First-of-kind nail biter in Best Picture race

Usually by now, a consensus favorite has emerged after months of guild and critics groups awards — or at least a front-runner along with one or two potential underdogs. But not this year. Five films have a legitimate shot at the night’s top award: “The Shape of Water,” ‘’Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” ‘’Get Out,” ‘’Dunkirk” and “Lady Bird”

Rarely, if ever, has the Academy Awards seen such an open field of contenders for its top award. A year after Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight” shattered the overwhelming projection that “La La Land” would win — along with many traditional ideas about what “Oscar bait” looks like — pundits are wary of making an emphatic best-picture prediction.

“It’s very, very, very unpredictable,” says Sasha Stone, the longtime Oscar blogger who runs Awards Daily . “This would be one year I wish I could just opt out of the whole thing. I have no idea what’s going to win.”

Most of the other major awards appear to be all sown up. Frances McDormand (“Three Billboards”), Gary Oldman (“Darkest Hour”), Allison Janney (“I, Tonya”) and Sam Rockwell (“Three Billboards”) all look like locks in the acting categories. Guillermo del Toro (“Shape of Water”) is expected to win best director.

But in the night’s top category, chaos reigns.

Reasons for the pervasive uncertainly run from the statistical to the instinctual. But behind them all is the same development: No one really knows what an “Oscar movie” is anymore.

The Oscars, in their 90th year, may look much the same on the outside. But under the surface, everything is shifting. In just last two years, the film academy has added about a fifth of its membership, ushering in an influx of people of color, women and international voters. At the same time, the person most responsible for tailoring the modern Oscar campaign and catering to the tastes of the academy — Harvey Weinstein — has been exiled from the institution he was once synonymous with.

The voters are different. Some of the major players are different. And the movies, too, are different.

“It’s a year of unconventional kinds of movies being in contention,” says Scott Feinberg, the Hollywood Reporter’s awards pundit . “You do have a few of the kinds of movies that are much more in the mold of movies that won years ago. “Darkest Hour” and ‘The Post’ are traditional Oscar bait. But now the academy is not the same academy that used to go for those kinds of movies. And you’ve got movies that wouldn’t have even been nominated, I don’t think, in the past because they would have been dismissed as genre movies — ‘Shape of Water’ and ‘Get Out.’”

Del Toro’s “The Shape of Water” has the most sterling resume, with wins from both the producers and directors guilds, and it comes in with a leading 13 nominations. Yet it lacks a crucial ingredient. Despite an impressive cast that garnered three individual acting nods (Sally Hawkins, Octavia Spencer, Richard Jenkins), “Shape of Water” failed to land a best ensemble nomination from the Screen Actors Guild — something every best picture winner in the last 22 years has won.

Even the historic upset of “Moonlight” over “La La Land” confirmed the predictive sway of the SAG ensemble nomination: “Moonlight” had it, “La La Land” didn’t.

Actors are easily the largest branch of the academy and their choice this year appears to be Martin McDonagh’s “Three Billboards,” which won best ensemble from SAG and best film bestowed at the British film academy awards, the BAFTAs. Still, “Three Billboards” has suffered the most severe backlash of the nominees, with some criticizing how Rockwell’s racist cop storyline is handled. McDonagh’s omission from the directing category suggests for some a fatal weakness.

But the underdogs are no more statistically sound. Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” and Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird” are both first-feature films that could make history for either African Americans or women. Yet neither earned a craft nomination, and they usually lost to either “Shape of Water” or “Three Billboards” in precursor awards. Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” is an even odder sort of underdog despite being easily the biggest budget and highest grossing entry of the bunch. It aims to be the first film in 85 years to win best picture without receiving a screenplay or acting nomination.

So with a pack of flawed favorites, what’s an Oscar prognosticator to do?

“I just think you have to put it all in the same stew and not let one ingredient overpower,” says Kristopher Tapley, Variety’s awards correspondent. “Put it all in there, don’t lean too heavily on there not being a SAG nomination there, a director nomination there. I think ‘Dunkirk’ is very much in this race. These stats are there until they’re not there.”

Still, Tapley favors “The Shape of Water” since it simply ticks the most boxes.

“I’m not trying to be coy,” he says. “I wouldn’t be shocked if it lost, though.”

What most bedevils the increasingly round-the-clock awards- season prediction machine is the preferential ballot reinstituted eight years ago when the best picture category expanded from five to up to ten nominees. By ranking all nine films, voters no longer simply choose a favorite. As a result, the most broadly liked film can often triumph over the most passionately loved one.

“What it’s really going to come down to is: What is the least objectionable of the plausible winners?” says Feinberg. “They all try to make their argument now why they are of the moment and worthy of being admired: ‘Even if you’re not going to put it at number one, put us at number two or three on your ballot. Don’t write us off.’”

The season has seen film after film vie for the most compelling, of-the-moment story line. Steven Spielberg’s “The Post” aimed for both the anti-Trump film and, in its female protagonist, a #MeToo movie, as well. “Lady Bird,” though, resonated more as an emblem of progress for women, making Gerwig only the fifth woman nominated for best director. And after several years of scrutiny over the Oscars’ poor track record in diversity, “Get Out” skewered the very kind of white liberal prejudice that Hollywood is frequently criticized for.

