Oscars: Best Picture and the Rule of Three

The Godfather: Oscar's iconic Best Picture winner with a low tally of 3 prizes.
This year’s sprint to the Academy Awards feels like the closest contest in recent memory. It’s essentially a three-way race between 12 Years a Slave, Gravity, and American Hustle. Any film could conceivably win. Gravity almost seems like a shoo-in to take home the most trophies come Oscar night, but does that mean it’s a lock for Best Picture?

Don’t be taken in too easily by the strong presence of Gravity as you’re checking off your picks in the Oscar pool. A big score for Gravity doesn’t necessarily mean it will take home the big prize. Oscar has a small but significant history of sharing the wealth in extremely competitive years. 2013 is as competitive as movie years get (although 2012 was arguably stronger…), so Sunday’s ceremony could end in a photo finish.

If one examines the history of Oscar winners, one sees that a Best Picture winner essentially needs only three wins to be the big winner of the night. Subtract the Best Picture Oscar from this total and a film really needs to have only two wins before the final prize is called in order to be a contender. For example, five films in the latter half of Oscar history have taken home earned a tally of only three wins, yet taken home the Best Picture Oscar. Some of these years feature controversial upsets (Crash for 2005) populist blunders (Rocky for 1976), and cinematic landmarks (The Godfather for 1972). Look even further back in history to find Best Picture winners with only two or three Oscars to their name in Academy classics both dubious (The Greatest Show on Earth for 1952) and iconic (Casablanca for 1943).

The films to win no more than three Oscars yet score Best Picture are:

-2012: Argo – Picture, Adapt. Screenplay, Film Editing
-Life of Pi won 4; Les Mis won 3 that year
-2005: Crash – Picture, Orig. Screenplay, Film Editing
-Brokeback Mountain, King Kong, Memoirs of a Geisha also won 3 (although Geisha should have been the big winner of the night since John Williams’ score was robbed)
-1976: Rocky – Picture, Director, Film Editing
-All the Presidents Men and Network both won 4!
-1972: The Godfather – Picture, Actor (Marlon Brando), Adapt. Screenplay
-Cabaret won 8
-1969: Midnight Cowboy – Picture, Director, Adapt. Screenplay
-Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid won 4

The early half of the Oscar years contain considerably more films to follow such numbers. They might be too far in the past to be relevant for discussion, due to an obvious change in membership over the years, Oscar politics, industrial changes and more, but they are nevertheless worth nothing:

-1952: The Greatest Show on Earth – Picture, Writing: Story
-High Noon won 4; The Bad and the Beautiful won 5 (it wasn’t up for Best Picture)
-1949: All the King’s Men – Picture, Actor (Broderick Crawford), Supporting Actress (Mercedes McCambridge)
-The Heiress won 4
-1947: Gentleman’s Agreement – Picture, Director, Supporting Actress (Celeste Holm)
-Miracle on 34th Street also won 3
-1943: Casablanca – Picture, Director, Screenplay
-The Song of Bernadette won 4
-1940: Rebecca – Picture, Cinematography (B/W)
-The Thief of Baghdad won 3; The Philadelphia Story and Grapes of Wrath also won 2
-1938: You Can’t Take it with You – Picture, Director
-The Adventures of Robin Hood won 3; Boys Town and Jezebel also won 2
-1937: The Life of Emile Zola – Picture, Supporting Actor (Joseph Schildkraut), Best Screenplay               -Zola was the highest winner with 3
-1936: The Great Ziegfeld – Picture, Actress (Luise Rainer), Best Dance Direction
-Anthony Adverse won 4; The Story of Louis Pasteur both won 3
-1935: Mutiny on the Bounty – Picture
-The Informer won 4
-1933: Cavalcade: Picture, Director, Art Direction
-Cavalcade was the highest winner with 3
-1931-32: Grand Hotel: Picture
-Bad Girl and The Champ both won 2
-1930-31: Cimarron – Picture, Adapt. Screenplay, Art Direction
-Cimarron, unfortunately, was highest winner with 3.
-1929-30: All Quiet on the Western Front – Picture, Director
-The Big House also won 2
-1928-29: The Broadway Melody – Picture
-Everyone won 1 that year.
-1927-28: Wings – Picture, Engineering Effect
-Sunrise and 7th Heaven won 3, although Janet Gaynor’s Best Actress win included both films.

Three awards isn’t a bad thing. The Godfather itself won only three Academy Awards compared to the whopping eight Oscars scooped by Cabaret that same year. Among Cabaret’s prizes were Oscars for Best Director and a slew of technical awards, whereas The Godfather added to its Best Picture prize an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Actor for Marlon Brando.

