For some reason, it is always fun to take a dip into the psyche of the Academy of old to look at their history.
From our perspective, though, there has been a recent shift in how they vote for Best Picture, one that was matched only in the 1970s in terms of the kinds of films they rewarded. I don’t know how much of that has to do with the critics and their influence. Surely there was much of it back in the 1970s because, for one thing, people like Peter Bogdanovich were making films after and while writing about them. Or how much of it has to do with the kinds of the films the public responded to. If a film like The French Connection is doing well at the box office, it will get rewarded by the Academy, no matter if it has a happy ending, a redemptive character (it doesn’t), or not. It was probably a combination of those factors — a new guard coming in, a generation of visionary directors like Coppola, Scorsese, Friedkin, Bogdanovich, etc. It was the influence of big stars like Dustin Hoffman,Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway, Jane Fonda and Jack Nicholson’s desire and willingness to do unusual, art-driven cinema. All of those same voters grew older voting for Best Picture. Somewhere along the line, their tastes changed. They changed to reflect the thing the Academy’s Best Picture has almost always been about (with a few notable exceptions, like All About Eve), redemptive characters, likable characters, something that either makes you cry or makes you happy.
What they’ve only had limited amounts of generosity for, it seems to me, are directors who are revolutionaries of the genre. They have never really taken to that and in many ways still don’t.¬† This is because it is such a broad majority vote, across all branches. These aren’t critics but industry peers – bosses, friends, co-workers, rivals, husbands, wives, mistresses, kids…So, in the end, it must come down to the movie. But there aren’t any hard and fast rules about what kinds of film MUST win. We can only look back and see what kinds of usually did win.
The reason that we keep going back to these ten years in Academy history is because they had ten Best Picture nominees, with five director nominees. So it’s interesting to see, with ten, how wide their range of choices became, and how often those choices were split up and why.
But let’s look back at that decade once again, when there were ten Best Pics. Ryan has helped me with the research and did most of the tallying below.
First, some general truths.
1. The Best Picture race is, has and will always be about the director. Every once in a while it is about the movie: Chicago, Chariots of Fire, Shakespeare in Love. None of these films won Best Director. But even Gladiator was mostly about Ridley Scott, and one could argue that Chicago WAS about Rob Marshall but he just wasn’t well known enough to win that year. So, for instance, if True Grit won Best Picture this year it wouldn’t be because the directors weren’t the driving force: of course they are. But the film itself also is just the everyone liked best.
2. Membership has changed greatly since the 1930s and 1940s. Generations have passed. A good movie is still a good movie, though. That part of it will never change.
3. The best movie was, is and will always be the one the most people can agree upon is the BEST (not just good, but better than the others). This means they have to enjoy watching it and it has to have some kind of SOMETHING to it. Films like Shakespeare in Love and Chariots of Fire, or let’s say even Crash, had watchability for sure, but they also had some kind of redemptive uptick at the end. Never underestimate the power of a redemptive uptick. This is different from a happy ending. Shakespeare in Love doesn’t have a happy ending but oh, that ending. It’s one of the best I’ve ever seen in a film. If you save your best moment until the last five minutes of the film you are going to do very well in the Oscar race. And only one film I know of this year does that. Maybe two.
Which films have the upticks this year? All of the frontrunners do: The Social Network, The King’s Speech, Toy Story 3, True Grit and The Fighter. Other satisfying endings would be The Kids Are All Right, Winter’s Bone, The Town. And then the somewhat ambiguous but nonetheless interesting ending would be Inception’s. It feels like an uptick but what is it really? Black Swan’s is also ambiguous.
4. Lately, the movie that no one thinks CAN win has a much better chance than the movie everyone thinks CAN win. This is true of Toy Story 3, it’s true of True Grit and it’s absolutely true of The Social Network. I have never heard the only reason so far that could prevent The Social Network from winning: that it isn’t as good a movie as some other. All three of those films mentioned above ARE good movies by a majority vote already. The people have shown those movies are good because they’re making lots of money. The critics have said those movies are good because they are (well two out of three) the highest rated.
5. Nobody knows anything. This simple fact negates everything written above. There is always a big fat question mark and we never know how it will go. We make our best guesses, we psychoanalyze the voters, we impose our own tastes upon the race, we fall victim to wishful thinking – we do all of these things to predict something that is almost akin to predicting the weather: you can get pretty close but you’ll never be 100%.
