Everything You Need to Know about the 91st Annual Academy Awards: Previewing the Show and Predicting the Winners
Oscar night is finally upon us after the wildest, most unpredictable lead-up in history. Throughout the season, the Academy suggested relatively radical shifts in how the ceremony would be conducted, only to consistently reverse course. Furthermore, the various awards granting bodies that precede the Oscars have had an unprecedented divergence of opinion. That means that anything could happen on the show and anyone could win.
THE ROCKY LEAD-UP TO THIS YEAR’S OSCARS
Last year, I launched my Medium blog with a preview of the Academy Awards, followed by a recap of the ceremony. In those articles, I lamented how predictable everything was. This was particularly true for the winners, with Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, and Best Adapted Screenplay being utterly foregone conclusions long before the ceremony. There was mild suspense on Oscar night regarding Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay, but the eventual winners were hardly out of left-field.
This year is a radical shift from that level of predictability. The Best Picture winner is wildly unclear. The Directors Guild of America, the British Academy of Film and Television Awards, and the Critics’ Choice Awards all cited Roma. The Producers Guild of America, the Golden Globes, and the National Board of Review cited Green Book. The Screen Actors Guild went for Black Panther. All three of those films have major detractors at the Oscars, including being a foreign film (Roma), a superhero film (Black Panther), and eliciting a huge backlash during awards season (Green Book). Furthermore, they all missed out on key nominations (Best Film Editing for Roma, Best Directing for Green Book, and any writing, directing or acting nods for Black Panther). Could that pave the way for BlacKkKlansman or The Favourite, which have been consistently nominated everywhere? Possibly, but you would have to go back to Braveheart in 1995 to find a Best Picture winner without a single major precursor win.
The acting categories are also unpredictable. Glenn Close and Mahershala Ali seem like likely bets for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actor, but Rami Malek and Christian Bale will likely be neck-and-neck for Best Actor and Regina King’s once sure-fire win for Best Supporting Actress was called majorly into question by her failure to even get a nomination at SAG or BAFTA.
Additionally, the Oscar nominations were incredibly out of step with the critics groups that are the first to hand out their awards. They routinely feted films like First Reformed, Hereditary, Eighth Grade, The Rider, Leave No Trace, Support the Girls, and Burning. These seven films scored a combined total of one Oscar nomination (Best Original Screenplay for First Reformed).
The unprecedented divergence of the precursors would make this an exciting year to watch the Oscars even if the show was expected to proceed as planned. But things have been equally dramatic regarding the ceremony. The Academy made countless decisions that were very public and relatively radical, only to reverse them following subsequent backlash. First, there was the ill-conceived popular film category. Then decision to only perform two of the five nominated songs. Then the decision to hand out four categories on commercial breaks to save time. Then there was the decision to break with the tradition and not ask last year’s four acting winners to come back as presenters for the acting categories. Oh, and then there was the whole Kevin Hart hosting debacle, which has resulted in the Oscars going without a host for the first time in decades.
Will all the backlash and reversed decisions mean that it will be business as usual tonight? Possibly, but something tells me they will have some surprises up their sleeves.
PREVIEWING THE SHOW
In an effort to reverse the decline in ratings experienced by awards shows (and all network television primetime programming) across the board, the Academy threw out countless ideas to change the show in a way that might boost ratings. As stated above, every single one was shot down and retracted. So what will tonight look like? It is anyone’s guess. Here are three things we do know.
- The Academy is hell-bent on bringing the show in at 3 hours. Historical data on ceremony run times is inconsistent, but it looks like you would have to go back at least three and a half decades to find the last time the show came in under 3 hours. If they do mange to do it, what will they sacrifice to get there?
- There will be no host for the first time since the 61st Academy Awards 30 years ago. Despite some rumors that Whoopi Goldberg will be a surprise host, I expect them to go host-less and make do with the string of A-list presenters that have already been announced. These include the usual mix of legends (e.g., Barbra Streisand, Goldberg), A-listers (e.g., Charlize Theron, Tina Fey, Jennifer Lopez), and hot young stars (e.g., Chadwick Boseman, Constance Wu, Stephen James, Tessa Thompson). It also includes an odd collection of well-known people from outside the world of film that will be involved in showcasing the Best Picture nominees. These include chef Jose Andres, Congressman John Lewis, tennis star Serena Williams, and late night host Trevor Noah.
- There will be music! Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper will perform “Shallow” from A Star is Born, Jennifer Hudson will perform “I’ll Fight” from RBG, the songwriters of the The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’ “When the Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings” will perform, and Bette Midler will step in for Emily Blunt for “The Place Where Lost Things Go” from Mary Poppins Returns. One big question mark is whether “All the Stars” from Black Panther will be performed at all, given that Kendrick Lamar has declined an invitation to perform. Oh, and Queen, the subject of this year’s 5-time nominee Bohemian Rhapsody, will also perform (with Adam Lambert taking over for Freddie Mercury as he has been doing for the past few years).
