Sometimes we overestimate the power of momentum when it comes to an Oscar telecast. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri started the night on the right foot, and wasn’t heard of again for hours. Get Out was nominated for four awards, but none of those categories even showed up for over two and a half hours. And in the meantime, Dunkirk took enough technical awards to make it seem like it might steal a few more awards than some might have thought. But at the same time, the three categories Dunkirk won (both Sound categories and Editing) weren’t exactly unexpected. But the order they are awarded creates some perhaps undue or unsupported expectations.
It’s not like these people are voting in real time, folks.
It was fair to assume Three Billboards would be a juggernaut. Even though The Shape of Water led the field with 13 nominations and did well with the guilds, it was tough to imagine the “weird fish sex” movie would be a real contender at the world’s stodgiest awards ceremony, even if things have loosened up a bit in the last few years. Three Billboards won big at the Golden Globes, the SAG Awards and the BAFTAs, likely the three most high profile awards ceremonies prior to the big one. And it won the traditional first award of the night, Best Supporting Actor.
And then, of course, the weird fish sex movie won the big one.
The Shape of Water’s path to Oscar glory was arguably an odd one from the beginning, a monster movie/melodrama genre mashup starring two main characters who can’t talk isn’t exactly Dances with Wolves or The English Patient over here. And its night leading up to snagging two huge awards wasn’t particularly awe-inspiring, taking expected awards in Production Design and Score (poor Jonny Greenwood), while Three Billboards was winning acting awards and Dunkirk took honors in the Sound and Cinematography categories that gave it a sense of momentum that the fish film lacked. So watching the ceremony makes you think that Dunkirk might have sneakily stolen The Shape of Water’s position as front-runner leading up to the big categories (it was second in overall nominations, after all). Maybe this would be Christopher Nolan’s opportunity to win Best Director after all. And yet, at the end of the night, The Shape of Water’s cast and crew stood on stage with the highest honor. In the end, this Oscars wasn’t exactly filled with surprises. The elder statesmen waiting for their first statue (Roger Deakins, James Ivory, Gary Oldman) won. The young upstart contingent got a win in the form of Jordan Peele’s Original Screenplay Oscar. The war movie won all the sound and editing awards. It’s the sort of situation where, if you were to write out an expected script prior to tonight’s telecast, you probably wouldn’t be that far off from the reality.
But during the night, it was easy to forget that, which at least succeeded in making things exciting in the short run, even if looking back everything pretty much went as expected. Mad Max: Fury Road is probably the best example of this phenomenon, winning all sorts of technical awards in the first two hours of the telecast, assaulting the stage with all manner of swarthy George Miller acolytes that made you believe the entire Academy had drank the Mad Max Kool Aid (or Mother’s Milk, as it were). But when the big categories came along, it was all about The Revenant and Spotlight, reminding us that the technical categories might not be as important in the prediction game as we might think. It’s so easy to imagine that when you see the name read so many times, but it’s just as easy to forget what it all means in the larger context of strategic Oscar voting. It’s been quite a long time since we’ve had a real juggernaut performance from a film that ended up winning Best Picture (you could argue the last was The Hurt Locker, which won 6 of its 9 nominated categories). To whit, here’s a breakdown of the Best Picture winners this millennium and how many statues each film won in total:
2017 - The Shape of Water - 4
2016 - Moonlight - 3
2015 - Spotlight - 2
2014 - Birdman - 4
2013 - 12 Years a Slave - 3
2012 - Argo - 3
2011 - The Artist - 5
2010 - The King's Speech - 4
2009 - The Hurt Locker - 6
2008 - Slumdog Millionaire - 8
2007 - No Country for Old Men - 4
2006 - The Departed - 4
2005 - Crash - 3
2004 - Million Dollar Baby - 4
2003 - The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King - 11 (clean sweep)
2002 - Chicago - 6
2001 - A Beautiful Mind - 4
The days of one movie running away with everything are dead, it seems, perhaps tied to the move to open up the Best Picture category in 2009. In this modern era, only The Artist and The Hurt Locker won more than four statues while taking Best Picture. And hell, Mad Max: Fury Road, with its six wins, stands toe to toe with all of them as far as raw wins are concerned. It points to a desire to spread the wealth and use some of the smaller awards as consolation prizes for films that are well-loved but not quite well-loved enough to win the big one. The biggest awards (the four acting categories and Best Picture) usually aren’t susceptible to this phenomenon, but technical categories, screenplay categories and Director have become the opportunities to spread the wealth and make some statements. You can’t spread all the wealth, which leads to movies like Lady Bird and The Florida Project getting shut out and Phantom Thread only receiving a win for Costume Design (and a Jet Ski), but it would be just as easy to imagine The Shape of Water winning for screenplay (and editing and sound) in the olden days, denying Jordan Peele the opportunity to get his.
It’s perhaps a bit cynical to think of things in that opportunistic sort of way, but it’s also heartening to see the evolution of the way the Academy hands out awards. There was a time where it would be tough to imagine a movie winning Best Picture without also winning Best Editing (or at least being nominated). But the Academy is getting more comfortable with widening that perspective, leading to some truly deserving films like The Social Network and Whiplash (and good old Mad Max: Fury Road) getting the prize. And maybe some day, an Edgar Wright film will take home the Editing Oscar. It seems like we’re in a world where that’s possible now. And that’s pretty exciting, even if we’re not always surprised by the outcomes these days.