Like several other writers on film, I like to predict the Oscars, though I am cautious about predicting too early, it is dangerous and you can look silly very fast. Granted there are times when predicting is easy. Consider Henry Fonda winning the Oscar for On Golden Pond (1981); he was going to win from the moment he was cast, it was a given. His daughter Jane saw the play, bought it for her father, managed to convince Katherine Hepburn to play his wife, she took the role of the estranged daughter and part of their real relationship played out on film. The Academy wanted to make it right with Henry, they wanted to honor him as they should have forty one years earlier for The Grapes of Wrath (1940). When the film was being released there were articles about the casting and the film, discussion of good American breeding (I kid you not), which seemed to further the cause for that elusive Oscar. Of course he won, of course he was going to win from the moment he agreed to be in the film. Had the film been terrible I suspect he would have won.
However there are times, recently when a choice for Best Picture, a so called sure thing movie ends up forgotten come Oscar time, or worse, is nominated, predicted to win, and loses.
It has happened as far back as 1951 when the heavily favored A Streetcar Named Desire was bested by American in Paris, and George Stevens took Best Director for A Place in the Sun over Eila Kazan for A Streetcar Named Desire (1951). The frontrunner since being released, the Kazan film was bounced form the top spot to the shock of everyone watching.
In the fall of 1996, Entertainment Weekly covered the Fox release of The Crucible as their cover story for their annual fall preview edition, one of the most exciting issues published by the magazine world each year. They predicted that The Crucible could conceivably be nominated in every single category and it was without question the film to beat. For one it was an adaptation of one of the greatest plays of the 20th century, it was written by the great Arthur Miller, one of the finest playwrights and now had wrote his screenplay for his film, and finally it starred Daniel Day-Lewis, Winona Ryder, Joan Allen and Paul Schofield as well as a collection of stage actors, some of the very best. Slated for a December opening, it seemed the Oscar race was over and The Crucible would be crowned come Oscar time.
But then the strangest thing happened. Fox seemed to forget about the film.
Come December it was hard to find a theatre showing The Crucible, impossible actually. It had opened quietly in New York and Los Angeles to rave reviews, and then disappeared out of theaters just as fast as it had opened. When the New York Film Critics voted for their annual awards, Daniel Day-Lewis was runner up for Best Actor for The Crucible, which fueled hope for the Oscars, but come nomination day it received just two nominations, Supporting Actress for Joan Allen and Miller for his screenplay, nothing else.
The summer of 1998 saw Steven Spielberg unleash his war epic Saving Private Ryan (1998) on us, and war cinema has never been the same. I first saw the film at an 8 am screening and remember being stunned, speechless at the end of the film. Very few films have hit me with such raw visceral power as did this one, you knew as the film unspooled into the projector you were seeing a masterpiece. We critics never speak much to each other, but that morning we did. The film was a huge critical success and audiences loved it making it a startling surprise. How can it lose Best Picture we ask and come Oscar night it wins Best Film Editing, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound, Best Cinematography and then Best Director for Spielberg, setting the stage for the crowning by Harrison Ford who strides out with the envelope for Best Picture. The only problem is the three words on the card are Shakespeare in Love (1998) not Saving Private Ryan (1998). How on earth does the best cut, shot, sounding and directed film LOSE Best Picture! Campaigning, plain and simple, and Harvey Weinstein and Miramax altered the course of the Oscars with their campaigning strategies. Dreamworks learned and would win the next three Best Picture awards, but Spielberg was severely stung by losing this one…it made clear a sure thing is no longer a sure thing.
Another film expected to be an Oscar winner before anyone had seen a single frame was Munich (2005) directed by Steven Spielberg. His War of the Worlds (2005) had dominated the summer box office, a superb 9-11 allegory with powerhouse performances and terrifying scenes of destruction. His winter film, Munich (2005) would deal with the 1972 Munich Olympics slaughter and the revenge of the country on the terrorists who killed their athletes. Oscar writers hailed the film as the year’s best a year in advance, predicting Oscars all round. No other film could top Munich (2005) it seemed, not Brokeback Mountain (2005), nor King Kong (2005), Munich (2005) was going to win Spielberg his third Oscar and second Best Picture award. Cover stories in Time Magazine seemed to make clear this was the year’s best film, and indeed, many critics felt such, as the picture earned rave reviews (including from me). Yet nomination day it was nominated for just five Oscars, though Best Picture and Director were among them. Awards night it went home empty handed, again proving, predicting too early is dangerous.
Spielberg suffered the same fate with Lincoln (2012) a magnificent film about the 16th US President which won Daniel Day-Lewis his record breaking third Oscar for Best Actor, and an award for Art Direction, but nothing else despite leading the race with 12 nominations. Did anyone see the film losing…not me?
Over the years some of the most highly touted films were expected to win, Reds (1981), Apollo 13 (1995), even Traffic (2000) only to fall victim to another film, sometimes a lesser picture.
Movies can lose momentum, they may open strong and stay strong which can often lead to a backlash as critics re-consider their feelings about the picture. There may be a scandal which can ruin Oscar chances (ask Nate Parker) or something that happens to take attention away from the movie.
So, we know it happens, predicting too early can prove dangerous, or make you look brilliant. This year it looks like La La Land could be the big winner, but I am loath to say because we have not yet seen everything coming. Love predicting and love it more when I am right, or a good friend defies the odds and nails it. William Goldman once said No one knows anything and after the debacle of Shakespeare in Love (1998) besting the war masterpiece Saving Private Ryan (1998) I am inclined to agree.