Whenever a film comes along that seems “difficult” for Academy voters, but also one as highly praised as Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, inevitably people start talking about a potential Best Picture / Best Director split. We know the split. We’ve been anticipating another Picture/Director split since it last happened in 2005, with Brokeback Mountain and Crash. Last year’s split was forced at the nominations stage and therefore can’t really be taken into consideration as an unadulterated example. There is no chance Ben Affleck would not have won Best Director had he been nominated.
Splits — Picture and Director Oscars going to two different films — often occur when there is a movie whose artistry voters feel obligated to reward, but another movie wins Best Picture because they genuinely love it more. In each instance, the BP winner is the more emotionally accessible of the two — more moving, or a crowd-pleaser. Splits don’t happen often but often enough to reveal patterns.
Best Picture and best Director have matched more times than they haven’t throughout Oscar history. According to the Filmsite, 62 out of 86 years of Oscar history Picture and Director have matched. One of those years was 2002, when The Pianist surprised everyone by winning Best Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Director. When it came time to announce Best Picture, many believed the producer’s Oscar would also go to The Pianist but it ended up going to the more popular crowd-pleaser, and money maker, Chicago.
This year, the film that most are banking on for Best Picture — yes, this early — is Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave.
The film has much going for it out of the gate. First of all, it has the potential to make Oscar history as only the second film directed by a black director to get nominated for both Picture and Director. It arrives in a year stacked with three visionary works by black directors, two by African American directors (Lee Daniels and Ryan Coogler). That 12 Years a Slave will be within a hair’s breath of making Oscar history might give voters the extra incentive to give over their vote, at least for McQueen. His winning would be historic in itself. But for the film to also win? This takes us back to 2009, when Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker was being talked about in exactly the same way as naysayers are talking about 12 Years.
“It’s too ‘small’ to win.” “No one wants to watch it.” “It’s too depressing.” “It isn’t uplifting enough.” “It isn’t a crowd-pleaser.” “Academy members didn’t show up to watch it when it screened.” On and on it went. But to not have acknowledged the powerful thrust of making history, vis a vis Bigelow, was to miss everything about what drives Oscar voters in one direction or another. Do they always choose to make history when given a chance? No, they don’t. Several other factors were involved in 2009’s decision. The first, the second in line to win Best Picture was not Avatar, but rather, Precious, which ended up winning Adapted Screenplay and Supporting Actress. The second major factor was the Bigelow vs. Jim Cameron (ex husband and wife) narrative that drove the votes. If last year’s driving force was Ben Affleck’s Best Director snub, 2009’s extra incentive was watching Bigelow beat Cameron.
At the end of the day, Avatar was a phenomenon and remains such, but The Hurt Locker was the better film from an actor/writer/director’s standpoint. It was a brilliant story well told. All of that might not have (would not have) won it Best Picture were it not for history and the other factors involved. Would Avatar have won without Hurt Locker in the race? Probably not. There is still much to overcome within the Academy where genre movies, especially performance-capture and 3-D films, are concerned.
But back to The Pianist vs. Chicago. 12 Years a Slave is similar to The Pianist in that it’s a one man survival story as horrific as it is cathartic. The pain and agony play out on Adrien Brody’s face, as they do on Chiwetel Ejiofor’s. The brutality of the Holocaust, the brutality or slavery — crimes against humanity, both. Visionary directors, both. Memorable and unforgettable. Hard to watch? Absolutely. Rewarding once you do? Yep.
That year, there was no movie that seemed like it could beat Chicago heading into the race. Gangs of New York was the other big player, as the film that was supposed to have won Martin Scorsese the Oscar — as per the Robert Wise Oscar ad Harvey Weinstein got in a whole mess of trouble for printing. But at the end of the day, voters liked the idea of a Martin Scorsese historical epic more than they liked the movie itself. They liked Chicago but there was simply no comparison to that Holocaust movie Roman Polanski directed. The Pianist was a late comer, the kind that used to be able to sneak up on the Oscar race. Now, that kind of thing rarely happens. The momentum was headed in the direction of The Pianist, or so it seemed. But it begs the question, would The Pianist have won if there had been more time or voters to weigh their options? I don’t think so. The Pianist couldn’t really beat Chicago simply because there were too many voters who probably just didn’t bother watching it over the holidays.
