Oscar predictors — the types of folks who look over the list of movies released this year, then attempt to deduce what’s in and what’s out for the Academy Awards — have been unusually circumspect in 2017.
Until Steven Spielberg’s upcoming journalism drama The Post (starring Academy favorites Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks) screened to a warm, largely positive reaction, there wasn’t really anything that could be dubbed a “frontrunner.” What’s more, any time somebody tried to dub something the frontrunner, it was far too easy to poke holes in that theory.
Dunkirk? Too unusually constructed and cold, despite its war movie roots. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri? Too tonally scattered. Lady Bird? Too tiny. The Shape of Water? It’s about a fish-man. Get Out? A horror movie, for God’s sake. If there’s any genre the Academy’s never quite cottoned to, it’s horror. (I could go on.)
Even The Post, which is classic Oscar-friendly material if ever there was classic Oscar-friendly material, seems to many like it might be too conventional. Academy voters have been more adventurous in the 2010s, lest you forget that just last February they passed over La La Land, a razzle-dazzle musical about kids pursuing their showbiz dreams while falling in love, for Best Picture in favor of Moonlight, an achingly beautiful gay coming-of-age story told in three parts.
Moonlight’s win was one of the biggest Oscar upsets ever, and it’s shaken up the prediction game in ways that are both exciting and a little nerve-wracking. If The Post just goes on to win six or seven Oscars come 2018, then we’ll know the Academy is still the Academy we’ve always known. But if, say, Get Out wins Best Picture while Lady Bird’s Greta Gerwig wins Best Director, we’ll know predicting the Oscars as we did before Moonlight’s win just might be out the window.
So if you’re going to pick one reason why predicting the Oscars this year is so tough, it’s because we’re still not sure why Moonlight won — beyond the fact that it was a beautifully made, evocatively told film.
But there are three smaller sub-reasons underneath that umbrella, and as the earliest Oscar precursors begin to roll out (led by the National Board of Review, which awarded The Post on Tuesday, and the New York Film Critics Circle, which awarded Lady Bird Thursday), it’s worth looking at those three sub-reasons one by one.
1) The Academy’s membership is much younger and much more diverse than it was even two years ago
Remember the Oscars So White controversy of 2014 and 2015? The Academy’s inability to nominate any actors of color (to say nothing of people of color in the vast majority of other categories) led to sweeping changes within the body of the Academy. The most notable of these changes has come from the huge numbers of younger, more diverse voters added to the organization, with these new members now making up 25 percent of the voting body. (The full membership of the Academy tends to hover between 6,000 and 7,000.)
These younger voters were brought in to better diversify the Academy’s nominees, but also to hopefully diversify the types of movies Oscar went for. Because of how the Best Picture prize is chosen, it’s most likely that the winner will end up being a consensus choice — possibly very few people’s absolute favorite movie but a lot of people’s third-favorite movie. In an Academy still dominated by older, whiter faces, then, something like The Post would have a huge advantage. It’s a safe choice — one that few will outright hate but few will deeply, passionately love.
And to be sure, The Post will probably have advantages even with a younger, more diverse voting body (for reasons we’ll get into in a moment). But it’s also far easier to envision something like Get Out or Lady Bird, both critically acclaimed box office hits, having the sort of broad popularity with these younger voters than it would be with the older voters, who tend toward more artistically conservative ideas of what an Oscar-worthy movie is.
The Academy occasionally goes on these sorts of membership changeovers, and they often result in wildly unpredictable Oscar winners. In the late ’60s, when a real push for diverse new members was instituted, the Academy went from awarding Oliver! its Best Picture for 1968 to awarding Midnight Cowboy, Patton, The French Connection, and The Godfather in a four-year stretch, with only Patton coming close to what would have been considered “an Oscar movie” to that point.
It’s possible we’re in another Oscar era like that one. Or maybe...
2) Maybe there is no frontrunner because nobody wants to be the frontrunner.
