The difference between the Academy Awards in 1932 and 2018 is as stark as the difference between baseball in 1932 and baseball now: it’s obviously the same sport just at a glance, but it could hardly be more different in terms of execution, style, and personae. How can one compare the first ceremony, which honored two movies for Best Picture (“Outstanding Picture” and “Best Unique and Artistic Picture,” which is a formula I honestly kind of miss) and a director apiece for comedies and dramas, to the tightly wound ceremonies of the 1980s, where you could assume that the single Best Director would have directed the single Best Picture? Categories have come and gone (au revoir, Academy Awards for Best Dance Direction and Engineering Effects—we hardly knew ye!). We’ve decided to pare down the number of Best Picture nominees to five, decided that created too much controversy, and then jacked the number back up to ten, and now we usually throw eight or nine out there even though we know only one or two have a real shot.
At the 5th Academy Awards, Grand Hotel won “Outstanding Production,” which was the term then in use; there were forty-one nominees in twelve categories. In less than a week, one hundred and twenty-four nominees in twice as many categories will be recognized. We are extremely unlikely to have a tie in any of the acting categories, but Fredric March and Wallace Beery did just that. The Oscar for Best Sound Recording went to the Paramount Publix Studio Sound Department, beating out the teams from RKO, MGM, Warner Bros., and Walt Disney Productions. There were eight nominees for Best Picture, but of the other eleven categories, only Sound Recording and Best Original Story were allotted more than three spots. (Alfred Lunt must have felt pretty weird being the only loser for Best Actor.) For all the weirdness at the 5th Academy Awards, what makes it most famous is the victory of Grand Hotel, which set two marks that night. The first will never be matched at the Oscars: it won Best Picture without being nominated in any other category. Even this is a somewhat bizarre anomaly. There were just three acting nominations for men; had they expanded it to five, as we’re used to now, I find it hard to believe that John Barrymore would have been passed over. There were no nominations for supporting actors and actresses at the 5th Academy Awards, and had there been, I can imagine some combination of Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, and Wallace Beery being nominated; Lionel Barrymore would have won Supporting Actor outright.
The second record that Grand Hotel set follows logically from the first, and it’s one I used to think was equally impossible. (It happened once before, for The Broadway Melody and once after, for Mutiny on the Bounty.) Now it seems merely implausible. I think it is possible for a movie to win Best Picture without winning any of the other awards, and I think that the perfect storm for that award is raining down on us right now. What follows is a hypothetical, not a prediction…and maybe it’s also a hope.
Here’s something I did the math for after Moonlight won Best Picture last year to sate my curiosity about winning percentages of Best Picture winners at the Academy Awards in what I consider to be, more or less, the modern era. This data is probably on the Internet somewhere else in a much neater package, but hey, why use someone else’s work when you could do all the division yourself?
In my opinion, the most interesting thing that chart shows is that in the past seventy years, Best Picture winners have won 393 awards out of 665 nominations, a success rate of about 59.1%. (One is less inclined to include the first twenty, because the Academy Awards were definitely wonky until the ’40s.) The past ten years have, in that context, been about ten percent less successful for the average Best Picture winner; in the past five years, you can see it largely in the missing Best Director wins. The increased drama of the Academy Awards ceremonies has a great deal to do with a likewise increasing democratization in winners. During the late ’50s and early ’60s, movies like The Bridge on the River Kwai, Gigi, Ben-Hur, and West Side Story took all the air out of the room. The last Best Picture to top fifty percent with its nominations was The Hurt Locker, which won for 2009; that’s ancient history anymore. There’s absolutely a trend, though, and it’s one that doesn’t shower winners with oodles of statuettes. In the Best Picture race, the preferential voting system we’ve had since the 82nd Academy Awards (the one with The Hurt Locker and Avatar) may well favor a movie that most Academy members like over one that some Academy members love. La La Land was a fairly polarizing picture; even though we don’t, to the best of my knowledge, have any real data on how the Oscars voting went down, history does show us that Moonlight got fifty percent of the vote before La La Land could. La La Land was the probably the most overwhelming favorite to win Best Picture since Lord of the Rings: Return of the King. And here we are anyway. I don’t think it’s crazy to think that out of the 8,000 members of the Academy there aren’t some people who just don’t care for The Shape of Water and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. A couple weeks ago, the Little Gold Men podcast made the case for Dunkirk to win based on the possibility that four or five movies might be eliminated before any picture gets past the post.
