They Shoot Oscar Prognosticators, Don't They?

Oscars Handicap: Writing and Directing

By J. Don Birnam

February 19, 2019

All your Director Awards are belong to me.

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The Oscars wisely decided to show all 24 categories live during the broadcast, following a massive Internet outcry against its most recent boneheaded decision to purportedly reverse declines in ratings. Now that all that brouhaha is thankfully behind us, let’s focus on some of the remaining categories in this year’s exciting Oscar race: the writing races and the directing race.

Last year, I got all three right in my initial predictions and then, you guessed it, reversed myself in Original Screenplay at the last minute, failing to see that Get Out was clearly going to win. It’s amazing how you can talk yourself out of the right, obvious, gut answer. Oscar guessers beware.

Anyway, the screenplay races are a little harder than last time, though the director race appears to be just as locked as the year before.

Who do you think will win the writing awards and Best Director? Tell me here: Twitter and Instagram.

Best Adapted Screenplay

The nominees for this year’s adapted screenplay race are Spike Lee et al. for BlackKklansman, Barry Jenkins for If Beale Street Could Talk, Nicole Holofcener & Jeff Whitty for Can You Ever Forgive Me?, the screenwriters (including Bradley Cooper) for A Star is Born, and the Coen Bros. for The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.

Start with history. It has not happened since 1998 (Gods and Monsters) that a non-Best Picture nominee wins in this race, and it is relatively rare overall. This 20-year old streak has covered the entire span of the expanded Best Picture field era. That leaves only two contenders - Lee and Cooper. Indeed, after Lee’s BAFTA win, the smart money is on his witty adaptation of the improbably story of Klan infiltration to prevail as the obvious, easy way to final give the brilliant Lee a competitive Oscar. Cooper’s script, by contrast, being a fourth remake, seems to face a much more uphill battle.

But what if the streak is set to end this year? Certainly, it seems like the year it could happen, with at least two very strong contenders. In third amongst those three is arguably the Coen Bros.' short story vignettes script. The nomination shows that there are segments of the Academy that continue to adore the Coens, including most notably the writers’ branch, but with few wins elsewhere this year, this one is not going to happen.

Beale Street and Can You Ever Forgive Me? on the other hand, are distinct possibilities. Both are well-known and hard to adapt books. Both portray intimate, touching, at times funny stories of complex individuals. Both are brought to the screen by talented directors and/or screenwriters. Jenkins himself is a past winner in this category, for Moonlight, en route to an < a href="">improbable Best Picture win.

But I don’t think it’s meant to be. It is simply too hard to finally deprive Spike Lee of his moment. While he may not emerge victorious in the Best Director race (see below), this is the category where we can all look forward to a hopefully explosive acceptance speech…

Will Win: Spike Lee, BlackKklansman
Could Win: Barry Jenkins, If Beale Street Could Talk


Best Original Screenplay

The nominees are: Adam McKay for Vice, Alfonso Cuarón for Roma, Paul Schrader for First Reformed, Peter Farrelly (and the much maligned Nick Vallelonga) for Green Book, and the screenwriters of The Favourite. The Writers Guild of America said sort of eff-off to the Oscars and went for Bo Burnham’s hilarious Eighth Grade, the first time since Bowling for Columbine that the WGA goes for a non-Oscar nominated screenplay.

So, without that precursor, what is left?

Against start with history. It has been since 2004’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind that non-Best Picture nominee has won here, when Charlie Kaufman did it. Paul Schrader faces serious headwinds, despite being the screenwriter of iconic films such as Taxi Driver, if he wants to win here for a movie with little other Academy support. (The names of the screenwriters are not on the ballot anyway).

That last point may actually help The Favourite. Though Yorgos Lanthimos did not get screenwriting credit for this, many may assume that this is the best way to reward him for a highly-respected film that has all his imprints and signature humor. Due to union rules, this script was not eligible at the WGA, so its failure to show up there is not indicative either way. In its favor is the BAFTA win that it pulled off last week.

Meanwhile, it was Green Book that triumphed at the Globes. Notably, of course, that movie and its New Jersey screenwriter faced some fire for a tweet by Vallelonga agreeing with President Trump’s false assertion that Muslims in New Jersey had cheered on 9/11. If Green Book pulls it off here despite this, you can almost assume it’s going to win it all - at the very least, it shows the Academy is not paying attention to Internet scandals. And, given that Green Book’s jokes and its “heart” are what make it appealing to most (and, also, ironically, problematic to many), one can easily see that win.

Could Roma pull of a surprise here, despite a relatively quiet and dialogue thin script? A Roma sweep would certainly show up in a victory for Cuarón here. I do not expect it to happen, for the reasons outlined, but, if it does, Roma is most likely going to win it all.

Only Vice would seem to be really out of it of these four Best Picture contenders. Adam McKay won the adapted Oscar three years ago with The Big Short, but the script for his Cheney biopic is notably sloppy and rambling. I would be genuinely surprised if he managed a win with that.

The Favourite should have this in the bag easily, a sort of second-tier consolation prize. If it losses to one of the Best Picture frontrunners, watch out.

Will Win: The Favourite
Could Win: Green Book

Best Director

For years the most obvious Best Picture bellwether, the Best Director category has begun to split more and more from that award since the Best Picture expansion, doing so a stunning four of the last six years (many of them involving the Three Amigos, one of whom is up for his second Oscar again this year). But the category remains one of the most prestigious any artist can receive in Hollywood - despite the woeful under recognition of women and African-Americans, an issue that continues to pervade the Academy.

The nominees are Alfonso Cuarón for Roma, Pawel Pawlikowski for Cold War, Adam McKay, for Vice, Spike Lee, for BlackKklansman, and Yorgos Lanthimos, for The Favourite. Part of the story here was the perceived “snub” of Bradley Cooper for A Star is Born, arguably the nail in the coffin of that movie’s award-season chances. You also have to wonder whether Green Book’s miss here is a product of branch snobbery against the director of Dumb and Dumber, or if it’s a sign of more trouble afoot like it arguably was for Three Billboards last year.

But, of the nominees, who will win? Once more, the history. Cuarón has swept the precursors, including Globe, DGA, Critics Choice, and BAFTA. It seems hard to argue against him. But what of the others?

Pawlikowski is only the second person after Bennett Miller nominated for a non-Best Picture nominee in the expansion era. A non-Best Picture nominee director has never won this award, so watch out predicting that Cold War’s passionate support amongst some in the Academy will translate into a win here. McKay and Lanthimos also seem long shots. Their movies have passionate support but both are somewhat divisive, and neither seems like an admirable passion project.

The question is if Spike Lee can break through. No African-American has ever won this award, and Cuarón has. It would be fitting that the Academy finally recognizes one of our most legendary directors. But, perhaps because some will know they can reward him in screenplay, and because Cuarón is so admired for this honest autobiography, it may be hard for Lee?

Finally, consider that the DGA has matched the Best Director Oscar winner for 15 straight years, except the year of Argo, when Ben Affleck was not nominated for the Oscar. That is a pretty powerful stat that makes it hard to best against Cuarón even though a Spike Lee win here is definitely not out of the question.

Will Win: Alfonso Cuaron, Roma
Could Win: Pawel Pawlikowski, Cold War



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