Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Clarity & Suspense Heading Into The 96th Academy Awards

Not all of the 23 Oscar categories have a predetermined outcome before the actual Oscar night on March 10th. But when it comes to the eight biggest categories, more of them feel decided than most any other year in this era. With the exception of Best Actress, and maybe Best Adapted Screenplay unless the USC Scripter Awards finished sealing it for “American Fiction,” almost all above-the-line categories already decided a winner weeks if not months ago – which is a far cry from most any other year.

It is certainly different from last year, although the end result was the most lopsided of all time when “Everything Everywhere All at Once” won a record six above-the-line categories. Yet it hides the fact that at least five of the eight significant races were a nailbiter before the winner was announced. Although Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Supporting Actor were incredibly predictable by Oscar night, Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress were a two or three-person race, Best Actress was a 50-50 showdown between Cate Blanchett and Michelle Yeoh, Best Original Screenplay was 50-50 between “Everything Everywhere All at Once” and “The Banshees of Inisherin” – if only because most thought “The Banshees of Inisherin” would win at least one Oscar somewhere – and Best Adapted Screenplay put the seemingly fading “Women Talking” against the hard-charging “All Quiet on the Western Front.” The outcome may have been a total sweep, and the signs were certainly there in retrospect that it would be. Nonetheless, it was a night full of suspense to see just how much more “Everything Everywhere All at Once” would win along with Best Picture and Best Director – which is certainly not the case this year when it comes to “Oppenheimer.”

As it stands, 2021 was the last year in which Best Picture was in doubt before the ceremony. Even though “CODA” had already surged to become the last-minute favorite over “The Power of the Dog,” Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay were still a down-to-the-wire race between the two. Best Actress and Best Original Screenplay were also very much up in the air until the end, which is more than what could be said for Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress.

2020 was more lopsided in Best Picture and Best Director in favor of “Nomadland,” while the supporting categories were locked up early then as well. Yet both the screenplay and lead acting categories were toss-ups before Oscar night – even if the showrunners who aired Best Actor last in anticipation of a Chadwick Boseman win didn’t see Anthony Hopkins’ win coming.

2019 was the last time all four acting races were locked entirely in advance. However, with Best Picture a fight to the end between “Parasite” and “1917,” it also left Best Director and Best Original Screenplay as nail-biters that ultimately tilted the race for “Parasite.” In addition, Best Adapted Screenplay had Greta Gerwig lose frontrunner status late to the writer/director of that year’s TIFF Audience Award winner, in an outcome that may repeat four years later.

Like 2021, 2018 had everyone holding their breath in Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay before a late-charging underdog defeated an early Netflix frontrunner in both – in this case, “Green Book” over “Roma.” Most assumed Best Actress was more a foregone conclusion, yet Olivia Colman beat Glenn Close in the most well-received surprise of the night anyway. Otherwise, almost everyone else won as expected, whether pundits were happy about it or not.

2017 was a photo finish for Best Picture, which made the close races for Best Director, Best Actress, and Best Original Screenplay all the more important. Even better, it made up for Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor and Actress, and Best Adapted Screenplay, being far more predictable. 2016 was the ultimate Best Picture photo finish win for “Moonlight,” although no one really expected that once “La La Land” won Best Director, Best Actress and four other Oscars as predicted. And aside from some late threats for Best Actress and Best Actor, the acting races were fairly by the numbers all season, too. 2015 was a more obviously close Best Picture race between “Spotlight” and “The Revenant,” which made up for how every acting race but Best Supporting Actor was a foregone conclusion, while Best Director was literally a repeat of 2014 in favor of Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu.2014 only had Best Actor in doubt among the acting races, while “Birdman” swept its three seemingly close showdowns with “Boyhood” in Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay. 2013 was a Best Picture toss-up between “12 Years a Slave” and “Gravity,” but little else turned out that way. And while 2012’s Best Picture race was a mess in the early going, “Argo” put a total stranglehold on it late, leaving Best Director, Best Supporting Actor, and maybe Best Actress and Best Original Screenplay with a sliver of late suspense.

2011 may have been the last 2023-like season, as Best Picture was long decided for “The Artist,” and the biggest unresolved question was whether Viola Davis or Meryl Streep would win Best Actress – if not, whether Woody Allen would beat “The Artist” for one last Screenplay Oscar. And like in 2014, 2018, and 2021, a suspenseful Best Picture race was won by an ultimately inevitable late charger – in this case, “The King’s Speech” over “The Social Network” – while the acting races were settled much earlier. But it wasn’t the case in 2009 when “The Hurt Locker” held off “Avatar” in both Best Picture and Best Director, even as most other major favorites could breathe much easier.

Since the preferential ballot era began, there haven’t been many years in which Best Picture was 100 percent locked before the actual final vote. Sometimes, that has helped bail out an Oscar night where most everything else has been locked up. Other times, at least a couple of above-the-line nailbiters have bailed out a suspense-free Best Picture ending – and last year, at least four or five of those did that.

But in 2023, thanks to overwhelming favorites like “Oppenheimer,” Christopher Nolan, Robert Downey Jr, and Da’Vine Joy Randolph, as well as recent near-locks like Cillian Murphy, Best Original Screenplay favorite “Anatomy of a Fall” and Best Adapted Screenplay favorite “American Fiction,” we don’t even have that much to talk and debate about. All we have instead, at least in the Big Eight categories, is the Emma Stone vs. Lily Gladstone final battle in Best Actress and virtually nothing else now.

If this isn’t the most drama-free Oscar night ahead in the last 15 years, at least in the top categories, then it stands to be in the running. Even a “Moonlight” over “La La Land” surprise, or one on par with Colman over Close or Hopkins over Boseman, doesn’t seem to be in the cards right now. But maybe it’s possible “Barbie” shocks “American Fiction” in their first and only head-to-head battle in Adapted Screenplay, or maybe “The Holdovers” is more resilient than it has looked lately in Best Actor and Best Original Screenplay – or maybe Sandra Hüller shocks both Stone and Gladstone like Adrian Brody shocked Daniel Day-Lewis and Jack Nicholson in 2002.

Barring any of that happening, all we have to speculate over in the top eight races is how big “Oppenheimer’s” sweep will get, whether Stone or Gladstone wins their toss-up, and what that outcome may say about the industry/Academy voting body today. In most years lately, there’s a lot more that hasn’t been settled before the envelopes are opened, but this is clearly not one of those years. Maybe we had it so good in recent years, regardless of what the outcomes turned out to be, that a largely locked-in year like this was due. Maybe with such doom and gloom predicted for the 2024 movie year and awards season lineup, something like this will look far better in hindsight, twelve months from now anyway. Either way, since this is the Oscars, there will still likely be no shortage of things we have to talk about, debate, overanalyze, or be overwhelmed or outraged by on the night of March 10th. It’s just that barring something truly out of the blue, none of that will include amazement or argument about the biggest winners, with one exception, if not at most two.

How do you think the Academy Awards will go this Sunday? How many Oscars are you predicting “Oppenheimer” to win? Who is going to win Best Actress? Which categories do you feel are the most secure for a win? Please let us know in the comments section below or on Next Best Picture’s Twitter account. Also, please check out their latest Oscar winner predictions here and the 2023 precursor awards tally here.

You can follow Robert and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars & Film on Twitter at @Robertdoc1984

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