I was answering a comment by one of the readers and I realized I stumbled onto something. It seems to me that there are two types of Oscar winning Best Pictures. Those that are entertaining and those that are groundbreaking. In the past several years, groundbreaking cinema (by Oscar’s standards, not cinephiles’) has taken the lead, while entertainment has mostly taken the back seat. Even when Slumdog Millionaire won, it did so not just because it was entertaining (it could charm the rattle off a snake) but because Danny Boyle had been making great films for years but hadn’t yet been recognized. It was considered Danny Boyle’s triumph. If Slumdog Millionaire had been directed by Joe Schmoe, it’s still possible it could have won – its admiration was palpable from miles away. But it sure helped that it had a known director. Slumdog won big in all of the major categories.
However, since there are now ten Best Picture slots, the chance for a split between Picture and Director is greater because of the wacky way the votes are counted for Best Picture as opposed to the other categories. Usually a split happens for two reasons. The first is that the Academy want to honor a great film but give their Best Picture prize to one they “like” better. When Picture and Director match, generally speaking, that is because the voters are celebrating a particular director’s high achievement. Looking back at split years, one can see how star directors can sometimes win even if a film with a lesser known, or not as well respected, director won Best Pic.¬† Of course, sometimes films win big even with an unknown director if they happen to be THE film people are talking about — American Beauty is one, The English Patient is another.
It’s definitely possible, despite his relatively unknown name, Tom Hooper and The King’s Speech could take the victory if they like the movie as much as audiences have so far. Granted, the film hasn’t been up against The Social Network yet, not True Grit, nor the Fighter. So it’s a premature declaration to think it will win. Can it win? Of course it can. Right now, it’s one of two movies that can, the other being The Social Network. Both films are true stories. One is about a heroic guy who overcomes a disability to be king and with the help of a speech therapist does manage to eventually speak to his people without stuttering. We care about him and we want to see him succeed. On the other end of the spectrum, there is The Social Network, which doesn’t feature heroic characters but rather anti-heroes. It can’t win on being feelgood or being emotionally hard-hitting; if it wins, it will win because of its brilliant writing/directing/acting. Two different voting impulses within the Academy will drive votes to these two films and much will come into play – how well they like Colin Firth, how well they like David Fincher, how many voters are now British. A big mistake the King’s Speech camp will have is in believing that it’s an easy win based on its emotional content. That will help Firth win, but it might not help the film. It needs to have broader meaning, more universal importance. The part of it that is universal is that King George VI overcame a disability.
But it isn’t a film that necessarily that can win on directing bravura or exceptional writing – these two things The Social Network has all over the competition right now. But it’s possible that in this scenario we could be looking at a split, with The King’s Speech taking picture and Fincher/Sorkin taking Director and Screenplay. The past few years, since 2005, we’ve seen unity with Writer/Director wins. That is because, in each case, the director was the star of the Best Picture race.
Let’s look at the Picture/Director splits – (those that occurred during the years there were ten nominees or more, in bold):
2005-Crash/Ang Lee for Brokeback Mountain
2002-Chicago/Roman Polanski for The Pianist
2000-Gladiator/Steven Soderbergh for Traffic
1998-Shakespeare in Love/Steven Spielberg for Saving Private Ryan
1989-Driving Miss Daisy/Oliver Stone for Born on the Fourth of July
1981-Chariots of Fire/Warren Beatty for Reds
1972-The Godfather/Bob Fosse for Cabaret
1967-In the Heat of the Night/Mike Nichols for The Graduate
1956-Around the World in 80 Days/George Stevens for Giant
1952-The Greatest Show on Earth/John Ford for The Quiet Man
1951-An American in Paris/George Stevens for A Place in the Sun
1949-All the King’s Men/Joseph L. Mankiewicz for A Letter To Three Wives
1948-Hamlet/John Huston, Treasure of the Sierra Madre
1940-Rebecca/John Ford for The Grapes of Wrath
1937-The Life of Emile Zola/Leo McCary, The Awful Truth
1936-The Great Ziegfeld/Frank Capra, Mr. Deed Goes to Town
1935-Mutiny on the Bounty/John Ford, The Informer
And I might as well list here the films that are considered by some to be Best Picture upsets (in random order) — if it was a split year, it will be bolded:
Citizen Kane/How Green Was My Valley
Raging Bull/Ordinary People
The Insider/American Beauty
All the President’s Men & Network/Rocky
Philadelphia Story, Grapes of Wrath / Rebecca (although mostly no one grumbles about this because it’s Hitchcock’s only big win)
Streetcar Named Desire, A Place in the Sun/An American in Paris
High Noon, The Quiet Man/The Greatest Show on Earth
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf/A Man for All Seasons
Apocalypse Now, Breaking Away, All That Jazz/Kramer vs. Kramer
Reds/Chariots of Fire
Goodfellas/Dances with Wolves
Pulp Fiction, Shawshank Redemption /Forrest Gump
Saving Private Ryan/Shakespeare in Love
This list is a lot easier to see a pattern when looking at it this way. Films that are crowdpleasers almost always trump films that are considered great artistic achievements. The splits almost always occur when there is a general public favorite versus a critics’ darling. This isn’t always the case, as it’s hard to argue that The Life of Emile Zola was the crowdpleaser while The Awful Truth was the great artistic achievement.¬† Sometimes it seems like the split occurred simply because the voting membership liked two movies equally and couldn’t find a winner so they voted for both.
