Nowadays, the most influential category for Best Picture is Screenplay. That just means it’s most common that a Best Picture nominee has a corresponding screenplay nomination. A film can miss almost everything else, but if it misses Screenplay it’s very rare that it wins Best Picture. Missing Best Director doesn’t matter as much anymore in the expanded Best Picture ballot era.
Right behind Screenplay or Director would be Best Actor. Best Actor drives the Best Picture race not because of a nomination in the category, but because male-driven stories tend to be more universally popular. Supporting Actor also has the highest percentage of representation of all of the acting categories in Best Picture nominees and winners. All that said, the last two Best Picture winners have not been male-driven.
2020 completely transformed much of American culture, and that includes the Oscars, which makes the last two years exceptions to the rule. At least, that is how it could turn out. I expect we’re locked into this pattern for a bit longer before voters feel comfortable again in just picking movies they like best.
The Oscar race heads into Oscar season now being micromanaged by critics who lean towards activism with their choices to improve the industry. Maybe they do, maybe they don’t, but it’s hard not to notice how things have shifted so dramatically in the past few years. It seems that there is an effort to force change rather than wait for things to change.
The Academy membership is still a 70/30 split between male to female. Stories about men tend to work for both women and men, where stories about women tend to resonate for SOME women and SOME men. That, more than anything, is probably why in general male-driven stories do better in the Best Picture race.
Stories about men, in general, tend to be about big themes. Stories about women tend to be about specific things, just as films featuring non-white characters tend to revolve around identity. With women, there seems to be a fixation on love, abortion, empowerment, sexual assault/rape, motherhood, or some combination of them together. Rarely are stories that revolve around women bigger than the gender-specific conflicts. A film like Zero Dark Thirty or Blue Steel are movies that defy those rules, by design. Kathryn Bigelow never wanted to be seen as a “female director” but rather just a good director. Ridley Scott’s Alien is another that simply puts a female as the protagonist where it isn’t about those specific themes. Jim Cameron’s Aliens makes it more gender-specific when he turns Ripley into a mother figure.
Nomadland and CODA are two films that probably would have had a hard time winning Best Picture prior to 2020, because they are more about female empowerment or women pursuing their dreams than they are about anything else. CODA is female empowerment but also about the experience of being a hearing child in a deaf family. One test to see if it is about something bigger: imagine a male character in the lead of Nomadland. Don’t we think it would have had to expand outward to include much larger themes? CODA would probably still work with a male in the lead, as it’s more about what it’s like to grow up with a deaf family.
Parasite, by contrast, is a great example of a film with a male protagonist that is about something bigger than identity. Films that were nominated alongside it, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, 1917, and The Irishman were also about big themes: the Manson murders and Hollywood in transition, World War I, the death of Jimmy Hoffa.
Even though the Academy members were viciously and (I think unfairly) attacked for voting for Green Book, in their own way they thought they were voting for a film that was an open-hearted story about acceptance of the black, gay character. That is how they saw it, until critics and activists showed them why that was wrong. After 2020, they became even more wary of the kinds of films they vote for.
But if we go back prior to 2016 or 2020, we see the bigger themes:
2015 — Spotlight, hunting down molesting priests in the Catholic Church.
2014 — Birdman, the dying of the light of real actors who have no choice but to make superhero movies.
2013 — 12 Years a Slave, a film about escaping slavery that was made by black filmmakers.
2012 — Argo, freeing the hostages in Iran
2011 — The Artist, the dying of silents which are being replaced by talkies
2010 — The King’s Speech, a king with a speech impediment who must rally the country heading into World War II.
2009 — The Hurt Locker, America’s involvement in Iraq
Movies now, post-2020, are going to have to address the immediate needs of the activists who micromanage Hollywood and the Oscar race. This will be the case for a while, maybe forever. Who knows. Will Hollywood and the Oscars ever be freed from the ideological constraints? I do not know the answer to that.
What I do know is that male-driven stories will still drive the Best Picture race, at least in terms of nominations. While Best Actress and the supporting categories can sometimes go along with Best Picture (and certainly can help drive a winner), when trying to figure out the Best Actor race it is often helpful to also think Best Picture, and when you’re thinking of Best Picture it’s helpful to think of Best Actor, or at least male-driven stories.
That is why anyone looking strongly at Austin Butler for Best Actor (and you’d be a really bad Oscar prognosticator if you didn’t see him as the frontrunner right now) must also think Elvis is likely getting in for Best Picture. When you are laying out your Best Picture predictions, keep that in mind.
The critics can sometimes be misleading when it comes to a performance like Butler’s or a movie like Elvis. How did we ever get ourselves into a position where THESE are the Oscar gatekeepers? They’re looking at movies like an accountant looks at their client’s tax return. With a movie like this, you are either swept up in it or you aren’t — and if you aren’t, you’re not going to be a trustworthy source on how well this movie will do. It’s a unicorn, like Moulin Rouge was, or Life of Pi. Imperfect, glorious, emotionally captivating. Over time, the film embeds itself in our collective minds and hearts. For the critics, they’re asked to evaluate something at a specific moment in time. Their review has to lay there forever. The movie, however, is alive. And will continue to evolve.
With all of this in mind, let’s look at Anne Thompson’s Best Actor rundown, which divides into films she’s seen and films she hasn’t seen (I have bolded the ones I believe have the best shot):
Austin Butler (“Elvis”)
Park Hae-il (“Decision to Leave”)
Daniel Kaluuya (“Nope”)
Bill Nighy (“Living”)
Adam Sandler (“Hustle”)
Christian Bale (“Amsterdam,” “The Pale Blue Eye”)
Daniel Giménez Cacho (“Bardo (or False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths)”
Adam Driver (“White Noise”)
Colin Farrell (“The Banshees of Inisherin”)
Colin Firth (“Empire of Light”)
Brendan Fraser (“The Whale”)
Brendan Gleeson (“The Banshees of Inisherin”)
Kelvin Harrison Jr. (“Chevalier”)
Hugh Jackman (“The Son”)
Brad Pitt (“Babylon”) <—probably supporting
Eddie Redmayne (“The Good Nurse”)
Song Kang-ho (“Broker”)
Timothée Chalamet (“Bones and All”)
Tom Cruise (“Top Gun: Maverick”)
Harris Dickinson (“Triangle of Sadness”)
Jalil Hall (“Till”)
Paul Mescal (“Aftersun”)
Jack O’Connell (“Lady Chatterley’s Lover”)
Robert Pattinson (“The Batman”)
Cooper Raiff (“Cha Cha Real Smooth”)
Banks Repeta (“Armageddon Time”)
Sam Worthington (“Avatar: The Way of Water”)
Those in bold I can see driving the Best Picture race as well as Best Actor. The ones I haven’t bolded are simply out of ignorance. I have not yet seen most of these movies, so this has nothing to do with quality or reality — it’s just my own hunch at the moment.
To my mind, Austin Butler will be tough to beat. The one to watch will be Brendan Fraser for The Whale, or perhaps Hugh Jackman for The Son (because Anthony Hopkins recently won for The Father). Christian Bale is also always one to watch and there’s perhaps Bardo’s Daniel Giménez Cacho.
Here are the charts that show a clear preference for Actor and Supporting Actor, behind the biggest driver of Best Picture, Screenplay. This would look different in the era prior to 2009 when the Academy expanded the ballot.