They Shoot Oscar Prognosticators, Don't They?

The Best Picture Front-Runners: Why They Can’t Win. And Why They Will.

By J Don Birnam

February 25, 2014

Set me free, why don't you, babe? You just keep me hanging on.

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With only a few days left before the Academy Awards, it is time to finish the season where we began it: handicapping the Best Picture race. This weekend, the final guilds spoke. The Costume Designers awarded their top prize to 12 Years a Slave, a somewhat surprising choice over American Hustle and The Great Gatsby, and I would not count that movie out of that category for the Oscar. Meanwhile, the Cinema Audio Society gave its top prize to Gravity. So, folks, it really is that close, with Gravity and 12 Years a Slave dominating guild and critical awards, respectively, and with American Hustle lurking as a real spoiler threat.

So the race remains murky, with each contender having seemingly fatal flaws alongside seemingly undeniable “it’s going to win” points. Today, I will state different theories that people spin as to why each particular movie will or will not win, and analyze why each particular theory is worth taking seriously or not.


American Hustle

Why it will win

1. “David O. Russell is overdue after three consecutive Best Picture vehicles.” A plausible theory, but that did not stop them from snubbing Martin Scorsese for Gangs of New York and then for The Aviator. The Academy has time and time again proven that, especially when it comes to Best Picture, they are far more likely to vote for what they like than what others think they should like or is overdue.

2. “The Actors branch of the Academy loves the movie.” Another good theory, but, on the other hand, the actors are only one sixth of the Academy. Movies with several acting nominations (e.g., Network and A Streetcar Named Desire) have failed to win Best Picture many times over the years. Indeed, Silver Linings Playbook lost despite receiving an acting Oscar and having four nominations in those categories.

3. “The movie is the easiest to watch, the most crowd-pleasing and satisfying.” This is the strongest reason why I think American Hustle has a real shot. Just look at the last five Best Picture winners. In the starring role, we have a flawed character (always a man) who faces some adversities and challenges, and ultimately overcomes his own flaws and triumphs. It is the story of the curmudgeon CIA agent in Argo who has family problems, of the silent and fading actor in The Artist, and of the stuttering, has-been ruler of The King’s Speech. Christian Bale’s character, a flawed con-artist, ultimately finds redemption by doing the right thing and turning the table on the crooked FBI agent and rescuing the woman he loves. The movie makes you laugh and you leave the theater with hope and optimism. Thus, in a preferential ballot, Hustle will obtain many votes near the top. Although in my previous column I myself expressed dislike for the movie, this does not mean the Academy voters do not like it. Will it be enough to propel it to victory?

Why it can’t win

1. “The movie does not have that sense of ‘importance’ than the previous winners at least claim to have.” I like this theory because it sets Hustle apart from the last few winners despite the superficial similarity in the “they are fun, easy movies” department. Argo is about Hollywood saving the day, The Artist is about Hollywood saving itself, and the King’s Speech is about saving the world. American Hustle seems so much dimmer in scope. That said, it is hard to know what went on in voters’ heads when they marked off Argo or The Artist. Was it the fun aspect of the movie, or was it their aggrandized sense of importance? One can easily argue that American Hustle also has that sense of importance - the urgency of current political corruption, if you will - enough to give voters cover enough to vote for it in either case.

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