No Direction in the Home Stretch

by Bill Gibron

29 January 2014

Both the DGA and PGA have made this year's Oscar race even more unpredictable, for good and for bad.

That noise you heard over the weekend was the sound of American Hustle‘s juggernaut to a predetermined Oscar night sweep coming to a shocking and sudden halt. Thanks to the Directors Guild of America, and its decision to award Alfonso Cuaron its highest honor as the Best of 2014, the once seemingly closed Academy race is once again wide open, turning the conventional wisdom into a pundit question mark. At this point, it truly seems like anyone’s race. Though certain categories appear locked up (why, oh WHY is everyone simply handing Cate Blanchett the trophy for Best Actress for the Tennessee Williams’ wannabe Blue Jasmine?), Best Picture, and perhaps, other lesser categories, now have at least a three way tie for eventual bragging rights.
The Producers Guild, in an unprecedented move, tied for its acknowledgement of 2013’s topper, with 12 Years a Slave sharing the prize with… you guessed it, Gravity. Earlier, SAG gave American Hustle it’s Best Ensemble award, which most see as a sign of what film is leading the AMPAS’s Best Picture race. Back at the beginning of the month, the Hollywood Foreign Press (who are, granted, less of a bellwether for Oscar glory and more of a self-aggrandizing group of social drinkers) gave Slave and Hustle their Drama and Comedy complements, respectively. For those keeping score, that’s two wins for David O. Russell’s ABSCAM farce, two for Cuaron’s lost in space thriller, and two for Steve McQueen’s unflinching look at America’s racial history.

And for those who make their living interpreting and reinterpreting such otherwise indeterminate data, it looks like the final envelope opened on March 2 will be honest surprise. All of that begs the question, when did 2013 become so erratic? When did it go from every other year—clear-cut front-runners, speculation on what or who has the remotest chance of a last minute upset—to a qualified crapshoot? A mere four months ago, 12 Years a Slave was considered the odds-on favorite to win everything: Picture, Director, Actor, numerous supporting and technical trophies. Now, it appears to be lagging behind everything else in its categories, with only the amazing Lupita Nyong’o seemingly poised to pick up a statue for her stunning work (and, perhaps, John Ridley for his Adapted Screenplay).

Some instantly jump to Slave‘s October release and remind us all—incessantly—that Oscar has the kind of short attention span that even the most flighty teens would find ridiculous. But that doesn’t fly, necessarily, especially when you consider that Ms. Blanchett’s film opened in August. Also, Gravity opened in October as well. There are those who believe Slave‘s unflinching look at the brutality and horrors of its subject matter is costing it votes, with more than a few pointing to Shakespeare in Love‘s win over Saving Private Ryan as proof that the Academy handles excessive violence rather poorly (which explains Schindler’s List, right?) Others are offering the classic “Oscar bait” commentary, pointing to the fact that films like Hustle and Captain Phillips are more in line with AMPAS’s past than something like Slave (though Gravity, as sci-fi, would be even less of a likely Academy given).

In fact, tides like this turn all the time. The year Jeff Bridges walked away with an Oscar for Crazy Heart, everyone thought George Clooney was going to earn yet another award for Up in the Air. But before Paramount could count its eventual wins, that otherwise amazing film was supplanted by The Hurt Locker and it ended up earning exactly as many Academy statues as The Color Purple (read: none). Timing may be everything in comedy, but it also applies in Oscar races. A last minute entry can’t cut it too close—like, say, The Wolf of Wall Street—less it end up losing its potential year-end impact. On the other hand, it’s the rare movie that can be released before September and stay in the Academy’s mind long enough to earn accolades (The Hurt Locker did it, however).

None of this makes the name in the envelope come March 2 any more certain, however. The safe money is on one of those “everyone into the pool”, participants ceremonies where many films win awards with the closest thing to a ‘sweep’ meaning three or more trophies. Gravity should pick up every tech award it is nominated for, with a couple of exceptions, so even if it doesn’t win anything other than Best Director (the DGA is usually pretty good about predicting the eventual Oscar winner), it will probably be the buzz of all the post-ceremony celebrating. In fact, without a strong showing from either Hustle or Slave, this could be Cuaron’s year, so a Best Picture win wouldn’t be out of the question.

Similarly, if we divide the awards up this way—two for Dallas Buyers Club (yes, McConaughey should beat out Chiwetel Ejiofor), one for Her (Spike Jonze’s “thanks for playing” consolation prize) , a nod for Slave‘s Nyong’o, Ms. Blanchett’s given, we could actually see a current supposed front runner—Hustle—eventually walk away with nothing. There is still a month-plus before the trophies are handed out, and even with the SAG win and Golden Globe acknowledgements, David O. Russell’s Oscar chances seem slimmer as the days roll by.

In fact, if any film is regaining ground, it’s Slave. Sure, it might only translate into a couple of more votes for Best Picture, but right now, it seems certain that the Academy will see these three films as the favorites, with the other six simply lucky to be included in the mix (sorry, Philomena). There is still the possibility of a dark horse, an out of left field choice that results - Crash style- - from the splitting of votes or some manner of preplanned backlash. But as of now, the 2013 Oscar for Best Picture appears to be up for grabs. Tell that to everyone back in December and they would be laughing at you. Funny how quickly things—and minds—can change. 

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