Don't Peg an Oscar Frontrunner Yet - Haven't We Learned Anything?
by Joey Magidson
September 17, 2013
Almost without fail, when I get asked about the Oscar race, regardless of what point in the year it currently is, the questions always surround what's going to win Best Picture. Folks want to at least know what the frontrunner is, if not what film is definitely taking home the Academy Award next March. This year, I've mostly refused to play that game, and I'll tell you why - because of last year's Oscars. The way that race went should be evidence enough that no film is a frontrunner right now, even something as universally beloved as 12 Years a Slave. I'm right there with everyone else. Steve McQueen's film is a tremendous film, easily one of the best of 2013 so far and a near lock for my personal Top Ten list at the end of the year.
Still, 12 Years a Slave hardly fits the MO of a standard issue Best Picture winner. You see, sometimes it's not about why the movie is so good, but why it might be a hard sell for the Academy to vote for in the end.
Look at Ben Affleck's Argo last year? Beyond being a great film (my favorite of 2012, actually), it had the benefit of not having anything really to hold it back in terms of content. Not everyone felt that it was a masterpiece, but almost no one found anything in it that would keep an Academy member from selecting it. I'll get into the way the race evolved last year shortly, but being easy to like and breezy to watch is often a winning formula for Best Picture.
In terms of 12 Years a Slave, besides containing some graphic violence, male nudity (a real sticking point for the Academy), and an often bleak tone, the film doesn't focus on a Caucasian overcoming adversity. It's not a nice thought, but it's the truth. The Academy rarely embraces African American centered films. Many have compared McQueen's movie to Schindler's List as a way to show how the flick can overcome its tough subject matter, and while there are certainly similarities (especially how Michael Fassbender could lose Best Supporting Actor like Ralph Fiennes did for being too evil), the latter film was about World War II, Oscar's favorite subject. They still have a hard time with non Quentin Tarantino depicted slavery.
Maybe the content won't be a problem (though I doubt that and remain skeptical of voters going against their own nature), but there's still the issue of last year showing us how foolish it is to declare the race over. There were so many twists and turns that it was easily one of the least predictable years on record. Argo won out in the end, but even a backer of the Ben Affleck film like myself didn't stick with it the whole time.
Once the precursor awards began, Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty began cleaning up, leading some to move towards that, while of course a decently large bunch thought that Steven Spielberg's Lincoln would eventually win no matter what. While the former lost momentum due to political interference, the latter was emboldened when Affleck missed out on a Best Director nomination. Argo was done, right?
Folks thought the race would ultimately be between Ang Lee's Life of Pi, Lincoln, and David O. Russell's crowd pleasing Silver Linings Playbook. Then, a funny thing happened... Argo started winning just about every award left. Was it pity for Affleck? Was it the various guilds wanting to turn the race back towards Argo? Was it just the way things might go from now on due to changes in voting? Regardless, it signaled a new day where you really can't jump the gun on frontrunners and declare the race over, or at the very least shouldn't be making those kind of claims this early on.
As an Oscar prognosticator, I'm essentially paid to guess. That being said, I'm also sort of supposed to be a professional skeptic. I can vouch for how amazing McQueen's movie is, how tremendous the performances of Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender are, and how it deserves tons of accolades, but I also have to try to poke holes in its Best Picture candidacy. Last year that was hard to do with Argo, but this year it's not so hard to do with this "frontrunner".
12 Years a Slave still could win Best Picture like Argo did (winning the Audience Award at Toronto is a big get for it and should help build momentum), but I can all but guarantee that it'll spend a portion of the season taking a back seat to a film that's easier for voters to digest. That's just almost always the name of the game. Could it be Russell's American Hustle? George Clooney's The Monuments Men? Something a little more surprising like Ben Stiller's The Secret Life of Walter Mitty? That all remains to be seen, but calling anything the frontrunner in September just sets folks up for disappointment as the months progress.