Last year’s Gravity, and Life of Pi the year before, have flipped-flopped the traditional way Best Picture and Best Director have split. When I stood with Steve Pond in the tent at the Spirit Awards the day before the Oscars and I was trying to convince him why I had changed my mind about Gravity winning Best Director and 12 Years a Slave winning Best Picture he was continuing the line of thinking that made the most sense: the uplifting crowdpleaser wins Best Picture and the film that is more artistically daring wins Best Director. This has been the case throughout Oscar history when looking at the split vote.
There was one year, however, that was the better example for last year and that was In the Heat of the Night vs. The Graduate. Combing through the split years, only one year mirrored last because it was an agreed upon split from the outset. Almost every available precursor was giving In the Heat of the Night Picture, and Mike Nichols for The Graduate Best Director.
Of course, in this instance, almost everyone looking back on that year would say The Graduate was the popular crowdpleaser, just as they would say Gravity was the more crowd pleasing of the two films last year. The obligation to reward the more historically important film, In the Heat of the Night, was in conflict with what the heart wanted to do – to pick the most beloved film: The Graduate.