The race for the Best Picture Oscar is all over the place this year. Pundits always say that, having a professional interest in making the race sound closer than it is. But this year it really is close, with all the preceding awards which normally foretell Oscar glory going in completely different directions. Tom McCarthy’s sexual-abuse exposé “Spotlight” was the front-runner for a long time, picking up the acting-ensemble award from the Screen Acting Guild – until its momentum was stolen by Adam McKay’s “The Big Short”. This film about the Wall Street meltdown won Best Drama at the Producers Guild of America (PGA), and who would bet against them? Except the Golden Globes and the BAFTAs, which earlier this week gave the Best Film, Director, Cinematography and Actor awards to Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu’s brutal, beautiful Western, “The Revenant”.
Iñárritu picked up an Oscar for “Birdman” last year and he could well be about to win again, making him the first director since John Ford to accomplish back-to-back wins. Never underestimate the Academy’s desire to make history. Nobody likes a sweep more than them. There are few things more satisfying – or simpler – than going down that list of boxes, checking the same film for Editing, Best Picture, Directing, Screenplay. It looks crisp, decisive, unassailable. It’s a rare Best Picture winner that doesn’t also win for Editing, regardless of whether it happens to be the best-edited film or not (was “Argo”?). No film has won Best Picture without also winning for its script since “Titanic”; and auteurists get hot and bothered when films win without their directors, like riderless horses.
That has been the trend in recent years. The reasons are complex, having to do with Hollywood’s shifting economic model, but they boil down to basic maths. While the number of Oscars to hand out remains constant (24), the number of potential films to chose from – which is to say, dramas with gravitas that score highly with critics and audiences – shrinks slightly every year, as Hollywood chases “Star Wars III” and “Spiderman 4”. Which means the Academy has had to hunt slightly further afield than they would normally like, whether that means going indie (“The Hurt Locker”), going genre (“The Departed”, “No Country for Old Men”), heading overseas (“The Artist”), or softening objections to arthouse neobrutalism in the name of a good cause (“12 Years a Slave”).
None of those winners is what you might call a typical “Oscar movie”. It’s not because the Academy has gotten hipper. This year’s controversy over the whiteness of the Oscars, which resulted in a promise by the Academy’s president to rejuvenate membership, only told us what we already know: that the preponderance of the Academy’s 6,000 members are white, male and over 60. If someone were to make “Gandhi” today they would be all over it in a second. Hence the forces of fogeyishnes that propelled “The King’s Speech” and “Argo” to their wins. The preferential ballot favours consensus choices over polarisers: it’s not enough to be the number-one pick of a group of passionate supporters, you must also collect enough number-two and number-three picks on everybody else’s ballot.
The brutality of “The Revenant” is the sticking point here. Traditionally viscera cuts against gravitas, although again, Best Picture winners like “The Departed” and “12 Years a Slave” have loosened the Academy up a little. They owed Scorsese “The Departed”, and “12 Years A Slave” had the historical weight of its subject matter. Is the fact that “The Revenant” is a Western, like “No Country”, sufficiently reassuring? If not then the field is open for either “The Big Short” or “Spotlight”, our original front-runner. “The Big Short” won big at the PGAs, which has predicted the eventual Best Picture winner all eight times that it has voted since adopting the same preferential ballot as the Oscars. It’s not hard to see why this film, about a band of unlikely renegades betting against the money markets, was popular with producers: that’s a pretty good description of their job. But the film’s blackly satirical, snarky tone slightly thwarts the gravitas requirements. The Academy wants its moral lessons served up in neater, squarer boxes.
Which is where “Spotlight” comes in. For some critics, myself included, Tom McCarthy’s film is scrupulous but a little underdeveloped dramatically: we never felt the Church’s wrath. The sleeping giant never awoke. But there’s no denying the power of its victims’ testimonials. Of all the contenders, “Spotlight” has the warmest emotional current. The only problem is that it looks set to win only one other Oscar, for Best Original Screenplay, which would make it the lowest-yield Best Picture winner in history. Is Hollywood ready for this, the anti-sweep? At this stage, I have “The Revenant” ahead by a nose, but check back on the 25th for my final predictions in all 24 categories.
The Oscars February 28th