As is often the case come Oscar time, the Best Picture of 2005 will not win the Best Picture Oscar this year — because it wasn’t even nominated.
I’m talking about The Constant Gardener, for which I have been petitioning ceaselessly to make a Write-In candidate to anyone who will listen: strangers in elevators, policeman on street corners, telemarketers who suddenly can’t get off the phone fast enough. You know, people who have no bearing at all on who votes for Best Picture.
I’ve given up the ghost. Instead I’ll focus my bluster here and pick an “official” winner. And in a fit of gracious sportsmanship I won’t even spoil the ending to the film I think wins Best Picture.
1) It’s An Honor Simply Being Nominated. The total nominations for each Best Picture:
Brokeback Mountain = 8
Capote = 5
Crash = 6
Good Night, and Good Luck = 6
Munich = 5
Sometimes a runaway train of noms lead to victory so Brokeback’s gotta like its chances. But there’s cause for superstition: in Oscar history, six movies in history have received eight nominations without winning a single statue.
2) Time Is On My Side. The average running time of all Best Picture Oscar winners thus far is just over two hours, and of those all but two have been over 100 minutes. (The two that were under: Marty at 91 & Annie Hall at 93). This tidbit introduces Golden Rule #1 = The longer the nominated movie, the better chance it has to win.
Oscar wannabees often clock serious OT. The movies may not always justify their running times. Most don’t. But the business side of Hollywood — the side that likes to think it can predict market trends, target audiences, and box office hits — likes concrete formulae, even if faulty. And the algebra says that Long = Important = Critical Acclaim = Oscar.
Running times for this year’s nominees:
Brokeback Mountain = 134 minutes
Capote = 98 minutes
Crash = 113 minutes
Good Night, and Good Luck = 93 minutes
Munich = 164 minutes
By this metric both Capote & Good Night, and Good Luck have no chance, and Munich is the favorite.
3) It Was My Understanding That There Would Be No Math. Is box office gross an indicator of a film’s Oscar chances? Not sure. But I know just enough math & Excel to be dangerously unreliable. Quick number crunches:
The average box office gross of the past 26 Best Picture winners (1978-2004) = $144,779,253 and 54 cents.
Take away two outliers – the highest grosser (Titanic by a nautical mile) and the lowest (The Last Emperor) and the average winners’ gross slides to $129,978,673 and 92 cents. And wow, I just used the word “outlier.”
Here are grosses for this year’s Best Picture Nominees as of this week, rounding up:
Brokeback Mountain = 75 million
Capote = 23 million
Crash = 53 million
Good Night, and Good Luck = 30 million
Munich = 46 million
None are near the target gross. Winners often make their bank after they win the award but that’s reaching even for Brokeback, who’s closest. The only thing I’m betting is that Good Night is slim-to-none and that Capote is definitely kaput: in the history of the event the lowest grossing movie has never won. Ever. Short running time + Least amount of $$$ = thanks for playing.
4) Biodome. Another trend is the Biopic. Three of the five nominated films last year were about Real People (and no, I don’t mean the ’80’s television series starring Skip Stephenson): Howard Hughes, Ray Charles, and J.M. Barrie (the guy who wrote Peter Pan).
This year sees a recurring theme: three of the picture nominees boast historical figures (Capote, Good Night, & Munich). Oscar likes Real People Movies, and Real People Performances are Best Actor/Actress Oscar magnets. Which is also a Best Picture nom’s downfall — a ballot clogged with biopics splits votes. In addition Oscar usually recognizes a performance and not the film itself (like Ray last year, or this year’s Walk the Line, which was *not* nominated for Best Picture).
4) Vets vs. Rooks. Three of the Best Picture directors are newbies, and two are nominated for their feature-film debuts. The other two have been here before — Ang Lee & Steven Spielberg. Oscar likes to go with known quantities (Clint Eastwood last year won his second directing award for Million Dollar Baby). Oscar also usually doesn’t split the Best Director/Best Picture between two different flicks (it’s only happened 26% of the time over the past 80 years).
5) It’s Not Selling Out, It’s Buying In. Here’s a number: 130,000. That’s how many movie “screeners” of Crash were sent to Screen Actors Guild members in January prior to the SAG Awards in February. The usual average amount of screeners sent out = 15,000. Here’s another number: $4,000,000. That’s how much money since January that Lions Gate has spent on marketing Crash and blitzing the media as we countdown to Oscar.
I understand that the movie was released a year ago, and it wants to stay in the minds of the voters. But I’m a bit cynical about these sort of ploys — namely, because sometimes they work. Old Miramax made this routine sing with nominally deserving movies. (Shakespeare In Love & The English Patient, I’m sneering in your direction). Crash comes off to me, more and more, as The Emperor’s New Clothes. (Here’s a concept: make a better movie). And Crash is already a huge success, making 12-13 times it’s budget back. The full-court pre$$ should have gone to other movies, like Capote, or Good Night, or The Constant Gardener.
Overpaying for Oscar is like the Yankees buying every single player in baseball to field a team. I hate the Yankees. So I can’t in good faith root for Crash.
6) Punctuation. Good Night, and Good Luck has NO chance of winning. Not because it’s the shortest film (though that’s strike one). Not because it grossed less than the (unofficial) Best Picture of 2005, The Constant Gardener (strike two). But because of this magic bullet: no nominee with a comma in its title has ever won Best Picture. Previous Best Picture winners include four apostrophes, two periods, a colon, a hyphen, and even an exclamation point, but never a comma. So good night, Good Night. You can take it to the bank.
And the Oscar for Best Picture goes to?
Why? Because people remember how it ends.
You can write an awful movie and make an awful movie. But if your ending is pretty good, or even just “doesn’t suck,” then folks still leave the theater fairly satisfied. A definition of a good ending, to paraphrase William Goldman: “it has to move the sh*t out of you.”
After experiencing a well-earned, plausible, and inevitable ending to a movie, the audience recalls not only how it ended but how they felt. Brokeback Mountain ends definitively & simply, and moves the audience profoundly, much more so than the other nominees.
And while all the nominees have their doses of emotional impact, Munich, Good Night, Crash, and Capote deal in murkier shades of grey & multiple degrees of ambiguity (racial, political, moral, historical): endings where one’s not sure if the characters are better or worse off. Brokeback is much more cut, much more dried, and much less grey than the others.
Think of great movies, ones you love, ones you know by heart. You can succinctly sum up their endings 99.9 percent of the time. A sample list of memorable endings:
They get married.
The good guys win.
The good guys lose.
It was just a dream.
The butler did it.
He’s really a ghost.
They blow up the shark.
Plug in this year’s five nominees. Only Brokeback has an ending that’s listed above (FAUX SPOILER: Ennis & Jack blow up the shark). The rest don’t.
A good ending has to be simple, definitive, and moving, whether you leave ‘em laughing, or leave ‘em crying. Only Brokeback Mountain encompasses all three of these objectives, which is why it will win on Sunday night.
This article appeared in slightly modified form on Tiffany Leigh’s blog, Soundtrack To The Motion Picture.