Now, some specific truths that apply to the decade listed below.
1. The films with the most nominations DOES NOT always win. But it certainly doesn’t hurt.
2. Four out of ten of these years the Picture/Director split. It was more likely to split in a ten Best Picture race, but it is still more likely that both Picture and Director will be rewarded.
3. All but one Best Picture winner also had an editing nomination. The exception was The Life of Emile Zola. So it definitely helps to be looped in with the editors.
4. There is no doubt that having the most nominations, as well as nods in all of the major categories, doesn’t hurt — that means you need Director, Screenplay, Acting, maybe supporting, Editing to win.¬†¬†¬† It’s nearly impossible to win without a directing nod. But right behind director would be screenplay, then acting, then editing. All crucial to finding your winner. It is not enough to simply have broad support across all branches.
- SONG OF BERNADETTE – 12 nominations – wins 4: Actress, Art Direction, Cinematography and Score, nominated for editing
- FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS – 9 nominations, including editing, but no director, no screenplay, 1 win for supporting.
- CASABLANCA-8 nominations. 3 wins for Picture, Director, Screenplay, 2 acting nominations, editing
- MADAME CURIE – 7 nominations, including acting, but no director, writer or editing.
- THE MORE THE MERRIER – 6 nominations, including writing, acting and directing, won Supporting Actor, no editing.
- THE HUMAN COMEDY – 5 nominations, 1 win (for writing, William Saroyan), including director, no editing
- HEAVEN CAN WAIT – 3 nominations, including director, no editing, no screenplay
- WATCH ON THE RHINE – 4 nominations, including writing (Dashiell Hammett) and acting, 1 win, acting. NY Film critics pick for Best Pic.
- IN WHICH WE SERVE – 2 nominations (one honorary win for Noel Coward), screenplay nom, no editing.
- THE OX BOW INCIDENT – 1 nomination
- MRS. MINIVER – nominated for 12 Oscars – 6 wins for Picture, Director (Wyler), Screenplay, Actress & Supporting Actress, & Cinematography
- THE PRIDE OF THE YANKEES – 11 nominations – 1 solitary Oscar win for Best Editing
- YANKEE DOODLE DANDY – 8 nominations, including Director (Curtiz) – 3 wins, including Best Actor (Cagney)
- RANDOM HARVEST – 7 Oscar nominations, including Best Director – 0 wins
- THE TALK OF THE TOWN – 7 nominations, 0 wins
- THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS – 4 nominations, including Cinematography & Supporting Actress (Agnes Morehead)
- WAKE ISLAND – 4 nominations, including Director
- THE PIED PIPER – nominated for 3 Oscars, including Best Actor
- THE 49th PARALLEL – 3 nominations – won Best Writing, Original Story (but lost Best Writing, Screenplay).
- KINGS ROW – 3 nominations, including Best Director
1941 (a.k.a. “the year that will live in infamy”)
- SERGEANT YORK – 11 nominations – 2 wins, Editing & Actor (Cooper)
- HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY – 10 nominations – 5 wins, for Best Picture, Director (Ford), Cinematography, Art Direction, Best Supp Actor (Crisp)
- CITIZEN KANE – 10 nominations – 1 win for Screenplay (Welles & Mankiewicz) – NY Film critics pick for Best Picture
- THE LITTLE FOXES – 9 nominations – 0 wins
- HERE COMES MR. JORDAN – 7 nominations – 2 wins, for Best Story, Best Screenplay
- HOLD BACK THE DAWN – 6 nominations
- BLOSSOMS IN THE DUST – 4 nominations – 1 win
- THE MALTESE FALCON – 3 nominations
- ONE FOOT IN HEAVEN – and living up to its title: 1 nomination
- SUSPICION– 3 nominations – 1 win, Actress (Joan Fontaine)