Does the contest between 12 Years a Slave and Gravity echo the competition between The Godfather and Cabaret? It very well could, as the more profound and relevant Slave could leave its mark with a similarly low total, whereas Gravity could easily match Cabaret’s eight wins, although Sandra Bullock probably won’t bring a Best Actress win à la Liza Minnelli. Chiwetel Ejiofor might have a hard time edging out Matthew McConaughey and Leonardo DiCaprio, but he is the dark horse of the Best Actor race and he could help bring Slave’s tally to three wins.

On the other hand, American Hustle could easily be the crowd-pleasing Rocky to best bold risk-takers like Network, or it could be the “best bad idea” of picking Argo while settling with technical kudos to honour a Gravity kin like Life of Pi. More likely, perhaps, is the case for 1977 in which the year’s largest haul went to the ground-breaking special effects bonanza—Star Wars—while Best Picture was one of four Oscars endowed upon Woody Allen’s Annie Hall. David O. Few comedies have won Best Picture since Annie Hall, so it would be an odd coincidence if American Hustle and Gravity split the honours.

The first five films of the list, however, confirm the old rule of three when it comes to winning Best Picture. The awards for Best Director, Best Screenplay (either Original or Adapted), and Best Film Editing generally offer the key battlegrounds leading up to the top prize. An acting prize might help in the absence of one of said awards, but Oscar history must go back to Rebecca to find a winner with Best Picture and only one award that was not for writing, acting, directing, or editing. (Gladiator, with 5 wins, marks the most recent film to win Best Picture without a win for directing, writing, or editing.) Best Director is basically removed from the equation for 2013, for virtually every key precursor has given said prize to Alfonso Cuarón. After that, though, the race might be as up in the air as Sandra in space.

Film one: Gravity

Gravity has a win for Best Director in the bag, so that’s one of three wins. Best Visual Effects might be the easiest call of the night, too, for no film has caused as much sensation for its visual work as Gravity has this year. Best Cinematography therefore seems like another win that can tip Gravity past the crucial three and make it seem like the favourite, for Best Cinematography and Best Visual Effects almost seem to have collapsed in the minds of Oscar voters in the recent years in which Life of Pi, Hugo, Inception, and Avatar all won the same pair of awards.

Gravity could add Best Film Editing, which gives it two of the three crucial wins, since that opening long take of the film might inspire voters to see a lack of editing as great film editing. (It’s a strong choice.) Oscar voters, however, often go for more than for less when it comes to editing and reward showier work. Gravity could also add at least one sound prize to the tally, and maybe Best Production Design and Best Score to bring it up to seven Oscars, but it failed to score even a nomination for Best Original Screenplay. The writing of Gravity is arguably the film’s weak link regardless of the cinematic and technical awe it inspires, which could provide a significant hurdle. One would have to go back to Titanic—that VFX blockbuster—to find a Best Picture winner that didn’t have a screenplay nomination under its belt. It’s a big obstacle, but one hardly goes to see a film like Gravity or Titanic to appreciate good writing. Escapism might be enough to give Gravity the edge. Alternatively, a film that exists solely in the present tense could just as easily join the company of Cabaret and Star Wars and go home with the most trophies, but not the one that counts in the history books.

Film 2: 12 Years a Slave

The history books will look kindly on 12 Years a Slave regardless of whether it takes home the Academy Award. It will stand the test of time for how boldly yet beautifully Steve McQueen puts the legacy of American slavery into the centre of the frame and dares the audience to confront America’s racist past. The history books, however, might look less kindly upon voters who opt not to make Steve McQueen the first black filmmaker to win Best Director or who vote for spectacle over provocative cinema. Let’s give the Academy the benefit of the doubt, though, and say they’ll reward 12 Years a Slave and simply give Gravity Best Director. (It’s impossible to deny the scope and technical achievement of Gravity, anyways.)

Best Film Editing and Best Costume Design are the film’s likeliest crafts awards. Slave, like Gravity, needs an appreciation for restraint in the editing room to win the prize, especially given its graphic violence, while the period costumes face stiff competition from showier outfits in The Great Gatsby and American Hustle that play central roles in the story and characters of each film. Best Film Editing and Best Costume Design, however, might not add up to Best Picture.

Slave seems likeliest to mirror The Godfather’s awards tally by adding Best Adapted Screenplay and an acting prize to its total of three. Best Adapted Screenplay, for starters, offers one of Slave’s strongest bets since John Ridley’s adaptation of the book by Solomon Northup is a commendable balance of fidelity and contemporary re-reading. It’s a powerful text if you’re lucky enough to read it and it plays twice as well as it reads thanks to McQueen’s powerful realization. Slave’s top competition for the screenplay prize probably lies in Philomena, which took the BAFTA, as Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope’s amusing and endearing character study finds the greater cinematic drama within Martin Sixsmith’s source text while honouring the true subjects of the film. Captain Phillips is a threat, too, since it won the Writers’ Guild award, although neither Slave nor Philomena were eligible. If Slave loses Best Adapted Screenplay, it probably stands to lose Best Picture.

