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Countdown to Oscars

Monday, February 21, 2011
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At Sunday night’s 83rd Academy Awards, “The King’s Speech” and “The Social Network” will compete for the best picture Oscar, which will be the last of 24 to be presented. Though “The King’s Speech” is the clear favorite to win, there are still a few reasons to believe that “The Social Network” could pull off an upset, so it will be a nerve-wracking night for a lot of us who feel we have something riding on the outcome. There may, however, be a semi-reliable way to gauge the likely outcome earlier in the evening.

In addition to best picture, “The King’s Speech” and “The Social Network” will also be competing against each in six other categories that will be presented first: best director, best actor, best cinematography, best film editing, best original score, and best sound mixing. There’s no guarantee that one or the other will win in each of those categories, or that, if that happens, those wins will in any way correspond with the winner of the best picture category (which is the only one determined by a preferential balloting system), but it might offer us some early clues about how passionately voters feel — or don’t feel — about each of the films.

Here’s a quick primer for those six categories…

Best director: Tom Hooper, the director of “The King’s Speech,” pulled off a huge upset victory over David Fincher, the director of “The Social Network,” to win the DGA Award last month. The winner of the DGA Award has corresponded with the winner of the best director Oscar in all but 13 of the 61 years in which both awards have been presented, which is certainly a formidable statistic. However, one must consider the fact that the majority of the massive DGA membership (roughly 13,500) is composed of directors for television, the medium in which Hooper has made his name, and that DGA members do not have an opportunity to specifically cast a ballot for best picture, and therefore may have seized that opportunity to vote for the person from the film they liked most. It may prove to be at least as noteworthy that BAFTA, the group that votes for the British equivalent of the Oscars, chose “The King’s Speech” for best picture but Fincher for best director. When BAFTA chooses an American over a Brit in a close race, it usually forecasts a similar result from the Academy. And when the Academy chooses a best director, it usually forecasts a similar choice for best picture — 59 of 80 best director Oscar winners directed the film that also won the best picture Oscar that same year.

Best actor: Colin Firth, a veteran actor who was nominated for a great performance last year in “A Single Man” (2009) and has won all of the most significant precursor awards this year for a great performance in “The King’s Speech,” is far and away the favorite to win this Oscar. If, by some freakish development, he does not, then that will be a very bad sign for his film’s prospects. Jesse Eisenberg was also critically acclaimed for his performance in “The Social Network” — he was voted best actor over Firth by the National Board of Review and National Society of Film Critics — but this is the first time that he has been nominated for an Oscar and he is roughly half of Firth’s age, so he — like the rest of the field — is regarded as only a very long-shot possibility.

Best cinematography: Most people assume that this race is between “Inception,” for which Wally Pfister won the ASC Award, and “True Grit,” for which many hope to see Roger Deakins finally recognized by the Academy. The potential holes in that reasoning are that the winners of the ASC Award and best cinematography Oscar, which have been concurrently presented over the last 24 years, have corresponded only 9 times (although two of those times have been years in which both groups agreed on the same five nominees, as they did this year), and also that cinematographers’ names are not listed alongside their films on the Oscar ballot. Regardless, the outcome of this category probably won’t have much bearing on anything else — indeed, the winners of the best picture and best cinematography Oscars have corresponded only 27 times in 82 years and only twice in the last 11 years, so in a weird way this might be a category that you don’t want your Oscar favorite to win. Perhaps “Black Swan” will take the prize?!

Best film editing: No film in the last 29 years has won the best picture Oscar without also being nominated for the editors guild’s ACE Eddie Award (like “The King’s Speech” and “The Social Network”), and no film in the last 32 years has won the best picture Oscar without also being nominated for the best film editing Oscar (like “The King’s Speech” and “The Social Network”), but a majority of films — 55 of 82 overall — have lost the best film editing Oscar but still gone on to win the best picture Oscar. Therefore, the outcome of this category probably won’t have much bearing on anything else.

Best original score: Any of the nominees could win here, but Alexandre Desplat, the prolific classical composer who received his fourth nomination in five years for “The King’s Speech” (and also composed “The Ghost Writer” this year), seems like a more likely bet than the less-traditional composition of Golden Globe winners/first-time Oscar nominees Trent Reznor (the frontman for Nine Inch Nails) and Atticus Ross (his creative partner) for “The Social Network.” That being said, the best original score winner does not consistently correspond with the best picture winner, so neither outcome would be all that informative.

Best sound mixing: In this category, he Academy tends to reward either the loudest of its nominees (which this year would be “Inception” or, conceivably, “Salt”) or the one that will wind up winning its best picture Oscar (which this year would be “The King’s Speech” or “The Social Network” or, by some miracle, “True Grit”). As always, one refers to the precursor/guild award for a sense of how things might turn out — in this case the Cinema Audio Society’s award for outstanding achievement in sound mixing for a feature film — and it turns out that “The King’s Speech” (even with its radio broadcasts, etc.) was not nominated; “The Social Network” (even with its nightclub scene, etc.) was nominated but lost; and yes, “True Grit,” of all films, won! The winners of the CAS Award and best sound mixing Oscar, however, have only corresponded four times in the last 10 years, so it’s certainly possible that the Academy will choose one of the two films with a real shot at the best picture Oscar — and if they do, that should not be ignored.

Photo: Posters of “The King’s Speech” and “The Social Network.” Credit: The Weinstein Company and Columbia.

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  • David

    Editing is a fascinating category. I always assumed it was more of a bellweather for Best Picture. It may well be a red herring if The Social Network wins editing – but if it does, i feel it will at the very least win Best Director, if not the ‘upset’ and win Best Picture. Back in the 80’s it used to be Costume Design as the possible indicator of the end result of the night- with all the epics and costumne dramas. If The King’s Speech should win over Alice or I am love – I can feel stronger that is will win the big one. Interesting analysis – it has turned into a truly memorable year, prognostication wise (is that a word?). Could be a cliff hanger!

  • This is exasperating. Matthew Libatique is the best cinematographer in his category and the attention is all on Deakins and Pfister.

  • Candice

    Really? You don’t think there’s a chance that Social Network and The King’s Speech with all their number one votes, give way to the possibility of a film with a ton of love like The Fighter to win best picture? I do.

    • I think it’s highly unlikely that “The Fighter” will win… but I wouldn’t be unhappy if it did!

    • I think it’s highly unlikely that “The Fighter” will win… but I wouldn’t be unhappy if it did!

  • Gogre

    For me, the two categories that will be a more likely indicator of which film could win are Supporting Actor and Supporting Actress. Though The King’s Speech and The Social Network are not competing here, a win for Bonham Carter early in the evening would almost assure that The King’s Speech is sweeping and a win for Rush over Bale, while more likely than a Bonham Carter win, signifies TKS love beyond Colin Firth and David Seidler.

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