Why are people talking about Oscar upsets this year? Because this intensely competitive race --prolonged by the Olympics--could yield some surprises on March 2.
It happens. USA Today surveys ten classic best picture upsets. Among them, natch, were "Crash"'s victory over "Brokeback Mountain" in 2006, "Shakespeare in Love" over favored pick "Saving Private Ryan" in 1999 and the infamous loss of "Citizen Kane" to "How Green Was My Valley" in 1942.
In the first scenario, the steakeaters in the male-dominated Academy weren't ready to go with a gay male romance--all advance signs pointed to a "Brokeback Mountain" victory, while only word-of-mouth among Academy voters favored "Crash." Ang Lee did take home Best Director. Today, with the demo in the Academy slightly shifted and gay marriage more culturally accepted, the outcome might be different.
In the second, "Shakespeare in Love" was a case of a late-breaking Harvey Weinstein push that gained momentum, especially with the dominant actors' branch, overcoming the frontrunner from Steven Spielberg, "Saving Private Ryan." Both were fabulously made period ensembles, but "Shakespeare" was about acting. And Spielberg is often taken for granted. As "Argo" vs. "Lincoln" proved, he can never be the underdog.
Back in the 40s, director John Ford was the top-ranked studio helmer of his day--inside the winner's zone--and "How Green Was My Valley" was the perfect Academy-friendly widely hailed social-action family tearjerker. It helps to remember that "Citizen Kane," from enfant terrible Orson Welles, was the radically innovative indie that year, something akin to "Beasts of the Southern Wild." It was also pummeled in the press by the mighty William Randolph Hearst media machine --fighting back against the film's thinly veiled portrait of the powerful Rupert Murdoch of that era--and was hurt at the box office.
In this year's race, it helps to recognize the difference between a movie that shocks audiences on Oscar night, that did not rack up wins along the way and was not expected to win--like say "Nebraska"--and a field of contenders that spreads a smattering of winners across many categories. I don't think this year will yield a crazy stealth candidate like "Driving Miss Daisy" or "Chariots of Fire," that won in years when so many popular movies were duking it out with voters that a surprise candidate snuck through the middle.
That said, "American Hustle" is still in the game, as its three BAFTA wins proved. Jennifer Lawrence might win that second Oscar after all.
There are some anomalies operating this year. First, the most popular movie, the one that is winning the most awards in the ramp up to the Oscarcast as well as global box office dollars, is "Gravity." But much like 2010, when James Cameron's blockbuster "Avatar" went into the Oscar race with nine nominations, any sci-fi blockbuster is at a disadvantage. That's because snobby Academy members are obsessed with prestige. That year low-budget indie "The Hurt Locker" took home six Oscars including Best Picture and Director while "Avatar" won only three tech statues.
There was also the Kathryn Bigelow factor; the Academy was inspired to award the first woman a Best Director Oscar. This year both Steve McQueen and Alfonso Cuaron would mark firsts if they won, for a black or Latino filmmaker. Black directors John Singleton and Lee Daniels were nominated for "Boyz 'n the Hood" and "Precious," respectively; if "12 Years a Slave" wins Best Picture, McQueen will be the first black producer to accept the award, after five previous nominations. Two Latin American films have won the foreign Oscar, while Brazilian directors Héctor Babenco ("Kiss of the Spider Woman") and Fernando Meirelles ("City of God") and Mexican filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu ("Babel") were nominated for Best Director.
This year too the Academy will likely go with the smaller more artful socially-conscious movie that they admire for Best Picture--even if they don't actually like it--over the popular sci-fi tech-driven entertainment. There's a reason the filmmakers behind "Gravity" keep repeating that the "heart" of the movie is Sandra Bullock. They want to remind voters that more than VFX went into making this movie work. As much as I admire Cate Blanchett, I don't think any other actress could have pulled off Bullock's precise athletic dramatic feat.
But "Gravity"'s vulnerability is revealed by its lack of an Original Screenplay nomination. Oscar night will likely follow a similar pattern to the Critics' Choice and Golden Globes (which split drama and comedy) and the BAFTA Awards. "Gravity" will rack up many wins (including Cinematography, VFX, Score, Sound Mixing and Editing, and Best Director for Alfonso Cuaron), while "12 Years a Slave" will not. Adapted Screenplay is the most likely win for "12 Years a Slave"--- and Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong'o are still in the running--along with Best Picture.
Preferential voting means that we don't know how voters will rank their favorites from one to nine. It's the highest ranked movie across the most ballots, the consensus title, that will win. Something in the top 3 or 4 across 6000 ballots. There could be a large number of one votes for "12 Years a Slave," but more 2, 3 and 4 votes for "Gravity" and "American Hustle." The movie with the most number one votes at the start does not necessarily win. "Captain Phillips," "Dallas Buyers Club," "Philomena" and "Nebraska" should get more votes than "Her" and "The Wolf of Wall Street," which are at the bottom of my Oscar ranking. But the top three will be duking it out.
It's impossible to call, really, except that actors, the dominant branch of the Academy, favor "Hustle," the crafts and tech branches love "Gravity," and "Slave" has support from both. In this case it's the execs, producers, publicists --the most mainstream voters--who may carry the day, and my argument for "Slave" includes them wanting to do the right thing as opposed to voting their favorite movie. That logic suggests that more people will include "Slave" in their top three than any other movie.
Anthony Breznican, in his post-BAFTA analysis, suggests why "Gravity" could take Best Picture. I argue that the reason that "12 Years a Slave" will prevail over all countervailing trends is that the Academy thinks about how they want to be represented to the world. It's not just what movie they like best. It's what movie they want to like best.