Oscar cliffhanger: Will PGA champ ‘The Big Short’ win Best Picture?

Nothing prompts a flip-flop of Oscar opinion faster than a new guild award announcement and the flips were really flopping after “The Big Short” won the Producers Guild of America award for Best Picture on Saturday. 

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The incomprehensible but exceptionally well-made and thoroughly winning movie about the noisy crash of the stock market and the loud popping of the housing bubble in 2008 was immediately elevated from dark horse to front-runner in the Best Picture race.

But did it really move to the front?

Since its inaugural awards beat the Oscars to honoring Bruce Beresford’s quietly moving “Driving Miss Daisy” as the Best Picture of 1989, the PGA has foreshadowed the academy’s top choice 19 out of 26 times, and all but once in the last decade. If “The Big Short” was a horse (and some newborn colts may have already been given the name), it would be a prohibitive favor. But it’s a movie and academy voters will decide how strong its legs are.

I would have liked “The Big Short” more if there was a scroll before the final credits listing the names of the people responsible for the events portrayed and of the length of the prison terms they are serving. But only the occasional Bernie Madoff is prosecuted for stock market crimes, so that scroll would have been fictional. Even so, it would have been a satisfying coda.

The reason to question whether the PGA will continue its streak is that the movie loses much of its audience to the complexities of Wall Street. Perhaps the PGA is top-heavy in people invested in the market who closely followed the run-up to the collapse. The guild is made up of more than 7,000 people from around the world and while that is a strong polling sample of opinion, it is not necessarily representative of the academy membership’s thinking.

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If those voters want to honor a movie based on actual 21st Century scandals in the U.S., they can choose between “The Big Short,” which many of them may claim to understand, or “Spotlight,” which everyone understands. The reviews have been equally admiring of both movies, so the decision among those choosing between them comes down to this: do they vote for the one that exposes the fault-lines in American capitalism, or the one that is a profoundly sad indictment of the Catholic church’s cover-up of child abuse by its priesthood?

Both are about bad people getting away with anti-social behavior, but one appeals mostly to the intellect and the other to our emotions. Perhaps, that choice will divide a large percentage of the voters and open the door for “The Revenant” or even “#Mad Max: Fury Road.#” There, the choice is between a stunning esthetic achievement, which Oscar has honored as recently as last year with “Birdman,” and a breathtaking, credit-to-credit thrill ride.

I do believe we can throw out the recent PGA record book this year and think of this field of contenders, the top three if not the top four, rounding the last turn neck-and-neck. I’m sitting on “Spotlight” right now, but the DGA awards are a week from Saturday and one of the others may surge ahead and the next sound you’ll hear will be that of flips flopping.

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Photo: “The Big Short” (Paramount)

 

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