PREDICTING THE WINNERS IN ALL 24 CATEGORIES
The Specialty Film Categories:
Best Foreign Language Film: Capernaum (Lebanon); Cold War (Poland); Never Look Away (Germany); Roma (Mexico); Shoplifters (Japan). Conventional wisdom says this belongs to Roma, but if there is the general consensus that Roma will win other top awards, voters could shift their support to Cold War. I’m still going for Roma, but would not be shocked to see Cold War upset.
Best Animated Feature: Incredibles 2; Isle of Dogs; Mirai; Ralph Breaks the Internet; Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Virtually all the momentum in this category seems to be with the critically adored Spider-Man. I would be quite surprised if any other film won.
Best Animated Short Film: Animal Behavior; Bao; Late Afternoon; One Small Step; Weekends. For once, I actually saw all of these nominees! I think it will go to Pixar’s touching Bao or — alternatively — the equally sentimental family themes of the beautiful One Small Step.
Best Live Action Short Films: Detainment; Fauve; Marguerite; Mother; Skin. The profoundly depressing subject matter of this category has been fodder for commentators and pundits this season. Thus, it seems likely that the lone (relatively) upbeat short will prevail. That would be Marguerite.
Best Documentary Feature: Free Solo; Hale County This Morning, This Evening; Minding the Gap; Of Fathers and Sons; RBG. The industry’s passion seems to be with Free Solo, whose path to the award was cleared by the omission of two presumed frontrunners from the nominations (Won’t You Be My Neighbor and Three Identical Strangers). If there’s an upset, look for RBG.
Best Documentary Short: Black Sheep; End Game; Lifeboat; A Night at the Garden; Period. End of Sentence. This category is anyone’s guess, but I’m going with Period. End of Sentence due to its unique subject matter and Netflix backing.
The Technical/Craft Categories:
Best Cinematography: Cold War; The Favourite; Never Look Away; Roma; A Star is Born. It seems to me that Roma has this one in the bag, but the equally atmospheric Cold War is sure to have its share of supporters as well.
Best Film Editing: BlacKkKlansman; Bohemian Rhapsody; The Favourite; Green Book; Vice. Unfortunately, this category tends to go for flashiest editing instead of best editing, so I think it will go to the wild, non-linear hodgepodge that is Vice. Don’t count out the possibility of a BlacKkKlansman or Bohemian Rhapsody upset, though.
Best Production Design: Black Panther; The Favourite; First Man; Mary Poppins Returns; Roma. Many are expecting the elaborate designs of Black Panther to win here — and they certainly could — but an Oscar for those who meticulously recreated the court of Queen Anne for The Favourite seems a bit more in line with Academy tastes.
Best Costume Design: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs; Black Panther; The Favourite; Mary Poppins Returns; Mary Queen of Scots. I apply the exact same logic to this category as Best Production Design (above).
Best Makeup and Hairstyling: Border; Mary Queen of Scots; Vice. The Academy is unlikely to be able to resist feting the folks that managed to turn attractive Welshman Christian Bale into an extremely convincing Dick Cheney.
Best Original Score: Black Panther; BlacKkKlansman; If Beale Street Could Talk; Isle of Dogs; Mary Poppins Returns. This race appears to be between Beale Street and Black Panther, with the former having the slight edge. However, Mary Poppins Returns is the most musical of all the films and has a long overdue composer (Marc Shaiman) so it could be a surprise upset.
Best Original Song: “All the Stars,” Black Panther; “I’ll Fight,” RBG; “The Place Where Lost Things Go,” Mary Poppins Returns; “Shallow,” A Star is Born; “When a Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings,” The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. It would be shocking if Lady Gaga did not go home with an Oscar for “Shallow,” but this category has been known to have shocking upsets before. If “Shallow” fails, it will probably be because 10-time Oscar nominee (and 10-time loser) Dianne Warren finally got her gold for “I’ll Fight” or Marc Shaiman is feted for his musical extravaganza. I personally doubt that presumed runner-up “All the Stars” from Black Panther will be able to overcome the fact that Lamar turned down the opportunity to perform it at the height of the voting period.
Best Sound Mixing: Black Panther; Bohemian Rhapsody; First Man; Roma; A Star is Born. Any of these films has a real shot, but it looks like Bohemian Rhapsody is the one to beat based on the precursors and industry buzz. However, I think this one is really anyone’s game. If I had to pick the most likely upset, I pick Roma.
Best Sound Editing: Black Panther; Bohemian Rhapsody; First Man; A Quiet Place; Roma. Something tells me that the largely overlooked First Man could prevail here, but I will remain conservative and say that it is a race between Black Panther and Bohemian Rhapsody, with the latter having the edge.
