Oscars cliffhanger: Best Adapted Screenplay will tell us what will win Best Picture

For months, this year’s Best Picture race looked like a lock for the Netflix neo-western “The Power of The Dog.” Jane Campion’s long awaited return to the big screen led on Oscar nominations morning with a towering 12 bids. However, a late swing in momentum at the major industry guild awards for indie underdog “CODA” (the Apple Original film won top prizes at SAG, PGA and WGA), has now left the battle for Best Picture hanging in the balance.

An early indicator of which this race will go will be the presentation of the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar. Remember, “Green Book’s” Best Picture victory in 2019 was signposted by its upset win over “The Favourite” in the Best Original Screenplay category.

Among this year’s nominees in the Best Adapted Screenplay category, there are three strong contenders: the USC Scripter award winner, Maggie Gyllenhaal (“The Lost Daughter”); Critics’ Choice champ, Campion (“The Power of The Dog”); and BAFTA and WGA award winner, Sian Heder (“CODA”).

Since 2010, 8 of the 11 USC Scripter recipients and 4 of the 10 eligible CCA champs repeated at the Oscars. USC has an impressive record, CCA not so much, but regardless, there’s a correlation that trumps both of these. All four of the films that won both BAFTA and WGA since 2010 went on to take home the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar.

“CODA” is, therefore, in the prime position to take this award. “The Lost Daughter” isn’t a Best Picture nominee (it would be the first such film this century to win Best Adapted Screenplay) and Campion is a sure bet to win Best Director.

That could inspire a “spreading of the wealth” in Adapted Screenplay à la Chloé Zhao (“Nomadland”) last year. Zhao had the directing Oscar in the bag going into last year’s ceremony and subsequently lost the Adapted Screenplay Oscar to the BAFTA champs, Florian Zeller and Christopher Hampton (“The Father”). Their adaptation of Zeller’s Molière award-winning play, “Le Père” gained similarly late momentum to “CODA.”

If “CODA” was to win Best Picture, a win for Heder in Adapted Screenplay would be crucial from a historical standpoint. Not since “Grand Hotel” in 1932 has a film with no directing nomination gone on to win Best Picture without also taking home a screenwriting prize. Pictures such as “Driving Miss Daisy”, “Argo” and “Green Book” were able to pull it off. Other frontrunners like “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri”, “Trial of The Chicago 7” and “Zero Dark Thirty” weren’t so lucky though. They couldn’t balance their directing snubs with a screenplay prize and subsequently stumbled at the Best Picture finish line.

If Campion were to pick up both director and screenplay on Sunday (like Alejandro González Iñárritu did in 2014 with “Birdman”), “Power’s” her film looks like it will win. Even in the era of the preferential ballot, all three winners of both a directing and screenwriting prize (“The King’s Speech, “Birdman, “Parasite”) were named Best Picture.

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