Wednesday, September 28, 2022

How “Three Billboards” Became The Frontrunner This Awards Season

By Ryan C. Showers

Back in October, Next Best Picture EIC Matt Neglia went on record presenting a theory showing that, at that point, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” was a smart pick when predicting the Best Picture win. Before it was even released theatrically, it had components that would shape into a favorable Oscar narrative: appropriate festival respect with its TIFF Audience Award win; realistic projection of other wins in Lead Actress, Supporting Actor, and Original Screenplay to accompany its Picture win; popular support from critics and audiences; and its social and cultural relevance.

​Once the ball got rolling and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” hit theaters, it was welcomed to more divisive reactions than expected. To win Best Picture in the new era of the Academy Awards, one thing you can’t be is divisive. The Best Picture winner under the preferential system has to be a consensus pick and one that has no enemies. You have to be “Moonlight” and “Spotlight,” not “La La Land” or “The Revenant.” The latter two films won more awards at their respective Oscar ceremonies than the former two Best Picture-winning films, the BAFTA award for Best Film, the Golden Globe for Best Picture, and won several of the big eight categories a Best Picture title usually wins. In short, had the Academy been using the plurality system where the film that the majority of people pick as their number one movie is the winner would be the Best Picture winner, “The Revenant” and “La La Land” would have likely prevailed over “Moonlight” and “Spotlight.”

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” has proven to be anything but a unifying movie. That being said, it has been the one constant force this award season. It performed consistently with critics associations across the board. The Hollywood Foreign Press went crazy for it, awarding four Golden Globe wins, after six nominations. The Screen Actors Guild nominated the two shoo-in actors, Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell, as well as a surprise nomination for Woody Harrelson. The film also landed a necessary Cast Ensemble nomination needed for a film to be taken seriously in Best Picture talks.  

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” also hit the Producers Guild, AFI Awards, Makeup & Hairstylist Guild, Art Direction Guild, and ACE Eddie Guild. (It was ineligible for the Writers Guild Awards, thus it doesn’t contend there.) Just yesterday, it received a staggering nine BAFTA nominations, hitting Best Film, British Film, Director, Original Screenplay, Editing, Cinematography, and three acting nominations. The only big precursor it missed was the National Board of Review. No other film is in a position with unanimous broad support such as it.

Despite all of this, it hasn’t been in the conversation as a threatening contender recently. For many weeks, most of us assumed it would win *something* as a way to reward the film itself, but no one has been buzzing about it the way they have “The Post,” which has proven to be the biggest failure thus far in guild nominations despite its nature as a tailor-made Best Picture winner; “Lady Bird,” which many consider the consensus pick of the year, but it lacks endless categories it can be nominated or for; “The Shape of Water,” which will likely lead in the nomination total as a technical achievement film, yet it failed to earn a SAG ensemble nomination; and “Get Out,” the critical hit that steam-rolled through precursor awards but will likely suffer from genre bias once the Academy gets involved.

​Many people have assumed “Lady Bird” will win Best Picture since it is the film everyone can most agree upon, that it’s this year’s “Spotlight” and “Moonlight.” It’s difficult to imagine many members of the Academy ranking it below the number three slot on their ballot. Meanwhile, most believe “The Shape of Water” would be the movie that would win Best Picture had we been under the old system where the majority’s favorite wins the trophy. Personally, I have not bought this argument, which mostly stems from the fact the “The Shape of Water” will lead in having the most nominations of any film, but I’ve played along.

That all changes now. It all makes sense. The success “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” found at the Golden Globes clarified its role in this award season: it’s the “La La Land” and “The Revenant” of this year, not “The Shape of Water.”

It’s easy to assign “The Shape of Water” as the next “The Revenant” and “La La Land” due to the visual splendor and atmospheric uniqueness. But look at this “plurality” position not as the film that succeeds on technical merits, but simply the film that would have won under a plurality voting system. In a pre-preferential voting system, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” would likely be the film to win Best Picture. It won the TIFF, was a hit with the guilds, dominated the Golden Globes, and overperformed at the BAFTA nominations. It’s the one common denominator film that keeps showing up as having support everywhere and people respond to whatever the film’s cultural and social messages or simply the audacious writing and acting.

Looking ahead to the next important award season milestones, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” has prospects to continue displays of support. It’s most likely going to win the SAG Guild Cast Ensemble award (An easy way to win Best Picture, at least historically). McDormand is likely to win Best Actress at SAG, too. In fact, there’s a chance it could sweep its SAG categories if Rockwell wins, which is more of a possibility than most are believing right now. Next will come Producers Guild Awards, which it is in the running for, along with “The Shape of Water” and “Lady Bird.” If it is, in fact, a popular film with the majority of people, despite dividing others, it could find success at the PGA.