Talk to the publicity folks involved with just about any major Oscar contender this year, and they’ll often try to deflect to some other movie as the frontrunner. Certainly it’s not their movie. Even a big, handsome production like Dunkirk has tried to hang back just a little bit. With the arrival of The Post, all of these movies will likely start jockeying to see who can land in second.
There’s good reason for this. The 2010s have been brutal to frontrunners. Only 2011’s The Artist has skated through an entire awards season without really losing its lead. Even when frontrunners win, as 2013’s 12 Years a Slave did, it’s after a long, long campaign that very nearly ends in a loss. (12 Years didn’t win the most Oscars that ceremony; Gravity did, with seven to 12 Years’ three.)
And just the last three years have been unusually cruel to frontrunners. Boyhood looked like it had the Oscar all locked up in early 2015, until Birdman unexpectedly started winning industry prizes, on its way to brushing aside Boyhood at the Oscars themselves. The 2015-16 Oscar season was a little odd for not having a clear frontrunner, but the three-way battle among Spotlight, The Big Short, and The Revenant sure looked like it had resolved, until Spotlight won Best Picture with only one other Oscar to its name, the fewest for a Best Picture winner since the 1950s.
And then last year, La La Land was one of the biggest frontrunners ever, with 14 nominations, big box office, and fawning reviews. And it still lost, even after winning awards for its direction and lead actress, the sorts of awards that typically accompany Best Picture winners.
So the smart money is on hanging back and trying to let some other movie get out front and take on the struggle of being the frontrunner. That might change in a world where Harvey Weinstein (who never met a rival movie he couldn’t saddle with a disingenuous “narrative” designed to drag it down) has been removed from the Academy. But it’s not going to change right away.
3) Predicting the Oscars means predicting Donald Trump. Good luck.
Imagine this incredibly likely scenario: Streep wins a Golden Globe in early January for her work in The Post. In a triumphant speech, calling back to her lifetime achievement award speech at the awards in early 2017, she strongly makes the case for a free press to keep a check on power and the White House. The room rises to its feet. She locks up the Oscar for Best Actress then and there. Confetti falls from the sky.
And then the next morning, the president tweets out his anger, directed at Streep, which he did last January after the Globes.
To my mind, this would more or less lock up the Best Picture Oscar for The Post then and there. Hollywood, beset by scandal in 2017, wouldn’t mind backing a movie about the power of the free press as a sideswipe at an unpopular president, much less a movie about the power of the free press that might be the most feminist film Spielberg has ever made. (Granted, mostly by default.)
Oscar winners reflect the way Hollywood wants the world to see it. That’s true even with a radically different membership, even in a frontrunner-less year. Moonlight won because it was an incredible film, but simply being an incredible film doesn’t get you over the finish line, as any look at the list of previous Best Picture winners would suggest. It takes more than that, and some impossible-to-measure percentage of Academy voters ultimately supported Moonlight precisely because they knew it would irritate Trump. A small percentage? Sure. But in a close race, tiny constituencies matter — as Trump himself should know.
So predicting the Oscars this year means predicting Trump, to a real degree. Maybe Streep wins and Trump says nothing, but the ongoing wave of sexual harassment and assault revelations sweeping through Hollywood and other major industries pushes Three Billboards, the forthright tale of one angry woman, forward. Or maybe it leads to an embrace of a younger, unmistakably female voice in Lady Bird or a more breezy artistic achievement like The Shape of Water that reminds you why movies can be so transporting in the first place. Or maybe Trump weighs in on literally any one of dozens of issues that might lead to more support for The Florida Project or Call Me by Your Name or Get Out or Mudbound or even something like The Big Sick. (What? It’s about health care policy, sort of!)
The politics of the outside world often intrude on the Oscars, but it’s been years and years since they did so this obviously, and arguably not since the 2003 awards, carried out in the shadow of the US invasion of Iraq.
Academy voters will back the movie that allows them to send a message about who they are and what they value, one that either forthrightly pushes back against the president, or one that defends the industry itself as an important artistic community and not just a cesspool of male privilege run amok. The Post might let Hollywood do both, which might make it the frontrunner. But I’d never call it that. Ask me in a few months.