Sometimes Hollywood insiders baffle themselves.
It’s Oscar season, and that means it’s Oscar prediction season! Prognostications are all over the web (Walt Hickey at FiveThirtyEight is your one-stop if you’re only making one stop), so we’re not going to recreate those here. Instead, we’re taking a look at times that films broke the trends and won Hollywood’s top prize as an underdog. We looked at past Best Picture Oscar winners and compared that win to the Golden Globe, Director’s Guild, Producer’s Guild, and BAFTA awards from the same year (starting in 1989, when the PGA handed out their first prize). Then we calculated Oscar likelihood based on how often those winners and nominees have gone on to win the Oscar. In a fictional world where these other awards were perfectly predictive, sweeping them would score a 10 on our scale.
The awards aren’t 100% predictive, of course, and so the highest possible score was 7.98. It’s a 7-way tie for “Most Predictable Oscar” between Argo, The Artist, Slumdog Millionaire, The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, American Beauty, The English Patient, and Schindler’s List – all of which swept the other four accolades. Industry voters were unabashed in their admiration for these films – and while they vary in legacy, there are no real surprises here.
Next come a trio that lack only a BAFTA award: Forrest Gump, Titanic, and Chicago. They couldn’t win over the voters across the pond, but still scored a respectable 7.4. (All three films were nominated for BAFTAs, which also counts for something in our model.)
The next 10 films were within a point of the median score (7.02) in either direction, including Dances With Wolves, the highest scoring film that wasn’t 4-for-4 on nominations. The BAFTAs didn’t include the western epic on its ballot, resulting in a likelihood score of 6.35.
It’s worth noting that Academy voters turn in their ballots surprisingly late. Ballots are open until just days before the Oscar ceremony. This year, votes are due by 5pm PT today – Tuesday, February 23rd. This opens up the option for voters to potentially choose films that didn’t get attention elsewhere. The Departed, Unforgiven, and Million Dollar Baby were in crowded fields and won only Director’s Guild awards prior to their best picture win. The Academy doesn’t practice exit polling, so we don’t know when voters decide on their votes, but other industry awards probably wouldn’t be as solid a predictor if ballots were cast based on long-held, locked-in opinions.
That brings us to the three least likely Best Pictures from the last 26 years.
In the third spot is the winner of the inaugural Producer’s Guild of America Award for Best Theatrical Motion Picture, 1989’s Driving Miss Daisy. It scored 4.13 on our scale thanks to the PGA and a Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy. Fellow Golden Globe winner Born on the Fourth of July (winner of the Director’s Guild award) was also a Best Picture nominee and lost in what must have been a very close result. Driving Miss Daisy has the distinction of being the only film on the list to have missed a nomination at the Director’s Guild awards – though director Bruce Beresford was not bothered by his lack of personal accolades. “I didn’t think it was that well directed,” he said in 2006. “It was very well written. When the writing’s that good, you’ve really just got to set the camera up and photograph it.”(1)
Number two on our list is Braveheart, Mel Gibson’s 1995 portrayal of freedom fighter William Wallace, with a score of 3.65. Unsurprisingly, given its portrayal of British colonialism and its notorious historical inaccuracies, it did not garner a nomination from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts. It’s also one of only two Best Pictures to fail to pick up any of the other industry awards prior to its Oscar win. Those awards were conquered by Apollo 13 and Sense and Sensibility – and the support for these very different films may have split the Academy vote and allowed Braveheart, running a close third by those standards, to slip into victory.
Finally, the As Far As I Know award for the Most Unlikely Best Picture goes to 2005’s racially-charged ensemble drama Crash (3.51). Crash is the only film on our list that failed to receive a Golden Globe nomination. Remember that the Golden Globes have two categories for Best Motion Picture awards – Drama and Musical or Comedy. The latter category is sometimes applied liberally (see this year’s win by The Martian, which is a comedy by virtue of the fact that the lead character has and employs a sense of humor, I suppose), which means that nomination pool is quite large. Grabbing a Best Picture Oscar without even being recognized by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association is something of a feat. Crash could in no way be painted as a comedy, and it didn’t lack for competition. The Best Motion Picture – Drama nominees in 2005 were Match Point, A History of Violence, Good Night, and Good Luck, The Constant Gardener, and Brokeback Mountain. Interestingly, this was a much different slate than the Oscars, which carried over Good Night, and Good Luck and Brokeback Mountain but dropped the rest in favor of Crash, Capote, and Munich.
So it was a loaded year with clearly divided opinions, which may account for Crash being the only Best Picture on our list without another trophy. But that fact doesn’t tell the whole story. Despite the competition, Ang Lee’s epic Brokeback Mountain won every other award in 2005. This is the only time that a film swept the other industry honors without also taking home the Oscar. Perhaps, as discussed earlier, Oscar voters took advantage of their relatively last-minute vote timing to right a perceived wrong and give Crash some deserved accolades. Or perhaps the roster of voters in 2005 – notably homogeneous and narrow-in-view even ten years later – took offense at the film’s unflinching examination of homosexuality and masculinity. It’s worth noting that Crash is equally unyielding in its depiction of race relations, so maybe the voters deserve some favorable considerations on that point.
The Oscar for Crash is surprising – but it isn’t the lowest score you’ll see among nominees. Take this year’s slate, for example. (Remember when we deferred to other prediction outlets at the top? Well, maybe just a little predicting.) To no one’s surprise, The Revenant (7.07) is a way-out-in-front favorite, just a Producer’s Guild award away from an industry sweep. But we’re talking unlikely long-shots, right? Here’s the sad truth – Room, Brooklyn, and Bridge of Spies stand almost no chance of pulling this thing off. Their combined score of 4.76 doesn’t even top The Big Short, currently in second place. Your best dark-horse bet is Mad Max: Fury Road. Its 3.65 score is right in Driving Miss Daisy range (and both films prominently feature automobiles). Despite being a surprise hit and drawing loads of praise for director George Miller’s vision, it hasn’t collected any other hardware. If late-breaking Academy voters do adjust their ballots to fill in award gaps, look for Miller to surprise Iñárritu in either the Best Director or Best Picture categories.
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