Best backstory wins Best Picture at Oscars

A movie needs more than mere critical praise or hefty box office to win Best Picture. The whole production must have a compelling backstory.

Think of Kathryn Bigelow‘s vengeance against ex-hubby James Cameron (“Avatar”) when “The Hurt Locker” prevailed in 2009. A few years earlier, think of how Cameron kept “Titanic” afloat amidst prophesies of doom and then sailed into Oscar history with a dazzling cargo of box office gold aboard.

A film competing for the top award needs to shape the narrative of awards season and frame itself as the hero of the story. It’s how “Lord of the Rings” was able to overcome its genre bias, “No Country for Old Men” its violence, and “The Hurt Locker” its dismal box office.

Last year “The Artist” used it’s novelty as a black and white silent film in 2012 to position it as a nostalgic call back to Hollywood’s golden years. The year before, “The King’s Speech” became the feel-good film with heart against the critically loved but heartless “The Social Network.” In 2009, “The Hurt Locker” turned its poor box office into an asset by being the critically hailed ‘David’ taking on the $760 million grossing ‘Goliath’ of“Avatar.” In 2008, “Slumdog Millionaire” was the fun lovable film that had an important global focus while “No Country for Old Men” was the hip, edgy and critically acclaimed film of 2007. 

“The Departed” made for a long-overdue coronation of Martin Scorsese in 2006 with a film that, unlike his recent other contenders, did not seem tailor-made to court Oscar. With a reluctance to go along with the consensus choice in 2005, “Crash” emerged as an alternative due to a racial message, large respected cast and being the little film that could. “Million Dollar Baby” was the film that came out of left field in 2004 with one heck of an emotional punch from one of the most respected directors in the industry (Clint Eastwood). “Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” was rewarded in 2003 for being the end of one of the most acclaimed, successful and epic trilogies of all time while “Chicago” won in 2002 for ushering in a renaissance of enthusiasm for the musical.

When analyzing this year’s Best Picture race, focus on the lead ponies (as determined by nominations, pre-cursors, etc.) and see how each fits into the narrative.

-ADDPREDICTION:56:4:What will win Best Picture?:ADDPREDICTION-

Can “Zero Dark Thirty” position itself as the critically hailed, most relevant film?

Can “Lincoln” become the most important film by a director (Steven Speilberg) who deserves a second Best Picture winner?

Can “Argo” make Ben Affleck the hot young director in Hollywood who has an important political film?

Can “Les Miserables” recover from mixed reviews to be the kind of musical Hollywood wants to embrace?

Can “Django Unchained” advocate that this is the film to reward an overdue Quentin Tarantino?

Can “Silver Linings Playbook” make the case that it’s time the academy reward a comedy?

6 thoughts on “Best backstory wins Best Picture at Oscars

  1. At this point, I’m always intrigued when people try to make excuses for the Academy for the 2006 debacle. The facts remain: the most-honored film possibly ever (24 national awards/critics’ citations for Best Picture) fell to the worst-reviewed (PREMIERE, EW,, Metacritic), least-awarded film in decades. And it happened because the older Academy membership was desperate to find SOMETHING else to vote for besides “Brokeback Mountain.” Ah, but “Capote” also had gays front and center, and “Good Night and Good Luck” and “Munich” were politically controversial. What was left? A well-intentioned but ham-fisted drama that could basically be reduced to someone yelling “Racism BAD!” for two hours. The nastiness of the comments by Oscar voters such as Tony Curtis and Ernest Borgnine speak for themselves. The Oscars have had their share of controversial or “bad” choices in the past (cue the lengthy list), but 2006 is rock bottom. USA TODAY critic Mike Clark commented “That ‘Crash’-ing sound you hear is the Academy’s credibility falling through the ceiling.” They’ve been scrambling for the past six years, amending rules right and left, changing the date of the show, etc. to try to restore some of the luster to the tarnish; not happening.

  2. The problem with this line of thinking is the confirmation bias. It has zero predictive value. For instance, if The Social Network had won in 2010, then the article would be commenting about how the story of Sorkin/Fincher/zeitgest triumphed; if Brokeback Mountain had won, then the article would be talking about how it was a groundbreaking romance; etc.

    In short, everything here means NOTHING. These films didn’t win BECAUSE of the best backstory; but you only THINK that these have the best backstory BECAUSE you already know that they won.

  3. SeanPhilly, it has predictive value for sure. During the 2010 campaign you could see The King’s Speech winning the narrative. I wrote an article during that year saying the only way Social Network could win was by changing the narrative of the campaign (and they were unlikley able to). Hurt Locker and Million Dollar Baby were seen to take over the narrative (from Avatar and Aviator respectivly) during the campaign. We were also pretty sure that no film had built a compelling enough narrative to challenge “No Country” or “Return of the King” in their years. I am happy to admit that some years there are multiple compelling stories and of course there is always uncertainty. Will “Hurt Locker” be the little film that could? or will Avatar be the big success of the year? But when predicting you know it’s between those 2 compelling stories (so it narrows the field) and I think that year it could be observed “Locker” was winning the debate. This year for instance I’m struggling to see Silver Linings position itself to frame the narrative, so that’s making me predict it lower.

  4. Dback, I was making NO excuses for the 2006 decision. Clearly there was an ugly desire by some voters to not award Brokeback. However the point I’d make is there is a reason outside of voters hating Brokeback that Crash won. It had a story that the other 3 best picture nominations didn’t. It positioned itself as the clear alternative to Brokeback. I think it was able to do that due to it’s SAG win, racial message and being seen as a little film that could. If people don’t like the frountrunner they are likley not to cast a vote unless there is something they want to vote for (just ask Mitt Romney), Crash provided a story for the BBM haters to rally around. Did we know Crash was going to win before Oscar night? no. But we did know going into Oscar night (as it was pointed out I think by Tom at least) that if BBM lost it would be to Crash. Ultimatly because they were the only 2 films with narratives that voters were buying into.

  5. Fair point Vince, I am happy to say Chicago built on Moulin Rouge had started to the year before. But Chicago grossed about double the box office of MR (before it won the BP Oscar) and had a higher metacritic score (82 to 66), so I think it was able to accomplish more than MR outisde of the BP win.

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