Best Visual Effects: Avengers: Infinity War; Christopher Robin; First Man; Ready Player One; Solo: A Star Wars Story. I think the Academy will go for First Man here given its impressive recreation of the first walk on the moon and the fact that it is up against four films that did not score a single other nomination.
The Top 8:
Best Picture: Black Panther; BlacKkKlansman; Bohemian Rhapsody; The Favourite; Green Book; Roma; A Star is Born; Vice. One of the night’s most unpredictable categories, I can honestly say that all 8 of the nominees have an actual chance. Conventional wisdom says Roma given its win at the DGA, Critics’ Choice, and BAFTA Awards, but it’s a black-and-white foreign language film released on a streaming service. A win for it would be unprecedented in more than one way. Green Book is a very traditional alternative, but it lacks a Best Director nomination (something only four Best Picture winners in history have overcome) and received intense backlash for how it handled its racial themes. The same logic goes against Bohemian Rhapsody, which lacks a Best Director nomination and has received significant backlash. Black Panther could surprise, but it would be the first film since 1940’s Rebecca to win without an acting, directing, or writing nomination. A Star is Born, BlacKkKlansman, The Favourite, and Vice all have their share of supporters and got nominated in all (or at least most) of the key categories, but you would have to go back at least to 1995’s Braveheart to find a Best Picture winner that didn’t pick up a single major precursor award for Best Picture en route to the Oscar. Thus, it’s anyone’s game, but I will go for Roma with BlacKkKlansman as a surprise runner-up (and Green Book as my all-too-possible nightmare scenario).
Best Director: Spike Lee, BlacKkKlansman; Pawel Pawlikowski, Cold War; Yorgos Lanthimos, The Favourite; Alfonso Cuaron, Roma; Adam McKay, Vice. The only person who could stop Cuaron from getting his second win in this category (he previously won for Gravity) is Spike Lee, who received his first nomination ever in this category this year and helmed a widely admired film. But I still think Cuaron has it in the bag.
Best Actress: Yalitza Aparicio, Roma; Glenn Close, The Wife; Olivia Colman, The Favourite; Lady Gaga, A Star is Born; Melissa McCarthy, Can You Ever Forgive Me?. Although her BAFTA and Golden Globe win suggest that Olivia Colman may have enough support to win, it seems highly unlikely to me that the Academy will not use this opportunity to give the Oscar to Glenn Close, who — with six prior losses — has the distinction of being the living person with the most acting nominations without a win.
Best Actor: Christian Bale, Vice; Bradley Cooper, A Star is Born; Willem Dafoe, At Eternity’s Gate; Rami Malek, Bohemian Rhapsody; Viggo Mortensen, Green Book. All season it has been neck-and-neck between Bale’s Dick Cheney and Malek’s Freddie Mercury. The former has plenty of admirers (and his film did better in the overall nominations), but the latter seems to have the momentum.
Best Supporting Actress: Amy Adams, Vice; Marina de Tavira, Roma; Regina King, If Beale Street Could Talk; Emma Stone, The Favourite; Rachel Weisz, The Favourite. King still seems the odds-on favorite despite her puzzling lack of SAG and BAFTA noms, but she is far from a slam dunk. Originally it looked like Amy Adams would be runner-up waiting to dethrone her, but with her recent BAFTA win it looks like Rachel Weisz is the most likely to upset.
Best Supporting Actor: Mahershala Ali, Green Book; Adam Driver, BlacKkKlansman; Sam Elliott, A Star is Born; Richard E. Grant, Can You Ever Forgive Me?; Sam Rockwell, Vice. Ali seems well-poised to take home his second Oscar in three years, but support for Grant seems to have been growing by the day for the last several weeks. However, I fear that it is too little, too late.
Best Original Screenplay: Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, The Favourite; Paul Schrader, First Reformed; Nick Vallelonga, Brian Currie, and Peter Farrelly, Green Book; Alfonso Cuaron, Roma; Adam McKay, Vice. My guess is that Green Book’s backlash will prevent it from a win and that Vice will be too divisive, paving the way for The Favourite to be the favorite (see what I did there?) But any of the three could take it.
Best Adapted Screenplay: Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, The Battle of Buster Scruggs; Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott, and Spike Lee, BlacKkKlansman; Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty, Can You Ever Forgive Me?; Barry Jenkins, If Beale Street Could Talk; Eric Roth, Bradley Cooper, and Will Fetters, A Star is Born. Every major precursor gave this award to a different film, so this one is really up in the air. I think that Can You Ever Forgive Me? or If Beale Street Could Talk could upset, but BlacKkKlansman is the most likely winner. It was unanimously well-liked and it would give Spike Lee his first competitive Oscar win.