Is it still possible to win an acting Oscar if your film isn’t up for Best Picture? The short answer is yes, but it doesn’t help. It’s a logical consequence of the expansion of the Best Picture category eight years ago: if voters like your performance enough to give you a trophy there’s a strong chance your movie has a least enough support to make the cut in a field of eight, nine, or ten Best Picture contenders. And if your film doesn’t have enough support for a Best Picture nomination, the road to an acting win becomes steeper. Let’s consider the exact numbers.
The Best Picture race was expanded at the 2010 ceremony honoring the best films of 2009. For two years the academy committed to nominating exactly 10 films for Best Picture, after which they changed to a sliding scale where there could be anywhere between 5 and 10 nominees. In those eight years there were 32 acting winners. All but six of them had corresponding Best Picture nominations. That’s a win rate of only 18.75% for actors whose films weren’t nominated in the top category. Compare that to the eight years immediately preceding the Best Picture expansion, when 14 out of 32 acting winners lacked corresponding Best Picture noms (43.75%). So your chances of winning have dropped by more than half if you’re not in a Best Picture nominee.
Those six exceptions in the last eight years were Jeff Bridges (Best Actor for 2009’s “Crazy Heart”), Meryl Streep (Best Actress for 2011’s “The Iron Lady”), Christopher Plummer (Best Supporting Actor for 2011’s “Beginners”), Cate Blanchett (Best Actress for 2013’s “Blue Jasmine”), Julianne Moore (Best Actress for 2014’s “Still Alice”), and Alicia Vikander (Best Supporting Actress for 2015’s “The Danish Girl”). That’s a pretty heterogeneous group, from first-time winners to repeaters, from rising stars to experienced veterans. But there are a couple of patterns to note.
It’s twice as likely for a woman to win without a Best Picture nomination as it is for a man. That is sadly not surprising: women are typically underrepresented in Best Picture nominees, and in films in general. Another factor is that it’s easier to win if you’re a veteran with a strong overdue narrative. That was the case for Bridges, Plummer, and Moore, who had never won before despite years of acclaimed performances. It was even true of Streep, who hadn’t won an Oscar in 29 years at that point and had lost 12 times in a row before collecting her third trophy for “Iron Lady.”
This year there are a few top contenders for acting prizes whose films are on the bubble for Best Picture nominations. Are they out of the running if their films miss? First there’s Gary Oldman, who stars as Winston Churchill in the biographical drama “Darkest Hour.” The film earned Best Picture nominations from the Critics’ Choice and BAFTA Awards, so there’s a strong chance it will land a top nomination from the motion picture academy, but it missed at the Golden Globes and at the crucial Producers Guild Awards. All nine of last year’s Best Picture nominees were cited by the Producers Guild, so there’s a chance “Darkest Hour” will be absent from the Oscars too. The good news for Oldman, though, is that he has the strong overdue narrative that propelled Bridges, Streep, Plummer, and Moore to victory. He has only been nominated once before in his long career and has never won.
Willem Dafoe has a similar narrative. The Best Supporting Actor contender from “The Florida Project” could potentially be the only nomination for that film, but he too is overdue, having been nominated only twice spanning the last 30 years: Supporting Actor for “Platoon” (1987) and “Shadow of the Vampire” (2000). Plummer and Moore were also the only nominees for their films, so sometimes the overdue factor is all you need to get to the finish line.
Meanwhile, the top Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress contenders might need to watch their backs if “I, Tonya” earns a Best Picture bid. Four of the likely Best Actress nominees are from films strongly favored for noms in the top race: Sally Hawkins (“The Shape of Water”) Frances McDormand (“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”), Saoirse Ronan (“Lady Bird”), and Streep (“The Post”). “I, Tonya” is on the bubble, but its recent nom from the Producers Guild shows it’s a force to be reckoned with, and its leading lady Margot Robbie gives the kind of showy, transformative biographical performance voters love, especially from ingenues.
Elsewhere, “Lady Bird” co-star Laurie Metcalf is the current frontrunner for the Supporting Actress prize, but she was upset at the Golden Globes by “I, Tonya” scene-stealer Allison Janney. Janney suddenly becomes a much more formidable thread at the Oscars if “I, Tonya” can eke out that Best Picture nomination.
What do you think? Do you really a need a Best Picture nomination to be truly competitive for acting prizes these days? How many exceptions to the rule (if any) will we see this year?
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