The Best Picture race has undergone several significant transformations over the years as the Academy tinkered with its nomination process to reflect changing times. In its earliest year, when the Oscars were an important and valuable force in film promotion, the attitude seems to have been the more the merrier — there were as many as 8, 10, even 12 nominees for Best Picture. The Oscars then trimmed back this big-tent attitude in 1944, when Hollywood production had fallen off to a low ebb, and for the next 65 years the number of nominees was standardized to five candidates in every category.
Though that five slot restriction often felt mingy as global cinema exploded, such a long-standing tradition would prove troublesome to adjust to everyone’s satisfaction. As far back as the 1980s, the rise of extravagant action movies that fed the studio money machine and a parallel frugal emergence of independent films from outside the system led audiences, critics, and industry voters alike to acknowledge that there was far more to see in the awards-worthy imagination than the time-honored template of customary Oscar fare. Rumblings for a need to make room for these exciting new species of films in the Oscar ecosystem finally broke through the resistance after Christopher Nolan shook up the culture with a summer smash that met all the criteria of cinematic art. The Dark Knight wasn’t named among the 2008 Best Picture nominees, but, befitting a cloaked crusader, its stealthy impact may have saved the Oscars from a future of stodgy complacency.
Overnight, after six and a half decades of five Best Picture nominees, the Oscar ballots in 2009 went out with a spacious 10 open slots, so voters could go nuts with any kind of film that tickled their fancies. For lifelong Oscar watchers, it was a glorious thing to witness — and it sure didn’t last long. It turns out there were just enough Academy members who felt movies like The Blind Side were the best of the year, as well as a fair number of voters who chose hardcore sci-fi and softcore lesbian movies to raise some hackles. Gasps of all kinds erupted among the more traditional membership. Also, embarrassingly, quite a few AMPAS members claimed to be unable to name 10 movies that they could give a good goddamn about. So the accountants were summoned to fix this lavish but awkward situation. They arrived at the current headache-inducing solution in which voters are once again given five nomination slots to fill — but now the ballots are tabulated with mathematical black magic (the preferential ballot) to deliver a variable number of nominees between five and 10, depending on how many strong films there are in the race.
None of these fascinating contortions have done much to solve the problem of including genre movies in the mix, which is especially unfortunate at a time when Hollywood is in the midst of a massive evolution when the best filmmakers alive are drawn to genre projects. Nevertheless, when the Academy overcompensated for members who disliked the idea of 10 nominees, their restricting the nomination process to five openings has resulted in a return to the same kind of movie that Oscar voters always likes best — just more of them. When you’re only allowed five favorites, your heart tends to lead the way. So we’re back to character dramas about (male) heroes, mostly. At the end of the day, Oscar voters tend to like movies about people they can root for and identify with, rather than people whose lives are too unfamiliar with problems that many of the voters don’t care about. A sad commentary on the state of the human race, perhaps, but until more enlightened humans are invited to join the Academy, that’s how it going to be. That’s just the way of things.
At any rate, since a field of more than five competitors poses unique problems in balancing what’s liked best with what’s liked most, the preferential ballot process is now employed to sort that all out. It’s not altogether unexpected that a consequence of this system would further shift consensus in favor of heroic stories, or at least films with narratives that exalt our concept of good guys. Take, for example, the showdown in 2015 between Spotlight vs. The Revenant vs. The Big Short — three brilliant films that were brilliant in three very different ways. But most voters didn’t hesitate to choose the good guys in Spotlight over the “bad” guys in The Big Short and the guys who had to hover between good and bad in The Revenant because being too good in 1823 America was a good way to get killed. If the dynamics of these perceptions sometimes get slippery, a skilled and savvy Oscar publicist knows how shift the mood this way and that by making sure that overriding message of “we’re the good guys” comes through loud and clear — and that’s what we knew had happened when Spotlight won the SAG award for Outstanding Ensemble. Voters who might have been torn in their allegiance to these three excellent films were nudged just enough to instinctively put the film about good guys ahead of the films about bad guys and bad-ish guys on their ranked ballots.
