It’s a question that I’ve been asked several times over the past week: Do you think we are likely to have a split between Best Picture and Best Director this year? It’s a complicated question, and also one that’s worth exploring in a little detail. If you had asked me about halfway through the critics awards, I probably would have given you a strong “yes.” The way the awards were going (12 Years a Slave taking the vast majority of Best Picture prizes and Gravity cleaning up the majority of Best Director awards), it looked certain that that was the direction we were heading, but if we look back at Oscar history, there are a few interesting things to take note of that can help us determine whether or not we should still be calling for the split or not.
In the history of the Academy Awards, it has been nearly impossible to predict when a split will occur. Of course, we have to exclude last year. As soon as the Oscar nominations were announced and the snub to Ben Affleck was uncovered, we knew we were going to be in for a split year because obviously Affleck was not going to win Best Director and Argo’s momentum could not be stopped for Best Picture.
Going further back, the next latest spit occurred in a year that featured the biggest Oscar shock in the last several years. Brokeback Mountain had taken the Producers Guild’s and Directors Guild’s top honors, making it the overwhelming favorite to win Best Picture, but what happened at the end of the night would forever be burned into the minds of those who witnessed it. As Jack Nicholson opened the envelop for Best Picture to read what was written there, even he couldn’t keep the surprise from his face as he announced Crash had been chosen. Crash had won the SAG Ensemble award, but nobody had considered it a frontrunner for Best Picture, not with the powerhouse Brokeback Mountain cleaning up the big awards.
A few years prior to that, the 2002-03 awards season saw Chicago win the PGA, DGA, and SAG Ensemble awards, making it a clear favorite to take Best Picture of the year. However, that’s not where the surprise of the evening came in. When Best Director was announced, there was a moment of shock when Roman Polanski was named the winner for The Pianist. True, he had won the BAFTA award for Director, but given that, prior to this instance, there had only been five times where the Best Director Oscar didn’t match the DGA, Marshall was considered the easy frontrunner, especially since the film had taken all three top guild awards. So when Chicago inevitably took Best Picture, we were left with another split that few could have possibly predicted.
Let’s go back one more time to one of the most hotly-debated instances in Oscar history. In the 1998-99 awards season, Saving Private Ryan took both the PGA and DGA awards, and so it was easily expected to go into the Oscars and clean up pretty well. However, while Spielberg did indeed take Best Director, the audience was shocked to find that Shakespeare in Love was voted the Best Picture of the year. Personally, I’ve never had a problem with this as I consider Shakespeare in Love to be one of the best films ever made, so taking Best Picture seemed only fitting, but it was more than enough to make fans of Saving Private Ryan furious, a furor that lasts to this day.
Shakespeare in Love had won Best Film from BAFTA, Best Comedy/Musical from the HFPA, and Best Ensemble from SAG, but Saving Private Ryan had won Best Drama, in addition to Best Picture from the BFCA. Add onto that the latter’s wins from the PGA and DGA and we thought we had a clear winner, but it was not to be. It could be the case, just like it most likely was with Crash, that the Actors Branch (the largest branch of the Academy) helped sway things in an unexpected direction, but however it happened, we were once again left with a shocking split.