselves?
But the truth is you can read this chart backwards and forwards. You can look at what each movie lacks (and, for example, a movie like Lady Bird or Dunkirk winning would be just insane if you look at the fact that they have NOTHING at all so far), or you can look at past winners, note the few things they got, and realize that you can triumph even so. In the last two years, Moonlight only had the WGA. Spotlight only had the SAG and the WGA. Three Billboards was not eligible at WGA, but it has a lot more already than those last two winners. So, from that perspective, it looks pretty good. Moreover, the pictures that those two took down (The Revenant and La La Land) each had MORE than Shape of Water has now. So, if those can be taken down, why can’t Shape? If the last two years had not happened, you would be crazy not to pick Shape. But they have, and I wonder if you are crazy TO pick it.
I’m sticking with Three Billboards.