A note from Ryan about Leo McCary
[note]While you’re right that The Life of Emile Zola would not seem to be a crowd-pleaser, it’s fairly well-known that Leo McCarey had an amazing year in 1937.
He directed The Awful Truth — a light comedy — but he also directed a movie about adult children dealing with their aging parents during the Depression — Make Way for Tomorrow, which is absolutely devastating and way ahead of its time.
In fact, when Leo McCarey accepted his award for Best Director, he said “Thanks, but you’re giving me this for the wrong movie.”
Criterion just came out with a deluxe edition of Make Way for Tomorrow this year (which is how I know about all this) and I have it on Blu-ray from Eureka Masters of Cineme from the UK. So that’s how respected it is. McCarey must have blown critics back in their seats in 1937.[/note]
We know that with ten nominees for Best Picture we’ll see a split at some point. Splits are fairly rare as you can see, but they happened more during the ten nominee phase. That means this could be a split year — even if we don’t know how it will fall ultimately. We know that The King’s Speech is going to be a major player, not just because it features an incredibly moving and likable performance by Firth, with Geoffrey Rush also in rare form in supporting, but it’s winning audience awards already, and it will enter the race with a lot of nominations, maybe more than any other film. It will be nominated for all of the techs, along with Picture, Director, Screenplay, Actor, Supporting Actor and maybe Supporting Actress. That puts it heavy into the race.
The one sticking point with this film, as I can see it, it isn’t a director’s movie. That would be The Social Network. The year is not over until the Coen brothers sing. We still have to hear from directors who are arguably among the best working in film today, or certainly in the top five.
Finally, the Oscar race can’t be judged until all of the films have opened and played for the majority of critics and hopefully audiences. Some films feel like they maintain their relevance — some feel completely fresh even though they’ve long since been released. The race is about to start changing in a big way, though, as the critics’ top ten lists start materializing and eventually their awards. This is how the game of Oscar is played. Where those pieces get moved will determine which players have the most heat in terms of voter perception. That won’t make a winner, but it will make a nominee. The winner has to be a film that is well liked across all of the branches. Not all branches are created equal. The actors still have the most voting power. The directors and the editors still determine which film has the heat going into the race. The writers are, well, still the writers. As they say in Shakespeare in Love, “He’s nobody. He’s the author.”
That would be true if the writer of note this year were anybody but Aaron Sorkin. The combination of Sorkin and Fincher is going to be a force to be reckoned with, no matter if the film is “cold” or aimed at a younger demographic or about The Facebook – what matters, what always matters are two major forces driving the Best Picture race – how well audiences like the film, and how much they want to celebrate it. Celebrating it almost always means celebrating the director. But sometimes it means just celebrating the movie.
The King’s Speech and The Social Network both have the stuff right now to be in the conversation for Best Picture of 2010. They are two very different films that will appeal to very different types of people. But we’re missing the most anticipated film of the year so far in our discussion. And that is why it feels like we’re trying to ride a three-legged horse. I didn’t think it would come down to The Social Network versus The King’s Speech. The only film I can see causing any sort of disruption this year would be Inception making a last-minute rally by sweeping some significant awards. We aren’t paying much attention to it right now because this is essentially a very loud echo chamber – we’re reacting mostly off of what everyone else is saying and writing. It tends to warp your perspective.
Once the major awards start tumbling down, the race will change dramatically. Or it will just confirm what we think we already know. There is never any way to know for sure on November 1.