Even if they had watched it, would it have been too bleak for them to vote it in for Best Picture? Why did Roman Polanski get the win but Rob Marshall did not? Marshall had won the Directors Guild prize after all. Some time between that and the Oscar voting, Chicago began to lose momentum.
The same scenario played out with Crash and Brokeback Mountain. The latter, no one watched. The former was readily available everywhere, had a big cast of stars and was the more general audience crowd-pleaser. When Gladiator won Best Picture and lost to Traffic, there was probably little chance Traffic could have won Best Picture. But Gladiator, the crowd-pleaser, couldn’t be beat. Ditto Reds vs. Chariots of Fire, etc.
The weird thing about this year, like 2009, the only crowd-pleaser so far is Gravity. But, like Avatar, it has to get over the prejudice against 3D and sci-fi. Moreover, no film in Academy history has ever won with so few actors in it. There are only two in the whole film. Best Picture winners almost always have a very large cast. So people will say but there had never been a silent film winner before The Artist, etc. And it’s true, history is made when history is made and no one thinks twice about it. They like the film they like.
But part of the motivation for voters usually choosing movies with big casts has to do with the actors branch out-sizing almost every other. 1200 or so actors is almost double the number of other branches, which top out at around 400 or so. Actors like movies with lots of speaking roles — they like big ensemble casts so they can vote for their friends. With Gravity, it is just Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, both very popular in their own right, but do they have enough popularity to bring in the win?
If not Gravity, though, what other movies have the potential to become the Best Picture winner in the event of a split? I have never believed that one can predict a split. You never see them coming when they do happen and if you’re predicting Steve McQueen to win Best Director you might as well predict the film to win Best Picture too.
Is there another film that might have the same kind of appeal as Chicago had but whose director might not be included when it comes down to picking the final winners?
We don’t know yet what the fate will be of several films that haven’t opened or been widely seen. American Hustle, Wolf of Wall Street and Saving Mr. Banks are the big ones. But let’s leave them aside for now.
To my mind, three other films can win Best Picture this year (though I do believe right now that it’s McQueen’s to lose). Next in line, according to Kris Tapley and Anne Thompson, is Gravity. With its three straight weeks at number one, its history making powerhouse performance by Sandra Bullock and its overall feel goodness, Gravity does seem to have the right stuff. But if not Gravity, what other films?
1. Lee Daniels’ The Butler – While the critics weren’t too keen on this one, there was a similar collective sneer about Chicago, which might be part of the reason it was vulnerable come Oscar time. It has a very large cast, needless to say, with networking superstars like Jane Fonda, Oprah Winfrey, Vanessa Redgrave, Robin Williams, Forest Whitaker and John Cusack. Lee Daniels is still the only African American director who has been nominated for Picture and Director. Awarding this film also makes history the same way 12 Years a Slave does — except with Daniels, he’s an American director born not too far out of the very same era he depicts in his film. It has not only made $114 million so far, it’s backed by the clout and campaign savvy of the Weinstein Co.
2. Nebraska – Perhaps the lesson of over-hyping The Descendants is why the campaign for Nebraska has been so low key. If ever there was a movie with the kind of story that wins Oscars it’s this one. Most people still haven’t seen it yet so they think I’m crazy when I talk about this film having the goods. But by the end of this movie you fall hard for the George Bailey finish. Add to that, Alexander Payne has come so close to winning Best picture in the past, with Sideways especially, but also The Descendants. He’s overdue. The movie itself will absolutely catch on once the public gets to see it but crunch time is here. Can it do enough publicity to win?
3. Captain Phillips – While history would not be made with this film’s win, it is certainly a general audience crowd-pleaser, with a large cast, led by two very charismatic actors, Tom Hanks and Barkhad Abdi. The film has a hell of an Oscar publicist behind it so I would not underestimate this film doing some damage in the race.
4 and 5 I’m going to hold for American Hustle and Wolf of Wall Street, for now. Both seem to have the potential to be that Chicago-like crowd-pleaser about unpleasant characters that just plain entertains the hell out of you.
The race is still undecided but the elephant in the room is the film that very likely deserves to win Best Picture but might encounter some resistance getting there. It might fall victim to a split, it might sweep — no consensus has begun yet. There’s still ample time for one movie to rally the troops.