After its nine BAFTA nominations, which is an impressive amount for a contemporary comedic film set in the Midwest, it’s positioned by circumstances (Auch as competition, politics, etc.) to slay there and gather up, possibly, the same awards it did at the Golden Globes. In fact, there’s a real chance it wins Best Film at the BAFTAs. It is, after all, nominated in Best Film and Outstanding British Film, and has its roots in Martin McDonagh, a British writer, and director. BAFTA will likely reward him with Best Original Screenplay.

I’m not saying it’s going to win Best Picture at the Oscars. It won’t. However, the other places “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” does win will reflect the popularity it would feel as the plurality winner if we were still under such a system. Actually, this puts into perspective many outstanding questions about races that prior to Sunday night did not have a clear frontrunner.

Best Actress was (And some would argue still is) an unsolved mystery. Then McDormand’s name was called at the Golden Globes. This wouldn’t have to mean much, except McDormand will likely win SAG. (It’s the type of role SAG will go for, in addition to SAG being a group that has shown their liking for McDormand in the past.) She makes sense as the Oscar winner this year in ways Saoirse Ronan and Sally Hawkins do not. Enough time has passed since her win for “Fargo” – 21 years – for her as a veteran to take on a second Oscar. The role fits McDormand like a glove and it’s a character that is unlike many characters before. If there’s one uniting aspect of the film, it’s a general liking of McDormand’s intense and intimidating performance that’s given proper exposure thanks to the spit-fire dialogue. If she wins at SAG, it would be my prediction to call the Best Actress Oscar signed, sealed, and delivered.

Rockwell surprised many pundits by winning the Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor this past week. I was predicting him because of the nature of the role: there is a transformative aspect to it, it’s a big performance that screams for attention physically and emotionally, and his character has a mighty arc. That’s a lot to stack up against a subtle exchange by a veteran Willem Dafoe in “The Florida Project,” a film that has earned no other nomination from the Golden Globes, SAG, or BAFTA other than Best Supporting Actor. Dafoe captured the hearts and minds of critics and critic associations, but Rockwell’s Golden Globe win proves he is ready to put up a fight. If the Academy responds to “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” in a memorable way, this is another category that could be swept up in the plurality street credit “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” may have. If Rockwell beats Dafoe at SAG or BAFTA, he will be closer and closer to the Oscar.

Another category whose fate is still being debated is Best Original Screenplay. Now, just calm down before you start throwing the words “Gerwig” and “Peele” at me and hear my theory out. Yes, I know these two have more or less dominated the critics circuit and the conversation as breakout filmmakers for “Lady Bird” and “Get Out.” But think like Academy members. “Get Out” is probably not winning many Oscars. Fans of the film should take solace in the idea that it’s probably going to be nominated. Though the Academy has introduced new, younger, more diverse members, the majority of the Academy is the one we all know and love. They typically do not nominate horror films and only rarely nominate satirical comedies, so the logic that a hybrid of two would be on their radar doesn’t really make sense, not when there are movies in the category that are tonally more in the Academy’s wheelhouse.

Best Original Screenplay could come down to a race between “Lady Bird” and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.” If the love for “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” really is as strong as indicated, it could come to fruition in this category. While both screenplays are filled to the brim with eccentrically drawn characters and colorful, attention-grabbing dialogue, the thing that “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” has over “Lady Bird” is more development in its plot, facets of the script that make the audience notice the writing (Like the three letter-reading scenes), and statement about the climate of our culture in 2017. “Lady Bird,” on the other hand, is so relatable in deeply personal ways, it’s scary. The race is reminiscent of 2014 where “Birdman,” with bigger characters and a more palpable tone, many would argue begrudgingly, beat out “Boyhood,” a film whose strength was found in almost resembling real life. “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” could be to “Birdman” as “Lady Bird” is to “Boyhood.”

Because all three are not in the running for the Writers Guild Awards, we won’t really know how the writers in the industry vote between “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” “Lady Bird,” and “Get Out” before Oscar night. But, if McDonagh wins the BAFTA award (Which is likely considering “Lady Bird” and “Get Out” underperformed with BAFTA) after winning the Golden Globe, it will be hard to argue against him winning the Oscar. And if “Lady Bird” fails to win the WGA to “Get Out,” that could show weakness for “Lady Bird” in writing within the industry who may be voting for the Oscars, again giving the edge to “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.”

In summary, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” is the one serious film that is hitting every mark this season. Especially if it wins at SAG and BAFTA, both of which I think is highly likely, the film could deliver a durability in several Oscar categories, even if its divisive nature will prevent it from winning Best Picture overall in the vein of “La La Land” and “The Revenant.” Under the old system, it may have won Best Picture, and along with it, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Original Screenplay. Think of it in terms of a Best Picture winner like “Million Dollar Baby:” a contemporary film made by and with industry names that wins Best Picture using strength among the above-the-line categories. Those latter three categories aren’t voted on using the preferential ballot, only Best Picture, which is in the film’s favor. People are resisting “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” position in the race because of controversial opinions about it or acquiescing to the way critics have painted the race thus far, but the film may hold the key to answers in Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Original Screenplay categories. Time will tell.

You can follow Ryan and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @RyanCShowers

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