The Big Ones
Oscar prognosticators seem to say this every year, but I truly believe that this is one of the closest races in recent memory (except for the lead acting categories). In almost every race, there are at least two very strong contenders, either of which I could easily predict for the win. I’ve never been this unsure about my picks (there have been years where I’ve purposefully gone out on a limb to call a long shot, but I at least knew who the favorite was – not this year).
No two categories are more distressing for me at the moment than the two big ones – Best Picture and Best Directing. And in recent years, the two have not gone hand-in-hand as much as in the past.
This year, the Best Picture race comes down to intellect vs. emotion, which isn’t to say that Million Dollar Baby doesn’t appeal to people on an intellectual basis or that The Aviator is without a heart. But it seems that most of The Aviator’s supporters “appreciate” its artistry and technical prowess whereas Million dollar Baby’s fans are “touched” by its humanity and heart wrenching drama. Both methods of impacting the audience have worked for Best Picture winners in the past (it’s hard to judge which has worked better). On paper, The Aviator seems to have everything going for it according to trends and rules (everything except that pesky DGA Award). But predicting the Academy Awards is about more than science – after all, it is The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. So we can’t forget the “Arts” part of the equation. There’s an intangible feeling surrounding Million Dollar Baby that has inspired most Oscar prognosticators to shift it from potential spoiler to the frontrunner.
This is something unique in my decade-or-so-long history of following the Awards.
Many have been comparing this year’s race to 1998 when Shakespeare in Love defeated Saving Private Ryan (analogizing Baby to Shakespeare and Aviator to Private Ryan), but there are few notable problems with that theory. For starters, I’m not sure that Shakespeare ever achieved the frontrunner status that Baby now has. Many (including myself) were saying that it had a very good shot at upsetting Private Ryan, but few were actually willing to go on the record and predict it to win (as I recall – memory can be a fuzzy thing). Also, Shakespeare had more total nominations than Private Ryan, which is not true of Baby. Shakespeare had a no-name director (well, it was a famous name, but for a different man) with no significant body of work who lost the DGA Award to the other guy – again, not true of Baby. And speaking of precursors, those went a little different back in 1998: Both Shakespeare and Private Ryan won Golden Globes for Best Picture, which was impossible for Baby and Aviator to repeat this year since they were up against year other in the Drama category; of the nine guild awards, Private Ryan won four and Shakespeare won two – this year, Aviator’s won three while Baby has only picked up one (I’m only counting SAG’s ensemble award, which Shakespeare won and Baby did not). The one important similarity between Shakespeare and Baby is that both had that intangible, in the air feeling of support working for them and building late-season momentum.
There are a few other similar races I could go into where there was a tenuous frontrunner – 1991, 1995 and 2002 – but each seems distinct enough from this year’s match-up that it hardly seems worth it (I wasn’t really on the Oscar beat in 1991, but one major difference is that The Silence of the Lambs swept the Writers, Directors and Producers Guilds; in 1995, Braveheart’s two chief competitors – Apollo 13 and Sense and Sensibility – failed to garner Best Directing nods, effectively crushing their once promising prospects); and in 2002, Chicago was sitting pretty, pretty much up until The Pianist’s three shocking “top-tier” wins).
I do however keep reflecting on 2000, when many were tipping Gladiator to win, but few could actually believe that it was going to be an Academy Award-winning Best Picture. The last minute DGA upset by Ang Lee threw some prognosticators (including yours truly) into a tizzy, I think because we were reaching for some sign that Gladiator couldn’t possibly win (I really enjoyed Gladiator a lot – but come on…). There certainly wasn’t much critical love for Gladiator (a lot of like, but not “like” like) and honestly, I don’t know of anybody outside of the teenage boy set who felt a passionate love for the film.
In my analogy, The Aviator is Gladiator (they even sound alike!) – despite Gladiator’s front-runner status. They’re both the well-respected, big-budgeted, lots-of-nomination-getting films that run somewhat cool on the passion scale (though The Aviator has fared better, I believe). The problem with 2000 as a template for this year is that there was no Million Dollar Baby back then. Chocolat was an amusing trifle, nothing more (despite what Miramax’ marketing would have you believe). Erin Brockovich and Traffic are ruled out, not just because of the Soderbergh split, but because even though both films have their lovers (myself included), I think that love was mostly felt for the brilliant technique whereas Baby’s love is for the characters and the story. Finally there’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (which I had pegged for a win, even though I knew it was a long shot). It had a lot of what Baby has – emotion, the second highest number of nominations, passionate supporters and a DGA win – but it had one thing more: subtitles. And those outweighed everything else.
Still, if Gladiator can win Best Picture, surely The Aviator can. And so, I have to go against the grain and predict The Aviator to win Best Picture. Though you should know, I have a tendency to pick the underdog (pretty much every year except 1998, when I let my love of Spielberg get in the way), so the safest bet for your Oscar pool is probably Million Dollar Baby.
As for Best Directing, I could go through a whole bunch of statistics and historical precedents, but in this category, it really does come down to a gut feeling. Despite the DGA, despite the general consensus in the press that Eastwood is a beloved figure in Hollywood who’s due for (another!) win, despite prevailing predictions to the contrary – I’ve gotta go with Scorsese. Yeah, I thought he’d win in 2002, too, but there was a lot of controversy and backlash then, and besides that, nobody liked Gangs of New York and many hated it.
And I just don’t buy this talk that Eastwood and Scorsese are (directing) legends of equal caliber. Putting personal feelings aside (I’m not a huge fan of either, though I respect both), how many generally accepted “classics” has Eastwood directed? I count one (it’s too early to judge how Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby will be considered in the future). Scorsese’s got three that outrank #98 Unforgiven on the AFI’s Top 100 list (Raging Bull, Taxi Driver and Goodfellas), and some would classify Mean Streets and The Last Temptation of Christ as modern classics.
What really irks me is that I keep reading that Eastwood is arguably one of our greatest living directors. Two back-to-back well-received films does not transform someone into the greatest. Are these people forgetting everything he did between Unforgiven and Mystic River (let me remind them: Blood Work, Space Cowboys, True Crime, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, Absolute Power, The Bridges of Madison County and A Perfect World)? Sure, Scorsese’s had a rough decade or so too (since Goodfellas, he’s made Cape Fear, The Age of Innocence, Casino, Kundun, Bringing Out the Dead and Gangs of New York, as well as a few documentaries), but I think that most of his failures were at least trying for something loftier than Blood Work, and even they have their ardent supporters and garnered some Oscar attention (not including Gangs, those films earned a cumulative twelve nominations to Eastwood’s grand total of one). Okay, this rant is over.
Anyway, I just have a feeling that Scorsese will win out. I feel much better about that prediction than my Best Picture prediction. I’d recommend going for the split in your Oscar pool, with Million Dollar Baby for Best Picture and Scorsese for Best Directing. But don’t blame me if you lose.