In looking over Oscar history, it seems clear that in the era of the expanded Best Picture ballot, most of the acting winners will come from Best Picture nominees, but especially Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor.
Actors have the most influence over what wins Best Picture because the acting branch is so much bigger than any other branch. The acting categories are decided by plurality vote. The Best Picture category is decided by a majority vote using the preferential ballot. The main difference is that a performance can be divisive and still win — what drives it will be passion. With Best Picture, the preferential ballot does not like divisive at all. What drives it is passion but it also has to be something people push to the top of their ballots even without passion. For instance, if Glenn Close was up against Olivia Colman on a preferential ballot, Close might have beaten her because she might have had more down ballot votes than Colman, who would have more top ranking support.
Last year, my prediction of both Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman to win without a Best Picture nomination for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom was a blind spot I should have seen by looking at the past. Although it has happened before, it’s only happened twice in Oscar history that two actors from the same film won without a Best Picture nomination:
1962 — Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke won for the Miracle Worker.
1963 — Patricia Neal and Melvyn Douglas for Hud
It has happened but it’s rare. It could have happened, but predicting both was a major risk, given the patterns of the past.
Having ten slots for Best Picture is going to shift how Best Picture will be decided. Passion will matter, but not as much as it mattered from 2011-2020, when there was a choice of anywhere between 5-10 nominees. You were looking at voters’ top five, not their top ten. But with ten, they are going to be more flexible with what they choose. However, given that, it is even more likely than not that the acting winners will come from one of the ten.
31 times has a Best Picture winner won a single acting award. It’s most common for a film to win just one acting award, along with Best Picture.
16 times has a Best Picture winner won two acting awards.
14 times has a Best Picture nominee (not winner) won two acting awards.
2 times has a Best Picture nominee (not winner) won three acting awards.
Best Actor winner matched with Best Picture — 27 times.
Best Actress winner matched with Best Picture — 12 times.
Supporting Actor winner matched with Best Picture — 17 times.
Supporting Actress winner matched with Best Picture — 13 times.
It has only happened twice that all four acting categories went to winners who did not star in Best Picture nominees:
1969 — Midnight Cowboy won Best Picture. Best Actor was John Wayne in True Grit. Best Actress was Maggie Smith in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Supporting went to Gig Young for They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? and Goldie Hawn for Cactus Flower.
1995 — Braveheart won Best Picture. Best Actor went to Nic Cage for Leaving Las Vegas. Susan Sarandon won for Best Actress for Dead Man Walking. Supporting went to Kevin Spacey for The Usual Suspects and Mira Sorvino for Mighty Aphrodite.
Which category is most likely to win without a Best Picture nomination?
Four times for Best Actress
Three times for Best Supporting Actress
Once for Best Supporting Actor
Once for Best Actor
That means if you are going to pick one winner in the acting categories from a non-Best Picture nominee, there is a good chance that is coming from Best Actress, almost as good a chance coming from Best Supporting Actress, less of a chance for Actor and Supporting Actor. Most importantly, you should aim for only choosing one of the four, unless you have very good reason to believe another 2011 will happen. In that year (and only that year) did two actors not in Best Picture nominees won. Every other year just one winner in the acting categories did not come from a Best Picture nominee.
So what does all of this mean?
It confirms what we’ve always known: actors are the most influential branch in the Academy. But it also means that voters like to spread the wealth when they have a lot of Best Picture contenders.
The simple rules are:
3/4 of the acting category wins will go to a Best Picture nominee.
Category most likely to be from a Best Picture nominee: Best Actor/Best Supporting Actor
Category least likely to be from a Best Picture nominee: Best Actress
Category most likely to match with a win, along with Best Picture: Actor/Best Supporting Actor
Category least likely to match with a win, along with Best Picture: Actress/Best Supporting Actress
So, in terms of this year, the pundits at Gold Derby have it right now as:
Picture — Power of the Dog
Director — Jane Campion, Power of the Dog
Actress — Jessica Chastain, Eyes of Tammy Faye
Actor — Denzel Washington, Macbeth
Supporting Actress — Ann Dowd
Supporting Actor — Richard Jenkins, Humans
The remaining nine of Gold Derby’s Best Picture Top 10:
Tragedy of Macbeth*
House of Gucci
West Side Story
Don’t Look Up
This means they are predicting three of the acting winners to come from non-Best Picture nominees. Yah, that ain’t happening. The Best Picture nominees will be driven by actors. The acting wins will be driven by actors. These things will overlap. At least, according to history.