Tuesday, July 23, 2024

The Surprising Oscar Shut Out Of “Elvis”

Elvis” has left the building… empty-handed. While the dominance and history-making performance of Best Picture winner “Everything Everywhere All at Once” is no doubt the main headline of the night from Sunday, “Elvis” is looming large in the minds of Oscar predictors since it finished the season with zero Oscars despite being widely predicted to win a handful in the conventional wisdom.

Looking at NBP odds alone, “Elvis” was predicted to win three Oscars: Best Actor, Best Costume Design, and Best Makeup & Hairstyling. Not only that, but it was in second place in Best Cinematography and Best Production Design. In fact, I wrote a few weeks ago about the possibilities of “maxing out” for different films; a large impetus behind this article was the possibility of an “Elvis” overperformance, in which case it could leave the night with as many as these five wins. With this kind of potential heading into Oscar night, a lot of prediction sheets (including mine!) were spoiled significantly due to “Elvis‘” underperformance alone. Let’s take a look at the losses in these categories and then place this shocking shutout in the context of recent history.

Going into the ceremony, you would have had to really squint at the rest of the season leading up to it in order to find justifiable red flags for “Elvis.” Simply, it was a year-long success. A Best Picture nominee, eight nominations, guild success, nine BAFTA nominations, impressive box office numbers… the picture was a very positive one.

The first of the red flags, though, came six categories in on Sunday night, with Best Cinematography. Mandy Walker’s work was a solidly predicted runner-up- but a runner-up nonetheless- and history would have to wait for her as “All Quiet on the Western Front” picked up its first Oscar of four. The very next award was Makeup & Hairstyling, and it looked like “Elvis” would be on the board right on schedule. Most predicted “Elvis” to win thanks to solid guild showings and precursor wins at CCA and BAFTA, though “The Whale” was the spoiler in the conventional wisdom. And spoil it did! “The Whale” picked up its first Oscar of the night and seemingly dented “Elvis‘” chances in the Best Actor race to come. Two chances, two misses.

Best Costume Design immediately followed, and the picture only grew dimmer for “Elvis.” In something of a surprise, Ruth E. Carter won this category for “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.” While no one at NBP predicted this (in fact, everyone had unanimously predicted “Elvis“), Ben Zauzmer’s mathematical model at The Hollywood Reporter actually did, with a more than 10 percent higher probability than “Elvis,” the runner-up. I had skeptically shrugged that off when I first saw it but had to follow up after it proved correct. I asked him Monday morning what had given him (or rather, his model) such confidence in “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” despite a CDG loss and no BAFTA nomination. He credited “lesser-followed precursors (like those from individual cities’ critics’ associations)” for giving it the edge in the model. In any case, “Elvis” was looking at shakier prospects for wins, especially since, at this point, it was clear it was not in the Academy’s favor in quite the way many thought.

It eventually lost Best Production Design, not to the predicted frontrunner “Babylon,” but instead to the darkest of dark horses, “All Quiet on the Western Front” in a true head-scratcher. Best Sound followed later in the evening, which went to “Top Gun: Maverick,” though “Elvis” was more of an outside contender. The story repeated in Best Film Editing (the one technical win in the “Everything Everywhere All at Once” sweep), and just like that, the last legitimate stand was Best Actor. If it wasn’t clear earlier in the night as “Elvis” lost below the line, and narrative-driven campaigns like that of Jamie Lee Curtis got the gold, it definitely was now that Austin Butler was not in a position to win a sole award for the film. Brendan Fraser took the stage as an Oscar winner, and “Elvis,” not expecting to contend in Best Picture realistically, turned out its empty pockets and closed the book on the season without any Oscars at all.

The Banshees of Inisherin” may have been the biggest loser by the numbers (zero wins in nine nominations), “The Fabelmans,” “TAR,” and “Triangle of Sadness” also joined the club of empty-handed Best Picture nominees. But “Elvis” felt like the biggest loser compared to expectations going in. A little better luck could have thrusted “Elvis” into second in the win tally, with little stress on the imagination. Its ceiling was notably high (as I and others wrote), but few truly imagined its floor to be zero.

There have been few shutouts as surprising as this one (and as damaging to predictions! I’m not salty!!) in recent memory. In an effort to quantify the expectation of winning at least one Oscar, I have looked back at the last decade of Oscar ceremonies using the historical combined predictions at Goldderby (an awards prediction website with a backlog of predicted winners and odds). I have also made a distinction between “competitive” and “noncompetitive” nominations, where “competitive” is defined as being ranked first or second in the odds. This helps to distinguish films like “Elvis” (which was ranked first in three categories and second in two more for a total of five “competitive” nominations) from those like the infamous showing of 2019’s “The Irishman,” which was “competitive” in only one of its ten nominations. That is to say, “Elvis” could have realistically won five Oscars, which makes it a quantifiably more surprising shutout than “The Irishman,” despite its higher nomination total; “The Irishman” was widely celebrated but was not really in realistic contention (barring true, genuine upsets beyond the runner-up) for almost all of its nominations.

The most recent rival to “Elvis” as far as surprise shutouts go actually occurred on the very same night: “The Banshees of Inisherin” went home empty-handed across nine nominations, with four “competitive” nominations (one of which, Kerry Condon’s bid in Best Supporting Actress, was ranked first in the odds). Before that, the last surprise shutout was just a couple of years ago, when “The Trial of the Chicago 7” went zero-for-six back in 2020. Of those six nominations, there were four competitive categories where it was ranked second in the odds, including Best Picture. For those who remember that season, that may even be misleading; three of those races went comfortably and expectedly to other films, and I would argue Best Film Editing was really the only one it had a good chance of winning. “The Irishman’s” historic winless night was the year prior. Still, beyond that, you have to go back to “Lady Bird” in 2017 to find another shutout with at least a few competitive nominations (though the two acting nominations were also major longshots in a full-sweep season in the acting categories, despite being ranked second in the odds).

As far as genuine challengers to “Elvis” in the most surprising shutout realm, the only real rival (other than “The Banshees of Inisherin“) in the last decade was “American Hustle” at the 86th Academy Awards in 2013. “American Hustle” co-led nominations that year- both it and “Gravity” garnered ten nominations. The tale of these two films couldn’t have been different when it came to converting those nominations into wins: “Gravity” racked up seven wins (the highest win total in recent memory until “Everything Everywhere All at Once” tied that on Sunday!), and “American Hustle” went home with not a single Oscar. Going zero-for-ten is rough enough, but it was even worse: four of these ten nominations were competitive by this standard (all ranked second in the odds). Though even this is misleading, to some extent: even being generous, only two of these four were closer than proper runaway status between it and the eventual winners.

With a plausible ceiling of five wins, “Elvis‘” shutout on Sunday night is really as surprising as it gets. In fact, only one of the films I looked at in the past decade had a single 1st place prediction that went unfulfilled (again, “The Banshees of Inisherin” had one)- “Elvis” had three! Add on the two other competitive ones, and “Elvis‘” Oscar result stings worse than any other by this measure in the past decade. Admittedly this way of looking at it is a bit back-of-the-napkin, but when the art of prediction is such an unconfirmable thing (we don’t really ever know who was in 2nd, 3rd, etc., or how close margins are in the end), I wanted to quantify the shock of this result in some way, and I think this paints a fairly appropriate picture. You’re not alone if your Oscar predictions this year were demolished by “Elvis.” It really was as surprising as it felt!

What shut out from the Oscars was the biggest shocker for you? Do you think “Elvis” deserved to walk away with at least one Oscar? If so, which award would you have given it? Please let us know in the comments section below or over on our Twitter account. Thank you!

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

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