That worked incredibly well for Moonlight last year when it was up against La La Land. It wasn’t that the couple at the center of La La Land weren’t good guys. They were good and lovely enough, as far as L.A. goodness goes, but hunting down fame and glory at the expense of true love paled quickly in comparison to a kid from the Miami ghettos who craved true love and suffered brutal bullies and homophobia before he finally found it. Maybe Casablanca’s Rick was right: it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of two fabulous people don’t amount to a Hollywood Hills hill of beans, no matter how freakin’ adorable they are.
Also, remember that Moonlight was largely unconcerned with issues of white oppression, so none of the white voters had any reason to take offense. Chiron had problems that white people didn’t cause, and he overcame those problems without white people’s help. That made it much easier for the mostly white Academy to vote for it, or at least for enough to rank it higher on their ballot than the movie that was wall-to-wall about white people problems. Ultimately though, there was no question that Moonlight was about a good guy. Whether La La Land’s loss had to do with various rumored backlashes or whether it was already a film that rubbed too many of the right people the wrong way will never be known. All we really have as evidence that La La Land wasn’t a clear frontrunner was the lack of a SAG ensemble nomination, which signaled that something essential for a Best Picture winner was lacking. Very few pundits are willing to accept that this was all that important — but, as it happens, the same missing factor was absent in The Revenant and Gravity: no SAG ensemble nomination. Even if there are only two people in the film, the rule still applies that actors like picking films that have a lot of actors in them.
The last film to win Best Picture that didn’t revolve around the good guys was the Coen brothers’ masterpiece, No Country for Old Men. Sure, there were good guys in that film fighting the good fight — but then they lost that fight. One could make the argument that The Hurt Locker wasn’t about good guys either, since Jeremy Renner’s character had fallen prey to the adrenaline that emanates from evil, and his addiction to that wartime rush had left him bereft of redemption either way. But at his core he was a good guy throughout the film. He and Anthony Mackie endeavored to do the right thing in a chaotic, impossible environment. Renner’s Sergeant James could not break the locks of the man who had strapped himself into a walking time-bomb, so to save himself he had to flee the scene and let the man explode. Out of the three guys The Hurt Locker shows us who went into the war, none but Renner’s character, broken from the inside out, was ready for more; hence, he became the symbol of American warfare.
Since then, we have not see a movie win Best Picture that in any way features characters who aren’t sympathetic protagonists:
12 Years a Slave
The King’s Speech
The Hurt Locker
Before that, films like The Departed and No Country for Old Men were winning Best Picture — dark films about men possessed of dark souls. If we look back to the 1970s, we see the darkest period in Oscar history, and though we’re all now comparing the Trump regime to Nixon’s reign, the preferential ballot, at least as far as we can tell, does not allow for movies that plumb the darkness like these did:
The French Connection
The Godfather II
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
The Deer Hunter
Kramer vs. Kramer
Clearly, there are films with good guys saving the day here too, like Rocky and Kramer vs. Kramer. But for the most part, The Godfather films especially, the Academy in the ’70s embraced films about anti-heroes. No matter how good such films like these may be these days, if they are dark they will be divisive and if they are too divisive it seems that they cannot win on a preferential ballot. Also, films starring women don’t tend to win because they, too, appear to be divisive for whatever reason (anyone want to guess the reason?).
The films that seem most likely to win Best Picture this year will again feature heroes, good guys, and clear-eyed protagonists fighting the good fight with no moral ambiguity:
The Darkest Hour
The Shape of Water
Call Me By Your Name
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Battle of the Sexes
The Post (not seen)
The Big Sick
The only film on this list that delves into a gray area is Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird, featuring a character conflicted enough to hang in limbo between good and bad. Both the mother and daughter in Lady Bird are portrayed in unapologetically complex and complicated terms — so that you kind of hate them sometimes. That’s good writing, but it may also present a challenge on the preferential ballot when it comes to a win. Ditto Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, which appears to give us another brilliantly complex heroine who might be unlikable to some viewers.
