It should be noted that there are a few pundits who have different films at number one than La La Land. For instance, Anne Thompson, Thelma Adams, Tim Gray, Jack Matthews, and Jeff Wells all have Manchester by the Sea at number one to win at Gold Derby. This is an interesting prospect, but a scenario could play out where the director, Kenneth Lonergan, has been kicking around Hollywood doing good work for a long time and his ship finally comes in. These pundits, I would guess, are betting two things will play out: 1) Oscar voters are going to be looking for something more serious to name as Best Picture in such a turbulent year. Ye auld “gravitas;” 2) the lead performance by Casey Affleck in Manchaster, which has just led the Gotham Awards nominations, will help propel the film to follow in the footsteps of Spotlight and Birdman.
To note, most of these same pundits also pick Kenneth Lonergan to beat Damien Chazelle for Best Director. They figure a veteran who made such a moving film will beat an upstart with his second movie. They are further doubling down on original screenplay, giving that also to Lonergan. Many of them have Casey Affleck winning as well.
I’m not sure if this surge is due to the Gothams pronouncing the film in the lead, perhaps. Although it’s worth noting that each category only had something like four people choosing, right? What it does do is give a pretty good indication of where the critics are going to go. In typical fashion, the critics often shy away from the film that people think will win the Oscar. It’s never that cool for them to go with the flow. Still, since the Gotham’s picked Manchester for so many awards, these pundits figure it will go all the way.
There is a matter of it being distributed in part by Amazon. And therein lies the only problem for Manchester by the Sea. It is also a Roadside Attractions production, but there has been a stigma involved — at least so far — with versatile platform release companies like Netflix or CBS Films breaking into “film territory.” But I suppose if Anne Thompson doesn’t see this as a sticking point, perhaps it won’t matter. If Amazon does get a Best Picture winner, however, everyone knows it will dramatically and radically change the game.
At the moment, no one is as yet going for Moonlight to win the whole thing – maybe they think “too black,” “too gay” for Oscar voters. But it’s worth noting that Moonlight is as beloved as Manchester and the only reason it didn’t lead the Gothams was because it did not have a lead actor performance and the Gothams do not have supporting categories. Although I guess you could say that Lucas Hedges getting a breakthrough nomination does show more support for Manchester, as Moonlight could have gotten one of its actors in that category.
The third film won’t be getting much help from the critics because word out of Telluride was that it was going to win everything, The Artist-style. That year, The Descendants and Tree of Life were Gotham nominees. The year after that, 2012, no Gotham nominees got in for Best Picture. The year after that, 2013, 12 Years a Slave did get a nomination, and no other film did. And of course, in 2014 Birdman won there and went on to win the Oscar, as Spotlight did last year.
Either way, La La Land, Manchester by the Sea, and Moonlight appear, at least so far, to be the three top competitors for the Best Picture Oscar. What’s unusual about it is that all three are Original Screenplay contenders. Why that’s weird is that usually the screenplay winner and Best Picture winner go together – which either rules out a contender getting a consolation prize, or it rules out a sweep for any film and we’re potentially looking at another year where the Best Picture winner collects a couple of Oscars, maybe three, at most. Unless that film is La La Land. In which case, it could sweep many of the techs, win Best Actress and Picture and Manchester by the Sea gets screenplay.
The problem is that Moonlight is perhaps a more of a threat to win for its screenplay than for any other category where it may be nominated. That’s for two reasons. The first is that it’s beautifully written. The second is that the writer could be a record-breaking, history-making nominee for Best Picture if Barry Jenkins gets in for Director. He will become the first American black filmmaker to get in for Picture, writing AND directing. John Singleton was nominated for Original Screenplay and directing for Boyz in the Hood but it did not get a Best Picture nomination. So, I don’t know what that means.
One potential sticking point for Moonlight is that it is widely known to be based on a play. The play was never produced but the Academy can be sticklers about such things. That means that there’s a good chance the Academy will shift it into adapted, where it could probably have an easier win, considering adapted isn’t as competitive as original this year.
Final note on Moonlight – it’s theoretically possible that both Barry Jenkins and August Wilson (posthumously) will be up for screenplay – both are black writers. There is a potential for there to be two black writers in each category, with corresponding Best Picture nominations which has only happened one other time, in 1972 when Sounder and Lady Sings the Blues were nominated.
Obviously, a potential sticking point for La La Land is that musicals have a difficult time winning for writing. The idea is that the writing impact of a musical is concentrated in the songwriting lyrics and not so much in the story or dialogue. Though I do think it will get a nomination, most will see it as a long shot to win screenplay. On the other hand, the film itself is so clever, it could win Adapted Screenplay as a consolation for not winning Best Picture.
Musicals that have won Best Screenplay:
An American in Paris
Amadeus (if you count that as a musical)
But looking at history, it’s a long shot. It’s also a long shot to be an original screenwriter and win for writing and picture.
Here is a look at the history of original screenwriting winners who also won Best Picture. The weird thing about it is that it’s pretty rare, although it did just happen two years in a row, albeit with co-writers.
2016–Spotlight/Tom McCarthy, Josh Singer (Iñárritu won Director)
2015–Birdman–Iñárritu + three other writers (also won Director)
2006–Crash/Paul Haggis + Bobby Moresco (Ang Lee won Director)
1977–Annie Hall/Woody Allen + Marshall Brickman (also won Director)
1960–The Apartment/Billy Wilder + I. A. L. Diamond (also won Director)
And that’s it, in all of Oscar history, the only time directors who also wrote their screenplays won for both. So, as you can see, there is not an instance, at the moment, of an original screenplay written by a single writer to also win Best Picture when it’s written by the director.
There has always been a co-writer. So if either Damien Chazelle/La La Land or Kenneth Lonergan/Manchester by the Sea win, they will be making Oscar history.
For Moonlight, it’s not clear whether Barry Jenkins will be taking sole writing credit, or if he will share credit with Tarell Alvin McCraney.
Why doesn’t the Academy give out Oscars to auteurs like that? They just don’t. I suspect, to them, it’s an awful lot of hardware to give to one person when usually they prefer to spread the wealth. Usually, when original scripts win both writing and directing AND picture, they are different people winning, not the same people.
Of course, Manchester by the Sea could pull a Spotlight and win picture and screenplay and not director. Director could go to Chazelle, for instance, or Jenkins. They might split up all three, giving Picture to Manchester, Directing to Chazelle and Screenplay to Jenkins. Or La La Land for Picture, Lonergan for Director, Moonlight for Screenplay.
But the fact that so many pundits are currently predicting the very rare Manchester by the Sea sweep tells me that, perhaps, this is not as open and shut a Best Picture race as many thought in the beginning.
If the Academy should deem Moonlight adapted, and not original, as they did with Whiplash, which knocked out Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl in adapted, Moonlight would probably become the frontrunner in that category. BUT we have a long way to go yet and we have not yet covered the Adapted category. We will do that tomorrow.