One of the things that separates the Oscars from any other award show is that it is, in its purest sense, about all the people who make movies awarding the movies they think are best. That’s what it is supposed to be — but it is, of course, not quite that. There are too many films to watch ,so most of them don’t even get seen. The voters tend to favor films with the best publicity teams (these unsung heroes of awards season should have their own category, considering the expert and essential job they do to bring the winners to the forefront). But publicity can only take you so far. Plenty of films have great publicity teams pushing them, but the movie they handle has to be great. Not just great in the eyes of a few, but so great that lots of people can agree on its greatness. Many measures of value go into to determining a film’s Oscar-worthiness. Timing is a key factor: is this the right time or the wrong time for this film? How much a movie earned at the box office can sometimes mess with perception so that years from now the film remains beloved and no one cares how much money it made, or, conversely, a film that once made a lot of money and seemed like a big deal at the time is now a movie no one watches or even talks about.
The one driving force behind almost every Best Picture winner, though, is the acting, and it helps to have broad ensemble appeal. Green Book broke one of the fundamental rules of Best Picture winners being mostly a “two-hander,” i.e., the film was mostly driven by its two lead performances. But Green Book did have another important element, and that was a powerful male performance to dominate the narrative. Whether the performance is nominated for Best Actor or not, that central male performance often seems to determine whether a film will win Best Picture or not. There are rare exceptions, like Chicago in 2002. But let’s go back 20 years to see how these two fundamentals apply: ensemble + strong male protagonist:
2000: Gladiator — both, Russell Crowe won Best Actor
2001: A Beautiful Mind — both, Russell Crowe nominated for Best Actor
2002: Chicago — ensemble but female lead*
2003: Return of the King — big ensemble, Frodo lead, but no Best Actor nomination
2004: Million Dollar Baby — small-ish cast, Clint Eastwood nominated for Best Actor and drove the story, but Hilary Swank won Best Actress
2005: Crash — ensemble, no central male protagonist
2006: The Departed — big ensemble, Leonardo DiCaprio drove, not nominated for Best Actor
2007: No Country for Old Men — big ensemble, Josh Brolin not nominated for Best Actor
2008: Slumdog Millionaire — big ensemble, driven by Dev Patel’s character, not nominated for Best Actor
2009: The Hurt Locker — big ensemble, driven by Jeremy Renner’s nominated performance
2010: The King’s Speech — ensemble, Colin Firth wins Best Actor
2011: The Artist — ensemble, Jean DuJardin wins Best Actor
2012: Argo — ensemble, Ben Affleck drives film but not nominated for Best Actor
2013: 12 Years a Slave — big ensemble, Chiwetel Ejiofor nominated for Best Actor
2014: Birdman — big ensemble, Michael Keaton nominated for Best Actor
2015: Spotlight — big ensemble, no male lead but almost all male supporting actors
2016: Moonlight — ensemble, driven by a male protagonist but no lead actor nominated, but Mahershala Ali wins Best Supporting Actor
2017: The Shape of Water — big ensemble, driven by a female protagonist*
2018: Green Book — two-hander, driven by two male performances, Viggo Mortensen nominated for Best Actor and Mahershala Ali who wins Best Supporting Actor
So you see, despite it all, at the end of the day, most films that win Best Picture are driven by male performances (lead or supporting) and preferably an ensemble cast. It matters less if the lead actor is nominated, and lately, having a SAG ensemble nomination hasn’t mattered as much.
As we already know, most of the films contending for for Best Picture this year are male-driven:
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood — Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, plus ensemble
1917 — George MacKay plus ensemble
The Irishman — Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Al Pacino, plus ensemble
Joker — Joaquin Phoenix
Parasite — ensemble, no central male lead
Jojo Rabbit — Roman Griffin Davis plus ensemble
Ford v Ferrari — Christian Bale and Matt Damon, plus ensemble
Then you have:
Little Women — ensemble cast driven by a female performance, Saoirse Ronan
Marriage Story — ensemble, I’d say mostly Adam Driver-driven but Scarlett Johansson has a big role too.
The low hanging fruit way of interpreting this is that the Academy is mostly white and mostly male, so naturally the films they like most would mirror that demographic. I certainly have thought this for a good many years. But lately I’ve begun to wonder. My theory is that men are the default. Men like watching men, women like watching men. But it isn’t always true that women like watching women or men like watching women, at least not the way some stories are presented, or the limited scope storytellers seem to give women, which usually boils down to relationship movies or empowerment movies.
By contrast, men are invited to participate in an array of human experiences. One of the reasons I like Queen & Slim so much is that the female protagonist is complex, flawed, and a bit in over her head. We’re watching her struggle in real time with her own pride and vulnerability. This isn’t an imposed self-esteem booster, as most are (suffocatingly so), but rather a human story of someone working through a difficult situation.
There are, of course, other films this year about women that don’t always lead to the point of empowerment or relationships, needless to say.
The biggest strength of a Best Picture contender is always driven by the performances, not the directing, not even the writing, and certainly not the crafts; the Academy honors all elements of a film to give it an award, but with a voting body dominated by actors, the acting always matters the most.
That makes this weekend’s SAG awards very interesting. With one of the frontrunners — or maybe THE frontrunner, 1917 — out of the ensemble race, we’ll have a chance to see which of the other films in the race are most popular with 120,000 SAG-AFTRA voters.
In 2012, SAG merged with AFTRA, upending the dynamics of how nominees are chosen, but they can still give us a pretty good idea of overall popularity. They aren’t strictly actors anymore doing the choosing: they are actors along with on-air radio and TV personalities. They will likely be picking the film that they liked best, or else awarding a film’s cast where they can’t award one of the film’s performers. The only ensemble nominee that appears to be winning another prize is Brad Pitt in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. When Three Billboards won Outstanding Ensemble, Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell also won acting prizes, so it isn’t always the case that they spread the wealth. Still, they might.
It’s hard to think about giving out an ensemble prize and not see that going to The Irishman, with heavy hitters like Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci. I would expect that film to maybe win there.
On the other hand, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood also has a spectacular ensemble, with Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio giving near career-best performances.
But what if it isn’t either of those? What if it’s Parasite? The brilliant cast of Parasite navigates the comedy and tragedy of this film so well. They aren’t stars in America, but they certainly display among the best acting of the year.
[this clip is a spoiler – don’t watch if you haven’t seen it]
The two remaining are Jojo Rabbit and Bombshell, and honestly, either of those could win too.
For Jojo Rabbit to win, it will tell me that the movie is as beloved as it was in Toronto when it won the People’s Choice Award.
Bombshell probably isn’t going to win, barring some fluke, considering almost every SAG winner for ensemble has a Best Picture nomination.
But remember: if the PGA and SAG align, the Best Picture race, barring some major catastrophe, is likely over.
So what think you, Oscarwatchers? Which ensemble cast is going to win this weekend?