Daring to be unlikable is always a intriguing challenge for great female characters, but it also works counter to what we know about how a consensus of mostly male voters will respond. Remember when Sicario, Gone Girl, and Nightcrawler were picked up by PGA but not Oscar? That’s because PGA voters get 10 nomination slots and not five. Shrinking that pool often means the darker films are left off the menu. There are exceptions, of course, if the film is likable enough in other ways, like The Wolf of Wall Street or Django Unchained. Or even The Big Short.
Four of the films with heat this year are about real life heroes. Among them is Battle of the Sexes, in which the great Billie Jean King is finally given a proper cinematic tribute. A woman who fought for women’s equality but also, eventually, came out as a lesbian at a time when that just wasn’t done. Her publicists warned her not to, said it would ruin her career for sponsorship. She said she didn’t care and did it anyway, because staying true to herself mattered more to her than anything else. She wanted fame on her own terms, and she certainly would have had it, but of course she was outed in 1981 before she had a chance to control the revelation. As she tells NBC news:
“It was horrible,” King said of the 1981 incident.
When the news broke, she said her lawyer and her press representative urged her not to admit the truth, but King refused to deny her identity as a lesbian.
“I said: ‘I’m going to do it. I don’t care. This is important to me to tell the truth.’” King told NBC News. “The one thing my mother always said, ‘To thine own self be true.’”
When asked, in retrospect, if she would do anything differently, King said, “I’d come out earlier.”
But the gay rights activist, now 73, admitted she didn’t start feeling comfortable about being gay until she was 51 years old, after “tons of therapy.” She believes this was partly because of the shame many people — including her own parents — associated with homosexuality, which King said “was a big deal in the ’70s.”
Battle of the Sexes deals with the reality of life as a gay person back in the 1970s: a claustrophobic situation that no one living today would believe existed unless they lived through it. It was also the era where feminism became a force to be reckoned with. Again, hard to imagine what a fight it was unless you lived through it. The film does a really good job of conveying both messages without coming off as preachy. It is one of the most entertaining films in the race, and one that can be recommended across the board to anyone, which often is the right formula for a top Oscar contender.
Two of the films, as we’ve already written about, are about Great Britain’s valiant mission to fight Hitler, and continue that fight even when they were the *only* country fighting Hitler. Darkest Hour takes us into the life and inside the extraordinary mind of Winston Churchill, at the most pivotal point of his career and of the war. Dunkirk is also about heroes, but it’s not specifically about Churchill. It’s about the soldiers who had been hemmed in on three sides by Nazis with the English Channel as their only path to survival, trapped and then evacuated from the beaches of Dunkirk. Undoubtedly these are films about heroes exhibiting the loftiest hallmarks of heroism in the face of fascism.
The Post, as far as I can tell, is about Katharine Graham, the editor of the Washington Post who guided one of America’s greatest newspapers through its many historic stages: Watergate, the Nixon administration, the Vietnam War, and the publication of the Pentagon Papers. She also pioneered the role of women journalists. It is said that she came in to the Post as the opposite of a feminist but left as a paragon of the movement. At any rate, the film does appear to be more about her than Ben Bradlee or Daniel Ellsberg. That makes two, count ’em, two films about feminist icons potentially in the Best Picture race: The Post and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, where Frances McDormand plays a baddass mother who confronts town’s law enforcement when they do nothing about the assault and murder of her daughter.
The Shape of Water is about an unlikely but very brave heroine — a deaf cleaning woman who risks life and limb to rescue her one true love: an otherworldly sea creature. What a delight this film is. You’ll find yourself rooting not just for her but for this unlikeliest of surreal love affairs throughout. Del Toro has framed the story within the rigid era of Cold War America when the white nuclear family led the way. He infuses his film with much of the anxiety we’re dealing with now — finding a way to function in a culture that chafes against dangerous and unreliable leaders.
Am I dreaming? Oscar options like this just don’t happen in the film world anymore.
The bottom line is this: while divisive films can inspire passion and score nominations in tech and visual categories, when it comes to winning top honors, as we know, divisiveness can be problematic. Above all, to win Best Picture, heroes, good guys (and girls), nearly always must rule the day. Lucky for us, the film heroes of 2017 are both abundant and sensational.