They Shoot Oscar Prognosticators, Don't They?

Below The Line Handicap, Part I

By J. Don Birnam

February 5, 2018

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With just under four weeks left before the Big Day, it is time to restart our by now annual tradition of reviewing Oscar categories one by one in hopes of narrowing down who is a contender and who is a pretender. As usual, we begin with the “below the line” categories, sounds, scores, and such, in hopes of reading the tea leaves.

Note first that the Directors’ Guild of America just went for Guillermo del Toro for The Shape of Water. The DGA winner has gone on to win the Oscar for Best Director all but seven times in the 70 years of DGA. That is a pretty powerful stat. You have to go back to 2002 for the last time there was not a match and the DGA winner was nominated for the Oscar. So it seems like Del Toro is unstoppable there. Does that mean that Shape has best Picture in the bag after its PGA win? Normally one would say yes, except that this was the exact same two guilds La La Land won last year, but it lacked the SAG Ensemble nod, and that is exactly the same position Shape is in. So it is far from over.

In any case, let’s look at the first categories, shall we? Last year, when I had a hilariously bad predicting record, it should come as no surprise that I was way wrong about these, scoring only the two obvious ones (song and score) ahead of the telecast. Lessons learned from that experience: the win for Suicide Squad in makeup signals an Academy more willing to “go there” at least in the lesser races. Prestige does not seem to be the driving factor as it maybe was before. The movie did have the most obvious makeup. And while I predicted Arrival for Sound Mixing, that actually went to Hacksaw Ridge while the Villeneuve film won Sound Editing. So, either they are misunderstanding the categories, or I am, but it also does not seem a necessity that anymore that the musical wins here (La La Land was such an obvious choice but, again, they went for the most obvious sound).

Let’s try and do better this year, shall we? Thoughts? Twitter and Instagram.

Best Original Song

Remember the year Lady Gaga was certain to win this category because she was Lady Gaga? Thankfully I never fell for that, understanding the cardinal rule that the ballots do not have names of nominees in the below-the-line races, only the nominated film (or song as in this case). So if someone tries to convince you that Diane Warren, who has now nine nominations in this category but no wins, is going to win for the great song “Stand Up for Something” from the otherwise ignored film Marshall, do not believe them. The movie did not get noticed anywhere, and you have to go back to 2011 when The Muppet Song won its only nomination here, in a strange year that only had two nominees in what was about to become a defunct category.

Still, it is pretty impressive that the nominations this year include three sets of past winners, including the Lopez couple for “Remember Me” from Coco, Common alongside Warren from the Marshall song, and Benj Pasek & Justin Paul, winners just last year for “City of Stars,” and nominated this year for “This Is Me” from The Greatest Showman. Meanwhile, Mary J. Blige is a double nominee, and this is one of her mentions, for the song “Mighty River” from Mudbound, and hipster artist Sufjan Stevens is in for the beautiful “Mystery of Love” from Call Me By Your Name.

This is a slightly tough category with no obvious winner. Other than Marshall, it feels like all could win, although Showman did not do that well in the nominations. Animated movies do will here, and the song from Coco is great, but I wonder if its reward won’t be in the Best Animated Feature race. An obvious place to reward the Best Picture nominee Call Me By Your Name is here, though non-Best Picture nominees routinely triumph here over BP contenders. It could also be the only place to reward Mudbound, which you feel just missed out on a Best Picture nomination, whereas CMBYN has the screenplay award. Yet, the song in CMBYN is central to the plot—a point the branch favors—whereas it is not as obvious in Mudbound. It’s a three way race that is too close to call.

Will Win: Mighty River, from Mudbound
Could Win: Mystery of Love, from Call Me By Your Name


Best Original Score

Here is another tough one, with four strong Best Picture contenders facing the legendary and ever-nominated John Williams, whose somewhat muted The Last Jedi nevertheless made it in with a branch that adores him. Still, Williams has not won in eons and I think it would be foolish to think they would go for that score (though of course Star Wars pops out of the category as a nominee). It can happen—The Hateful Eight did it a couple of years ago—but it is a rare feat and that was a special score.

In any case, the real contest is between the scores of Phantom Thread, Dunkirk by past winner Hans Zimmer (The Lion King), The Shape of Water by past winner Alexander Desplat (Grand Budapest), and Three Billboards, by past nominee Carter Burwell (Carol).

For this one, I would look between the strong Best Picture contender Shape and the obvious and showy score of Phantom Thread. That Three Billboards made it here shows its strength across the Academy, but I do not think the score is loud enough. The score in Dunkirk is fantastic, but perhaps too subtle (like Zimmer’s Interstellar score was). If you believe in the “most” paradigm—i.e., that they will reward the most of something instead of the best—your safest bets are to stick between those two. And while it would be tempting to think this is the place to reward the Thread score, I am not so sure that Shape will not repeat its Golden Globe win here.

Will Win: The Shape of Water
Could Win: Phantom Thread

Best Makeup & Hairstyling

Well, at least this one only has three nominees, so one is bound to get closer, right? The nominees this year are the work on Darkest Hour, hairstyling, I supposed, of Victoria & Abdul, and the impressive work on Jacob Tremblay in Wonder. I would not put any money on Judi Dench’s film—it had a chance to do better in races like screenplay and it did not show up there, it feels like a throwaway nod for a movie most members probably will not see and for a feature they will not notice.

The smart money is on the Best Picture nominee Darkest Hour, which also is in the lead for Best Actor. When Meryl Streep last won an Oscar, the Academy double-dipped for best makeup. It is a common matchup, actually, also happening the year Marion Cotillard won for La Vie En Rose. If there is a strong acting contender buoyed by makeup, it seems, they will go for it. And when did a not Best Picture contender oust a nominated movie here? You have to go all the way back to 1997, the year Men In Black took what would have been Titanic’s record-setting twelfth Oscar, in this category.

Will Win: Darkest Hour
Could Win: Wonder

Best Sound Mixing & Best Sound Editing

So we are doing both of these together this time because, obviously, the five categories matched for the first time in Academy history. The twice nominated movies are Baby Driver, Dunkirk, The Shape of Water, Star Wars, and Blade Runner: 2049

The first question to ask yourself is whether you think they will split them or not? Since 2005, they have gone to the same winner seven times, or over half the time in the last twelve years. The years in which they matched were years with strong Best Picture contenders or tech-sweepers in the mix, including The Hurt Locker, Inception, Hugo, Gravity, and Mad Max. Bizarrely, they had a chance to give two more to La La Land here last year, but went for Arrival and Hacksaw Ridge, in true spread the wealth mode.

I think you can count out Star Wars again, as the least likely of the three non-Best Picture nominees to take it. And, by the way, while it is rare, wins do occur in these races over non-Best Picture nominees, though you have to go back to The Bourne Ultimatum in 2006 to find an example in Sound Editing (in 2012, Skyfall tied Zero Dark Thirty). Bourne is also the last time Sound Mixing went to a non-Best Picture nominee.

So, while it is rare, I think if there is any year in which it can happen, it is this year. The sound of Shape of Water does not seem loud enough to me. I think it is between three other contenders, with Baby Driver having the most obvious use of subtle sound and volume moderation. Blade Runner is technically impressive, but they may have other priorities. Meanwhile, sound is also a big and noticeable thing in Dunkirk. I am really torn between following the newer rules (‘most’ of something wins), which means Baby Driver takes, or the older rules, which say go with the Best Picture nominee.

Will Win: Dunkirk
Could Win: Baby Driver



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