Oscars 2020: Suddenly, it looks like 1917 will win Best Picture

In the space of an evening, Sam Mendes’s war film slashed to odds-on by all major bookies

Something odd and interesting has happened to the Oscars over the last decade or so. To that point, many ultimate best picture winners had begun their advance in December and continued without falter until coronation in early spring. That was the case with films such as The English Patient, Titanic and No Country for Old Men.

More recently, we have got used to the last-minute showdown. Spotlight sneaks past The Revenant. Moonlight (eventually) pips La La Land. Green Book just beats Roma.

This year looked to be more exciting than any of those. In an unprecedented development, four films scored 10 or more nominations: Joker, 1917, The Irishman and Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood. You couldn’t put a cigarette paper between them. Right?

If the bookies are to be believed, one of those films has opened up a yawning gulf. In the space of an evening, Sam Mendes’s 1917, a propulsive tale from the trenches of the first World War, was slashed to odds-on by all major turf accountants. Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in… America drifted to 11/4 and 5/2. Despite topping the nomination list with 11, Todd Phillips’s controversial Joker was suddenly available at odds as long as 14/1.

How did that happen? We have the good people at the Producer’s Guild of America to thank. The apparent disorder in the best picture race dates from the shift to a PR voting system in 2009.

No doubt, the political correspondents on this newspaper, currently parsing STV options in the general election, would have been not in the least fazed by this shift. Entertainment pundits in God’s own, first-past-the-post USA have never quite got their heads around it. They need to dig that bit deeper into the voters’ minds.

It matters if one film has a sizable band of devoted followers. If, however, that film does not also have a broad swathe of luke-warm supporters then it may be doomed.

It is beginning to sink in that the PGA is there to clear up some confusion. The producers share many members with the Academy, but not nearly so many as the Screen Actors Guild (SAG). What really sets them apart as tipsters is the fact that they use their own preferential ballot.

In 10 of the last 12 years, the winner of the PGA best film has gone on to take best picture at the Oscars. When 1917 won best theatrical picture on Saturday night, the tic-tac men went bananas.

Mendes’s film certainly looks like the sort of film that used to win Oscars. Detailing a young corporal’s efforts to deliver a message through disputed territory, the film is a testament to the gifts of well-seasoned professionals.

Whatever about best picture, nobody is getting past Roger Deakins, the era’s most celebrated cinematographer, for a series of long takes that fit together into something that looks like one continuous shot. Thomas Newman – whose father, the composer Alfred Newman, took nine Oscars – should convert his 14th nomination into a win for best score. To top the impression of a blue riband operation, Mendes, winner of best director 20 years ago for American Beauty, has just been knighted in the New Year’s honours list.

It’s set in the past. The one-shot gimmick offers newspapers an angle. Despite emerging right at the end of the year – missing the Venice, Toronto and New York film festivals – 1917 managed to pick up steam quickly enough to win best dramatic picture at the Golden Globes in the second week of January.

Though an action picture with little memorable dialogue, it still managed an Oscar nomination for best original screenplay. It is doing well at the box office. Why did anybody think that anything else could win? Surely, nobody thinks that now.

Well, the statisticians still have some doubts. You won’t have seen 1917 win the SAG award for best ensemble in a movie on Sunday night. That’s because it wasn’t even nominated. The Oscarologist rubs his chin and explains that only three films have won best picture at the Academy Awards without that nod. The rejoinder is that two of those – Green Book and The Shape of Water – have arrived in the past two years, and the late release of 1917 may have caused more problems for the significantly larger electorate at SAG than the small huddle at the Globes.

More significant is the jarring news that it would be the first film ever to win at the Oscars with neither an editing nomination nor an acting nomination. Forget about the first. Birdman, the last film to win without an editing nod, was also presented as one unbroken shot.

Let us name the slighted editors: Douglas Crise and Stephen Mirrione for Birdman; Lee Smith for 1917. Both had to use all their skills to seamlessly splice together long takes, but the voters seem to have decided that if it looks as if there’s no editing then there ain’t no editing. They can take the snub as a back-handed compliment.

The lack of acting nominations matters a little more. George MacKay is excellent in the lead role, but he is a little overwhelmed by the technical oomph. Only two films this century have converted without the performers being in the mix.

Mendes’s film is probably the favourite. But that 14/1 on Joker offers good value for an insurance bet. Not that we approve of gambling.

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