It’s not unprecedented, even before the weirdness of Moonlight overcoming La La Land for the top prize, for a Best Picture winner to only receive five nominations. The Departed did it most recently, and so have Annie Hall and The Greatest Show on Earth. Crash and Ordinary People had six. Since they added the Supporting Actor/Actress categories at the 9th Academy Awards, there is no film that has ever won Best Picture with just four nominations. For this thought experiment to work, though, the movie can’t be nominated too many times; five is good and has some precedent, but four is better. It would be best if it doesn’t have any technical nominations, including the red-letter categories like Cinematography and Editing, because there are so many to choose from and any one could ruin its chances of shooting the moon. It would also help if our prospective one-win winner were surrounded by heavy favorites in those really big categories: the Screenplays, for example, and Director, and the acting categories. It’d be useful if that movie were also released during a time when Best Picture wins and Best Director wins weren’t correlated, and when it was just generally difficult for one movie to rack up huge numbers of wins. In short, Get Out has a remarkable chance to do on March 4, 2018, what hasn’t been done since March 5, 1936.
Back in July of last year, when only two of the nine Best Picture nominees for 2017 had been released, I wrote in an article about a totally separate idea that I hoped Get Out would win Best Picture. (The short version is that Get Out could be the Easy Rider of a “Newer Wave” in which socially responsive movies with small budgets and big grosses would please crowds and critics alike.) Even though I think Phantom Thread is probably the most deserving nominee, I still have a soft spot for Get Out, which would be the third or fourth-best Best Picture of the 21st Century. It only makes sense to keep pitching Get Out for Best Picture with new arguments. Again, it isn’t likely that the following will happen, but let’s say that the awards shake out like this:
- Martin McDonagh, left out of the Best Director conversation in lieu of Jordan Peele, walks away with the award for Best Original Screenplay for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Twitter explodes. Kumail Nanjiani says something pithy and memorable about it.
- Gary Oldman wins Best Actor for Darkest Hour, an outcome second only to Coco’s win for Best Animated Feature for sheer inevitability. Daniel Kaluuya knew this was coming, and so did the rest of us.
- Guillermo del Toro wins Best Director for The Shape of Water, which also seems basically preordained. Twitter doesn’t explode quite as loudly as it did when McDonagh took Original Screenplay, but all of us pour one out for Jordan Peele and Greta Gerwig anyway. (The snobs like me pour one out for Paul Thomas Anderson, too.)
At that point, Get Out would look like it’d go 0-4, and it probably would. But because of preferential voting, and because of the immense popularity that Get Out had when it came out in February and still holds onto now, I can see Get Out in the middle of a lot of ballots, just waiting for Call Me by Your Name and Phantom Thread and Darkest Hour to hit the road. There’s a chance, and even a chance in double digits, that Get Out benefits from that culling; the effect would be sensational.
What’s most likely to happen is that Jordan Peele wins Best Original Screenplay and Get Out loses to something like The Shape of Water when the big prize is announced. What I would prefer to happen in lieu of this scenario is one in which Peele walks out with a pair of Oscars for his movie and his screenplay, too. But all the same, it’s pretty fun to imagine a ceremony which, if it all played out this way, would outdo last year’s memeworthy mix-up for sheer astonishment. Anyone can make a mistake and give out the wrong card if they’re careless; a sole victory for Get Out, in the style of Grand Hotel eighty-five years prior, would be historic as a triumph and not as a gaffe. It would be cause for joy and not just for a chance for schadenfreude.