They Shoot Oscar Prognosticators, Don't They?

The Writing Awards

By J. Don Birnam

February 15, 2018

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We continue our march through the Oscar categories by looking today at the two screenplay awards. One is a throwaway, the other perhaps one of the most important awards of the evening—including because it may hold a stealth clue to who will eventually win Best Picture.

Here is the thing, though: Most of the time, the eventual Best Picture winner picks up one of the Screenplay awards. It is rare when this does not hold, most recently it was in 2011 when The Artist won Best Picture but it was The Descendants and Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris took home the Oscars for screenplays. You can probably asterisk that year, too, by noting that The Artist was a “silent” film. Before that, you have to go back to 2004, when Million Dollar Baby took home the top prize but it was Sideways and Eternal Sunshine that took home the two writing awards. And the last time the eventual Best Picture winner was not even nominated for a screenplay award? That was 1997, when Titanic did so. You have to go back to The Sound of Music in 1965 to find the previous example of that.

So, screenplays matter folks. And, given all of the above, some of people’s current Best Picture predictions (including my own), seem insane.

Last year, I mercifully called these two correct, predicting that Moonlight would win for Adapted and Manchester by the Sea for Original. Indeed, last year’s results suggest that the Academy wanted a three-way tie, giving at least one of Screenplay, Director, and Picture, to the top three movies of the year.

But this year, their task is harder.

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Best Adapted Screenplay

This year, the easy race is in the adapted category, with four non-Best Picture contenders on the outside looking in to the clear winner, who has recently won the WGA as well. That distinction belongs to the script by writer/director James Ivory, who adapted the gay romance novel Call Me By Your Name into the beautiful Luca Guadagnino film. The other four nominees are the adaptation of Mudbound, The Disaster Artist, Molly’s Game, and Logan. One thing that should make us weary about relying too much on past statistics about the writing awards is the obvious fact that this year’s Best Picture contenders were squished around the original screenplay award. Only one of these five is a Best Picture contender—something that has not happened since 1998 when The Thin Red Line was the only Best Picture nominee in this race (and the first time since the Best Picture expansion). Indeed, the last of these three boast their sole nomination all night in this race, so you can safely count them out.

What this means, of course, is that a Best Picture contender this year can credibly win without winning a writing award. It could simply be that they did not have two to give out. One wonders how often the Best Picture would have a screenplay win, in other words, if there were one instead of two awards.

But let’s take a look at these quickly. For Logan, the prize is the nomination. This is the first time a comic book movie has been recognized in any major category, so it is historic. Still, although the movie got some precursor support, it will not win its sole nomination here, if it could even get love from some of the Academy branches.

The same goes for The Disaster Artist, which eventually missed even on an expected Best Actor nomination. Though that may be due to the allegations against James Franco, the point is that the movie has become persona non grata and will not win despite its overall favorable perception by critics and audiences.

And although Aaron Sorkin wowed some with his directorial debut, it is clear that the industry overall did not embrace Molly’s Game, which failed to show up much anywhere else. Again, it seemed like they did not have that much to fill up these slots.

One could of course make the case for Mudbound, which at least has other nominations, including by the actors and a couple of tech branches. By all accounts, the movie just narrowly missed on a Best Picture nod. But, barring something truly astounding and unexpected, do not put any money on this one.

The category undoubtedly belongs to CMBYN. Just looking back at the last forty years of this category, a Best Picture movie has failed to win only two measly times. The last was also in 1998, when Gods and Monsters ousted Thin Red Line. It also occurred two years prior to that, when Sling Blade stunned The English Patient. Before that you have to go back and back and back. It just is not going to happen.

Will Win: James Ivory for Adapting Andre Aciman’s Novel “Call Me By Your Name”
Could Win: N/A


Best Original Screenplay

For all the ease that you will have in getting the foregoing category right, you are sort of on a coin flip for Best Original Screenplay. Here the nominees are WGA winner Get Out, and he faces stiff competition from Lady Bird, as well as tough odds from The Shape of Water and Three Billboards, with the final nominee, The Big Sick, just happy to be here. That movie had its lone nomination here, and the road ends at this point.

But before we go into looking at real four contenders, keep in mind how close and unpredictable this Best Picture race is. If people really think it is Shape of Water’s to lose after its recent spate of DGA and PGA wins, then why is this not the obvious frontrunner here? Should it not be? Other than the aforementioned The Artist in 2011, which I have asterisked, it has not been since 2000 when Crouching Tiger beat Gladiator for Best Original Screenplay, but the loser still won Best Picture. Of course, this stat is more meaningless than in Adapted, where the eventual Best Picture winner tends to be. So, take that with that grain of salt.

It is also the norm that at least one of the two WGA winners eventually converts that into an Oscar. But that will be satisfied here by Call Me By Your Name’s win. As for a 2/2 match, that happens about 50% of the time in the last ten years, and did not occur last. Don’t forget, of course, that many movies, like Three Billboards this year, have trouble qualifying for WGAs.

So what gives? I think that the Martin McDonough movie is probably in fourth place, even though the script is the best part of the script, with its clever irreverence and finger on the current political pulse. If it wins at the BAFTA this week, I will change my mind, but as its Best Picture chances fade away with the divisiveness of the film, so too do its chances here.

And it is sort of by default, because I am assuming that if The Shape of Water really is the Best Picture contender to beat (much more on that soon), then it has to have at least a fighting chance here. But, some may note that the story resembles Del Toro’s Pan Labyrinth, and Del Toro’s own campaign to dismiss the “but she’s sleeping with a fish” concerns by noting that this is no different than, say, Beauty and the Beast, may backfire with voters looking to reward something truly original. However, if he does prevail here, then you know that you have your Best Picture winner.

What of the last two? Most pundits have been predicting, and I agree, that it is between Lady Bird and Get Out. Both are passion, auteur projects, and both were similarly recognized by the directing guild. But does it not seem strange? Neither movie is your traditional Academy movie, though that of course can be levied against the films’ Best Picture chances, something we should not take lightly. And while both scripts tell stories from different perspectives, they are in many senses not wholly “original” any more than Del Toro’s girl meets monster tale is. So I am going to go with Get Out because of the WGA win, and nothing more. Again, a BAFTA win by Lady Bird this weekend could change this.

But, wait a second, what does this all mean for the bigger picture of Best Picture? How can some be saying Dunkirk if that movie does not have a nod here, something that has doomed so many movies like Gravity and that has not happened since Titanic? I don’t know. How can people think that Shape of Water is going to win, when all of this just clearly points to Get Out repeating Moonlight’s trajectory and hitting all the right notes? I don’t know.

It really has transformed into that kind of bizarre year that pundits both dream about and fear. We will figure it out eventually, hopefully.

Will Win: Jordan Peele for Get Out
Could Win: Greta Gerwig for Lady Bird

Next week: The Below The Lines Part II, and the Acting Races



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