Prize Fighter Analysis: BAFTA wins for '12 Years a Slave' and 'Gravity' further muddle a tight Oscar race

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Will it be Gravity or 12 Years a Slave? We keep looking for clarity, but this year’s award season is not forthcoming.

The BAFTA awards — think of them as the British Oscars — are considered a major Academy Award indicators, and this year 12 Years a Slave won Best Film. But … Gravity claimed the award for “Outstanding British Film” (since it was mostly produced there.)

So there.

Exactly what makes Gravity — from a Mexican director and writer, featuring two American stars — a British film is the source of much jest at the moment, but whatever the justification, it claimed one of two feature filmmaking prizes from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts. It also won Best Director for Alfonso Cuaron, among four others: Original Score, Sound, Visual Effects and Cinematography.

12 Years a Slave was mostly shut out, but collected Best Actor for Chiwetel Ejiofor (Oscar frontrunner Matthew McConaughey wasn’t nominated) and then — at the last moment — seized the top prize — a repeat of what happened at the Golden Globes. (Meanwhile, the chatter that Leonardo DiCaprio is the stealth frontrunner for Best Actor has evaporated. I suspected that was just spin and/or wishful thinking anyway, and here he had a chance to win a BAFTA with the McConaissance ensconced elsewhere, and didn’t.)

Overall, it was a hard night for 12 Years, until that last minute reprieve. Even Lupita Nyong’o, the newcomer who claimed the SAG Award for supporting actress, along with the Broadcast Film Critics honor and a host of other critics group prizes, fell short for the first time since the Globes — with American Hustle‘s Jennifer Lawrence victorious this time.

What does all this mean for the Oscars? Basically, what we already knew: Best Picture will be a very close race between Gravity and 12 Years a Slave. The two tied at the Producers Guild Awards, another excellent Oscar bellwether, and I would argue that the BAFTAs turned out to be another split decision.

Giving Gravity the award for “Outstanding British Film” gave BAFTA voters a chance to cast ballots for both movies, handing the overall Best Film award to 12 Years a Slave. We can only speculate how things might have turned out if Gravity had competed in only one category, but the dual opportunities to vote for it eliminated any Sophie’s Choice-ing that might have had to occur.

At the Oscars, unlike most other awards events, they don’t just give the prize to the film that tallies the most No. 1 votes. If a majority of the Academy doesn’t side with one film in that first round, the accountants at PricewaterhouseCoopers start tabulating No. 2 votes, then No. 3, and so on.

On the surface, this is a disadvantage to a challenging, disturbing, or divisive film, which may have many passionate supporters but also a fair number of detractors (or those who are too intimidated to see it.) And it favors any movie that has more broad appeal, is inoffensive, and ranks fairly high on voters’ lists even if it isn’t their top pick.

My theory: if you count only No. 1 ballots, 12 Years a Slave would win — narrowly. But Gravity will close the gap with those runner-up votes.

When I talked to Academy voters this week, I found many who assumed 12 Years a Slave would win, even though they and others they knew were voting for Gravity. I only occasionally hit a 12 Years voter — which surprised me. The rest were leading mainly with American Hustle, and in some cases Nebraska, or Her. (I’m still not picking up many enthusiasts for The Wolf of Wall Street, but this isn’t a scientific way to survey.) For those who weren’t choosing either as their favorite, Gravity tended to rank higher than 12 Years in the lower tiers.

All this gives me a stomachache. My gut tells me 12 Years will win — it is emotionally powerful, and focuses on a meaningful chapter of history in an uncompromising way, renewing interest in an American hero who had been lost for ages to everyone except academics. But what I’m hearing from anecdotal samples of voters — and picking the brains of strategists who do the same — suggests that the Academy has deep respect for 12 Years, but they love Gravity.

What we see from BAFTA is that, given the option, voters will pick both.

Only a few hundred BAFTA voters cross over with the Academy, so we shouldn’t overstate their influence. Last year, when Amour‘s Emmanuelle Riva won Best Actress, there was a panic among Oscar journalists, and many began shifting their picks away from the previous favorite, Silver Linings Playbook‘s Jennifer Lawrence. Remember how that turned out?

This year, Lawrence was the beneficiary — winning supporting actress over perceived frontrunner Lupita Nyong’o.

Bad tidings for Nyong’o? Ask Riva. I still think Nyong’o’s searing, indomitable performance as the field slave Patsey will be the victor on Oscar night, but I also don’t think she’s as far ahead as we may have thought.

The BAFTAs are tricky — they do well when its an easy call, but when things are close they can’t be counted on. This was the group that gave Best Film to Brokeback Mountain — a worthy choice that looks very wise now — but then Crash went on to win the Oscar.

In recent years they got Slumdog MillionaireThe Hurt Locker, The King’s Speech, The Artist,  and Argo correct — but who didn’t? The only one of those that was at all a question, arguably, was The King’s Speech. Before that, the BAFTAs had a long streak of choosing “wrong” (at least as far as matching the Oscars), honoring Atonement (instead of No Country For Old Men), The Queen (instead of The Departed), and in the two closest races of the past decade: Brokeback Mountain (instead of Crash), and The Aviator (instead of Million Dollar Baby.)

The two groups share some members, but nowhere near the same point of view.

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