Last night in the Arlington theater I sat next to the Hollywood Reporter’s Scott Feinberg. We were talking Best Picture. “Virtually any movie can win,” he said. “In the era of the preferential ballot we have no idea how the votes will go down.” With ten slots, coming out of a year when the Best Director category played no part in the outcome of the race, it’s true that looking at stats will help you less than on the ground conversations with voters. What I learned from listening to Robert Redford was that he was down on visual effects movies, that could hurt Gravity and help 12 Years a Slave or American Hustle. What I learned from talking to an Academy member at a party here, she loved American Hustle more than the others, so much so she’d made a special trip to Santa Barbara to see David O. Russell speak. What I learned from talking to Pete Hammond and Anne Thompson and Steve Pond? Academy members loved Gravity.
Kris Tapley told me that Captain Phillips was far and away the frontrunner for the Eddie, even given Gravity’s technical dominance. But do they really reward technical achievement? Argo beat Life of Pi last year, The Descendants beat Hugo the year before, The Social Network beat Inception, The Hurt Locker beat Avatar, Slumdog Millionaire beat The Dark Knight, and on it goes. No, it appears, they don’t value technical achievement over nuts and bolts editing. It seems to me that effects-driven films still have a hard time breaking through to the major guilds – all except one: The DGA.
So had I been thinking it through more carefully I would have seen that Gravity had less of a chance of winning than another film. I would not have predicted Captain Phillips, as great as it is and as popular as the editor is. Usually the Eddie goes to the movie with Best Picture heat. Can Captain Phillips rise to become the popular choice for Best Picture? Sure. Why not. It is definitely more in keeping with the Academy’s traditional views about race – white people save the day. Though I love the film, as you know, and believe it to be equal in its storytelling, there is no question who the hero is. The same cannot be said for 12 Years, which puts the central white male (your average Academy voters) in a less favorable light. So, in a very competitive year with a preferential ballot anything can happen.
Scott and I ran through the films – if you picked 12 Years for number one, what would be your number two. How many movies are likely to hit the top three slots of most voters? Is Gravity a number one film but not a number two or three? He said he thought even Wolf of Wall Street had a shot at upsetting the apple cart. We have had the preferential ballot now for four years. In all of those four years, the PGA and DGA have called Best Picture.
And in those five years how many times did the Eddie call Best Picture? 3/4. The only time it didn’t was when The King’s Speech won Best Picture. The Eddie has played a role in recent split years but we’re really not talking about those because there was no preferential ballot then.
The main forces that drive a Best Picture win is broad support by the Academy. Gravity has a huge amount of it with that very pivotal DGA win. But could we be looking at another year like the year 2000 when Ang Lee won the DGA but Gladiator and Traffic split the major votes at the Oscars? Maybe. Traffic had the SAG, Gladiator had the Eddie, Crouching Tiger had the DGA. Now, American Hustle has the SAG and the Eddie, 12 Years has the PGA, Gravity has the DGA. But Captain Phillips has the WGA and the Eddie. That’s significant, I think.
Gravity will enter the final phase looking to become the first movie since Oliver to win without a Screenplay, Editing or Acting win, unless it wins editing. That’s 1968, right? That’s what, 46 years? Looking at the race from a stat perspective, American Hustle would be your spoiler – Cuaron for director, Hustle for Picture. 12 Years presents to them a problem. This is the point in the race where a smart Oscar strategist will put in place an “out” for them, a reason for them not to feel guilty for not picking 12 Years a Slave (if any of them would feel guilty). This is your Crash/Brokeback scenario or Shakespeare in Love/Saving Private Ryan. So what’s going to be that out? That’s the million dollar question.
The luncheon is Monday. I expect to hear lots of reports of how the directors play. If Brad Pitt is there that will help 12 Years a good deal. Cuaron is a major charmer, as is Sandra Bullock and George Clooney. They have the charm offensive. If Jennifer Lawrence is there, she will win the room. I’ve met Lupita Nyong’o and she too is a force to be reckoned with.
Finally, my conversation rounded itself back to the beginning. “Cuaron and 12 Years a Slave,” he said. I told him I was still going for the longshot of Steve McQueen. Following the herd on this is, to me, akin to looking out the window, seeing it’s raining and saying, “it’s going to rain today.”