- REBECCA – 11 nominations, including Hitchcock’s 1st Oscar nom, Editing & Screenplay – only 2 wins, for Best Picture and Cinematography
- THE GRAPES OF WRATH – 7 nominations, including Screenplay & Editing – 2 wins, including Best Director (Ford)
- THE LETTER – 7 nominations – 0 wins
- FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT – 6 nominations -0 wins
- THE LONG VOYAGE HOME – 6 nominations – 0 wins
- OUR TOWN – 6 nominations – 0 wins
- THE PHILADELPHIA STORY – 6 nominations – 2 wins, including Screenplay
- THE GREAT DICTATOR – 5 nominations – 0 wins
- KITTY FOYLE – 5 nominatins – 1 win, Actress (Ginger Rogers)
- ALL THIS, AND HEAVEN TOO – 3 nominations – 0 wins
* (Best Editing in 1940 went to North West Mounted Police — so AMPAS was all over the map)
- GONE WITH THE WIND – 13 nominations – 8 wins, for Best Director, Screenplay, Editing, Actress, Supporting Actress, Art Direction, Cinematography
- MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON – 11 noms – 1 win, Original Story
- WUTHERING HEIGHTS – 8 noms – 1 win, for b&w Cinematography (Toland)
- GOODBYE, MR. CHIPS – 7 noms – 1 win, Best Actor (Donat)
- STAGECOACH – 7 noms – 2 wins, incl. Supporting Actor
- THE WIZARD OF OZ – 6 noms – for Score & Song
- LOVE AFFAIR – 6 noms – 0 wins
- NINOTCHKA – 4 noms – 0 wins
- OF MICE AND MEN – 4 noms – 0 wins
- DARK VICTORY – 3 noms – 0 wins
- YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU – 7 nominations – 2 wins, including Best Director (Capra)
- ALEXANDER’S RAGTIME BAND – 6 noms – 1 win
- BOYS TOWN – 5 noms – 2 wins, Best Supp Actor & Screenplay
- JEZEBEL – 5 noms – 2 wins, incl. Best Actress (Davis)
- FOUR DAUGHTERS – 5 noms – 0 wins
- PYGMALION 4 noms – 1 win, Screenplay
- THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD – 4 nominations – 3 wins, incl. Best Editing
- THE CITADEL – 4 noms
- TEST PILOT – 3 noms – 0 wins
- GRAND ILLUSION – 1 nomination
1937 — SPLIT
- THE LIFE OF EMILE ZOLA – 10 nominations, including Director & Actor – 3 wins, including Best Screenplay
- LOST HORIZON – 7 noms – 2 wins, incl. Best Editing
- A STAR IS BORN – 8 noms – 2 wins
- IN OLD CHICAGO – 6 noms – 2 wins
- THE GOOD EARTH – 5 noms – 2 wins, Actress (Rainer) & Cinematography (Freund)
- ONE HUNDRED MEN AND A GIRL – 5 noms – 1 win
- THE AWFUL TRUTH – 5 nominations, incl Screenplay & Editing – 1 win, Best Director (McCarey)
- CAPTAINS COURAGEOUS – 4 noms – 1 win, Actor (Tracy)
- DEAD END – 4 noms – 0 wins
- STAGE DOOR – 4 noms
1936 – SPLIT
- THE GREAT ZIEGFELD – 7 nominations – 3 wins, incl. “Best Dance Direction” (hmm)
ANTHONY ADVERSE – 7 noms – 4 wins, incl. Best Editing
- DODSWORTH – 7 noms – 1 win
- SAN FRANCISCO – 6 noms – 1 win
- MR. DEEDS GOES TO TOWN – 5 noms, incl. Screenplay – 1 win, Best Director (Capra)
- ROMEO AND JULIET – 4 noms – 0 wins
- THE STORY OF LOUIS PASTEUR – 4 noms – 3 wins, incl. Best Story & Best Screenplay
- THREE SMART GIRLS – 3 noms – 0 wins
- A TALE OF TWO CITIES – 2 wins – 0 wins
- LIBELED LADY – 1 nom – 0 wins
1935 – SPLIT
- MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY – 8 nominations, – 1 win, Best Picture
- NAUGHTY MARIETTA – 8 noms – 2 wins
- THE LIVES OF A BENGAL LANCER – 8 noms – 2 wins
- THE INFORMER – 6 noms, incl Editing – 4 wins, including Director (Ford) & Screenplay
- CAPTAIN BLOOD – 5 noms – 0 wins
- LES MIS√âRABLES – 4 noms – 0 wins
- A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM – 4 noms – 2 wins, incl. Editing
- TOP HAT – 4 noms – 0 wins
- BROADWAY MELODY OF 1936 – 3 noms – 1 win
- DAVID COPPERFIELD – 3 noms – 0 wins
- ALICE ADAMS – 2 noms – 0 wins
- RUGGLES OF RED GAP – 1 nom – o wins
- ONE NIGHT OF LOVE – 6 noms – 2 wins
- IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT – nominated for 5 Oscars – won all 5, incl Director (Capra)
- CLEOPATRA – 5 noms – 1 win, Cinematography
- THE GAY DIVORC√âE – 5 noms – 1 win
- THE THIN MAN – 4 noms – 0 wins
- VIVA VILLA! – 4 noms – 1 win
- IMITATION OF LIFE – 3 noms – 0 wins
- FLIRTATION WALK – 2 noms – 0 wins
- THE WHITE PARADE – 2 noms – 0 wins
- THE BARRETTS OF WIMPOLE STREET – 2 noms – 0 wins
- HERE COMES THE NAVY – 1 nom – 0 wins
- THE HOUSE OF ROTHSCHILD – 1 nom
*(the 1934 Oscar for Best Editing went to Eskimo)
- CAVALCADE – 4 nominations – 3 wins, incl. Best Director
- A FAREWELL TO ARMS – 2 noms – 0 wins
- 42ND STREET – 4 noms – 0 wins
- I AM A FUGITIVE FROM A CHAIN GANG – 3 noms – 0 wins
- LADY FOR A DAY – 4 noms – 0 wins
- LITTLE WOMEN – 3 noms – 1 win
- THE PRIVATE LIFE OF HENRY VIII – 2 noms – 1 win, Actor (Laughton)
- SHE DONE HIM WRONG – 1 nom – 0 wins
- SMILIN’ THROUGH – 1 nom – 0 wins
- STATE FAIR – 1 nom – 0 wins
So, let’s now look at last year’s rundown:
- The Hurt Locker – 9 nominations, including acting, 6 wins, including Director, Screenplay and Editing
- Avatar – 9 nominations, including Director and Editing (no acting, no writing) – 3 wins, cinematography, visual effects, art direction
- Inglourious Basterds – 8 nominations, including Director, Screenplay, Editing, Acting, 1 win (Waltz)
- Precious – 6 nominations, including Director, Screenplay, Editing, Acting 2 wins (Mo’Nique, Fletcher)
- Up in the Air – 6 nominations, including Director, Screenplay, Acting (no editing), 0 wins
- Up – 5 nominations, including Writing, 2 wins
- District 9 – 4 nominations, including Writing and Editing, 0 wins
- An Education – 3 nominations, including Acting and Writing, 0 wins.
- A Serious Man – 2 nominations, including Writing, 0 wins.
- The Blind Side – 2 nominations, including Acting, 1 win (Bullock)
We don’t know yet know how this year will play out. But we know that there are two kinds of films that win. Those that are driven by high production value, and those that are driven by writing and directing. We have both kinds of films represented this year. We have at least one film with a strong core of acting, writing, editing and directing represented.¬† That’s The Social Network. It is inexplicably a great film despite its subject matter. But it does have what every winner, including Crash has had: it was underestimated out of the gate. No one ever thought a movie about Facebook would A) be this good, or B) have the stuff to go all the way. No one ever thought it because no one could imagine it. But if you watch the upcoming DVD on the film you will see just how meticulous David Fincher, Aaron Sorkin and their team was. This is a film that was perfected down to every syllable. And it shows. Somehow, it is that magic combination that often drives a Best Picture contender to become a winner.
Other films I expect to do well with the various branches and the guilds would be Winter’s Bone, The King’s Speech, The Fighter, True Grit, Toy Story 3, The Town, The Kids Are All Right and Inception.
But we don’t know how this all will go yet. We’re getting closer, but the story will not be written until the Guilds have their say. The Producers Guild and the Directors Guild are the most influential. The DGA pretty much rules the day. Not always, but most often. The Producers come next, followed by the SAG and then the WGA. But, in fact, all of the guilds and societies matter. Last year, The Hurt Locker kept popping up in unexpected places. It might have even been nominated for, or won, every guild award there was leading up to the Oscars.