“It always struck me as a year where we haven’t quite figured out what our narrative is, what our story is, who we are this year,” says Stone. “The Weinstein thing really upended Hollywood. It really upended the Oscars.”

In the eyes of Oscar observers, “Get Out” has surged the most in recent weeks, aided in part by a robust campaign by Universal Pictures. But despite the controversy around “Three Billboards,” Stone is leaning toward it thanks to its twin wins of SAG ensemble and BAFTA best picture.

The safe money might be on “The Shape of Water.” ‘’But people are weirded out by the fish thing,” says Stone. “It’s not actually a fish. It’s some sort of mammal. But people are weirded out by it.”

There you have it. The closest, most unpredictable Academy Awards race in recent history could come down to how academy voters feel about the lovemaking of a fish-man. So when the last envelope is read Monday morning [Macau time], be sure to hold your breath. Jake Coyle, AP Film Writer

Best picture Odds

Three Billboards out… (2.1)

The Shape of Water (2.75)

Lady Bird (13)

Get Out (15) Dunkirk (41)

After Brando, the deluge of Oscar politics

Brando’s role as Vito Corleone in “The Godfather” remains a signature performance in movie history. But his response to winning an Academy Award was truly groundbreaking. Upending a decades-long tradition of tears, nervous humor, thank-yous and general good will, he sent actress Sacheen Littlefeather in his place to the 1973 ceremony to protest Hollywood’s treatment of American Indians. In the years since, winners have brought up everything from climate change (Leonardo DiCaprio, “The Revenant,” 2016) to abortion (John Irving, screenplay winner in 2000) to equal pay for women, Patricia Arquette, best supporting actress winner in 2015 for “Boyhood.”

“Speeches for a long time were relatively quiet in part because of the control of the studio system,” says James Piazza, who with Gail Kinn wrote “The Academy Awards: The Complete History of Oscar,” published in 2002. “There had been some controversy, like when George C. Scott refused his Oscar for ‘Patton’ (which came out in 1970). But Brando’s speech really broke the mold.”

In this March 27, 1973 file photo, Sacheen Littlefeather, tells the audience at the Academy Awards ceremony that Marlon Brando was declining to accept his Oscar as best actor for his role in “The Godfather.” The move was meant to protest Hollywood’s treatment of American Indians

Producers for this year’s Oscars show have said they want to emphasize the movies themselves, but between the #MeToo movement and Hollywood’s general disdain for President Donald Trump, political or social statements appear likely at the March 4 ceremony. Winners at January’s Golden Globes citing the treatment of women included Laura Dern and Reese Witherspoon, who thanked “everyone who broke their silence this year.” Honorary Globe winner Oprah Winfrey, in a speech that had some encouraging her to run for president, noted that “women have not been heard or believed if they dare speak the truth to the power of those men. But their time is up. Their time is up. Their time is up.”

Before Brando, winners avoided making news even if the time was right and the audience never bigger. Gregory Peck, who won for best actor in 1963 as Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” said nothing about the film’s racial theme even though he frequently spoke about it in interviews. When Sidney Poitier became the first black to win best actor, for “Lilies of the Field” in 1964, he spoke of the “long journey” that brought him to the stage, but otherwise made no comment on his milestone. When Jane Fonda, the most politicized of actresses, won for “Klute” in 1972, her speech was brief and uneventful.

“There’s a great deal to say, but I’m not going to say it tonight,” she stated. “I would just like to thank you very much.”

Political movements from anti-communism to civil rights were mostly ignored in their time. According to the movie academy’s database of Oscar speeches, the term “McCarthyism” was not used until 2014, when Harry Belafonte mentioned it upon receiving the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. “Vietnam” was not spoken until the ceremony held April 8, 1975, just weeks before North Vietnamese troops overran Saigon. No winner said the words “civil rights” until George Clooney in 2006, as he accepted a supporting actor Oscar for “Syriana.” Vanessa Redgrave’s fiery 1978 acceptance speech was the first time a winner said “fascism” or “anti-Semitism.”

Political or social comments were often safely connected to the movie. Celeste Holm, who won best supporting actress in 1948 for “Gentleman’s Agreement,” referred indirectly to the film’s message of religious tolerance. Rod Steiger won best actor in 1968 for the racial drama “In the Heat of the Night” and thanked his co-star, Poitier, for giving him the “knowledge and understanding of prejudice.” The ceremony was held just days after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., whose name was never cited by Oscar winners in his lifetime, and Steiger ended by invoking a civil rights anthem: “And we shall overcome.”

Hollywood is liberal-land, but the academy often squirms at political speeches. Redgrave was greeted with boos when she assailed “Zionist hoodlums” while accepting the Oscar for “Julia,” a response to criticism from far-right Jews for narrating a documentary about the Palestinians. She was rebutted the same night: Paddy Chayevsky, giving the award for best screenplay, declared that he was “sick and tired of people exploiting the Academy Awards for the propagation of their own propaganda.”AP

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