OSCARS WEEKLY – How history works against several Best Picture contenders

As I’ve been travelling along my Best Picture Project journey, one interesting trait of Oscars history has struck me. The Academy genuinely seem to dislike awarding their top prize to similar films in a short space of time. One year, it’s a groundbreaking drama. The next year, it’s a flashy musical. Then it’s a quirky comedy, absurdist melodrama, or a spectacular blockbuster. And this is not something limited to the early days of the Oscars. It’s still near impossible to find back-to-back years where two films of similar narrative themes and styles win Best Picture. Or even a few years apart, for that matter.

Take the last few years, for example. We’ve had a groundbreaking “black film” that also doubled as a “gay film” (Moonlight), a powerful tribute to journalism and a biting attack on the church (Spotlight), an absurdist comedy taking aim at the entertainment industry (Birdman), a historical epic about a shameful time in American history (12 Years a Slave), and a tense and gripping melodrama where Hollywood saves the day (Argo). Each of these five films are decidedly different, both in tone and topic, and stand as five wildly different choices for Best Picture. Each one of them also stands as a problem for some of this year’s contenders, particularly in a year devoid of a strong frontrunner.

If the Academy is so emphatically determined not to repeat itself, potential frontrunner Get Out has a major problem – they rewarded Moonlight, aka the “black film,” last year. I shudder to even refer to it as that, so let me put it more eloquently. Last year, they awarded a film made by African-Americans featuring a narrative concerned with African-Americans, performed by a cast predominantly made up of African-Americans. It was a huge moment in Oscars history, and a massive departure for the Academy. That probably means they’re unlikely to do it all again, just one year later. Narratively speaking, the films are concerned with very different ideas and themes, but, unfortunately, it probably won’t matter. Likewise with the recent victory of 12 Years a Slave. Again, completely different genre of film, but still watered down to who made it and who starred in in. As great as it would be to see, awarding three “black films” with Best Picture in the space of six years doesn’t sound like the Academy I know.

The unlikely victory of Moonlight also affects another major contender, potentially killing two birds’ chances with one stone. Despite no one in the film actually utterly the G word, many still see Moonlight as a “gay film,” just as strongly as they see it as a “black film.” The film is rather ambiguous about Chiron’s complicated sexuality. He’s not 100% heterosexual, and that’s enough to have it fall into the gay cinema genre. This doesn’t help the case for Call Me By Your Name, which is most definitely part of this genre. After shunning gay cinema for decades, and that shameful snub of Brokeback Mountain, the victory of Moonlight was another huge leap forward for the Academy, meaning it will likely be another decade before we see a piece of gay cinema take home Best Picture.

Another unlikely recent victory affects the film we all once saw as the bonafide frontrunner. For some baffling reason, the Academy had shied away from awarding Best Picture to a film concerned with journalism for literally decades. Network, All the President’s Men, The Killing Fields, The Insider, Almost Famous, Good Night and Good Luck, Capote, and Frost/Nixon are just some of those which failed to win the top prize. Two years ago, Spotlight made Oscars history, becoming the first journalism-based film to win Best Picture. This does not bode well for Steven Spielberg’s The Post. The role of the journalist may be more important than ever right now, and Spielberg’s tale of brave journalists uncovering a government conspiracy may be potently relevant today, but it may not matter. They acknowledged the power of journalism far too recently. There’s may be no need to do it again so soon.

While not nearly as comparative as these examples, the Best Picture failures of Max Mad: Fury Road and La La Land could mean a repeat for a film like Dunkirk. Both these films were the dazzling and spectacular contenders, heading into the race. Both came to the ceremony with the most nominations, and both ultimately went home with the most awards, but, alas, not the big one. It’s conceivable this will be the fate of Dunkirk this year. It’s very possible it could sweep the tech categories. It’s firming as a lock for several of them, including Editing, Score, and both Sound categories. It could also give Christopher Nolan his first Best Director win. However, recent history tells us it’s not taking home Best Picture.

So, which films are lucky enough to avoid the issue of history affecting their Best Picture chances? It comes down to one factor alone – female-centric narratives. We haven’t seen a film led by a female character win Best Picture since 2004’s Million Dollar Baby. It was also the last time the Best Actress winner came from a film which also won the big prize. It’s a rather embarrassing and shameful track record, but one that bodes extremely well for three of this year’s contenders. Lady Bird, The Shape of Water, and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri all centre around a strong and commanding lead performance by a female. All three will likely receive Best Actress nominations, and one of them will undoubtedly win. The 13-year streak of ignoring films led by women may finally end.

In a year where the disgraceful and demoralising treatment of women in the industry was finally brought into the spotlight, it seems only fitting a film heralded by a female performance could win Best Picture. It may even be a film written and directed by a female. Wouldn’t that be something? Now I know these behind-the-scenes narratives of the campaigns of Best Picture contenders are rather bleak. As I’ve said time and time before, it should be about the best artistic achievement, and nothing else. But it’s not. And the sooner you accept that, the easier the Oscars become to predict.

It doesn’t give me any joy to reduce each of these contenders down to such basic definitions, in terms of what kind of film they may be and how that relates to a previous winner. It’s terribly simplistic, and awfully unfair. If a “black film” won the previous year, and there’s a stellar “black film” the very next year, it shouldn’t matter. It should win, regardless of what came before it. Moonlight and Get Out are nothing alike. They highlight completely different ideals. Spotlight and The Post feature journalists chasing very different stories for very different outcomes. If one of the female-centric films wins, it should be because it’s a brilliant film, and not as a way to send a positive message about women in the industry.

But, sadly, this is the reality of the Oscar race. There’s always a story behind how something ultimately won, and why others unfortunately lost. It’s far more complex than one film being “better” than the other, particularly with the complicated preferential ballot. Rules and track records will always play a part, and the signs are often there to be read. However, rules are made to be broken, and perhaps the Academy is ready to break tradition. Time will tell.

Lady Bird
Get Out
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
The Post
Call Me By Your Name
The Shape of Water
The Florida Project
The Big Sick



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