On the acting front, Slave’s likeliest win—and potentially its only win of the night—could be for Best Supporting Actress contender Lupita Nyong’o. Nyong’o has been rising in profile since her sensational reception at TIFF and Telluride this year. The love for her debut performance has only grown in the award season. Oscar loves breakthrough talent and it certainly helps that she’s been showing a much different side of herself than the audience sees in 12 Years a Slave thanks to her glamorous (and consistently likable) appearances and speeches at award shows. This rising star is in a tight race with Hollywood’s current “it girl” Jennifer Lawrence, and either actress could bring her film the win it needs to take the top prize.

Film 3: American Hustle

If David O. Russell stands little chance of winning Best Director, then American Hustle could easily crash the party and win Best Picture along with Best Original Screenplay and Best Film Editing. (As fellow SAG winner Crash did in the awards for 2005.) Hustle seems like the film that has the most to gain with the ranked ballot, as 12 Years a Slave and Gravity might have the most #1 votes, but not enough across the board support to tip them over the fifty-percent-plus-one a film needs to win Best Picture. American Hustle is a true old-school crowd-pleaser with the mainstream appeal a film needs to win.

It could just as easily be the Gangs of New York or Color Purple and be shut out altogether, though, since it seems like a second-place contender in almost every category. Her seems like more of a favourite than Hustle in the Screenplay race, since Her won the Golden Globe, Writers’ Guild, and Critics’ Choice. Russell, however, has been in the running for an Oscar three out of the past four years, so he is bound to have enough popularity within the Academy to be able to edge out love-it-or-leave-it fare like Her. Best Film Editing, on the other hand, might be the film to do it for Hustle, since the sprightly energy and fluid motion of the film have a distinct Russell vibe. In the eyes of the hypothetical mainstream voting, the editing of American Hustle could bring the film to life a bit more tangibly than the artier cutting does in Gravity and Slave. Something about the cut team of Hustle just screams Argo, Crash, and Rocky.

If, finally, American Hustle is going to win Best Picture while missing either the screenplay or the editing prize, it probably needs an acting trophy or two. Hustle has a strong chance to do so, since it scored nominations in all four acting categories and won the SAG award for Best Ensemble. The actors clearly recognize the effort made by Hustle’s onscreen talent. Jennifer Lawrence seems like the film’s best bet, since reviews for the film consistently praised her for stealing the show. The only strikes against her are that some film buffs aren’t happy with the disparity between her age and the age of the woman that allegedly inspired her character, Rosalyn. Rosalyn isn’t “based” on any character, though; she’s “inspired” by a true counterpart and loosely at that. (American Hustle happily signals that its play with history is part of the film’s sleight of hand.) The other argument against Lawrence says that she can’t win back-to-back after netting Best Actress for Silver Linings Playbook, but she is arguably the hottest star going right now, and her double-header year with Catching Fire makes an equally strong case for why she could trump Nyong’o’s sole film credit. It’s also just a terrific performance that could win the prize on merit.

Say Lawrence doesn’t win, though, and Her wins Original Screenplay, then what happens for Hustle? The costumes could (and should) win, although Hustle’s other chief contender might be Amy Adams. It will be tough to overtake Cate Blanchett, who has soundly trounced the competition, but Adams has never won an Oscar before and all of this year’s other Best Actress nominees have, so she could pull an upset as Adrien Brody did for The Pianist. She also won the Golden Globe for Comedy, so she probably stands as Blanchett’s only competition. That argument for Adams seems weak, though, since she wasn’t even nominated for the SAG award. That omission, when coupled with the film’s ensemble prize, roughly translates to the Actors Guild saying, “We loved the acting in American Hustle, but not your performance specifically.” Her nomination alone shows that support for Hustle is strong among the Actors’ branch of the Academy, but is it strong enough to bring the film Best Picture along with wins only for Best Supporting Actress, Best Film Editing, or Best Costume Design?

Three to win?

If the race is down to these three contenders, then Best Film Editing, Best Supporting Actress, and to some extent Best Costume Design could provide the strongest tells of the night. Screenplay is a factor too, but none of the three films will compete against one another for a writing prize. Film Editing, the only real contest of the proverbial three, could just as easily be won by Captain Phillips, which stands little chance to win Best Picture since Tom Hanks and Paul Greengrass were left off the ballot. Alternatively, surprise wins for either Chiwetel Ejiofor for Best Actor or Amy Adams for Best Actress could poise 12 Years a Slave or American Hustle to win the top prize. Gravity, on the other hand, will float through the ceremony and keep the audience in suspense.

Which film do you think will win Best Picture?

Could the “rule of 3” help any of the other nominees?

Coming soon: final predictions!