Oscar analysis: '12 Years a Slave' breaks Academy's trend of playing it safe

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Image Credit: ABC

Shoulda trusted the coin.

About two weeks ago, sitting in the office of EW assistant managing editor Sean Smith, we were discussing EW’s official Oscar predictions and mulling the reaction I was getting from many voters: Gravity was taking the lead in the tightest Best Picture race in years, and those who favored 12 Years a Slave seemed soft in their support.

For months, ever since the historical drama premiered at the Toronto film festival, it was at the top of my predictions list — a crushing, emotionally resonant film that addressed how we perceive and treat those who appear to be different from ourselves. But it was also an uncompromising film, full of brutality that was often difficult to watch, and we all know the Academy Awards have compromised a lot in the past.

So I switched our pick toward Gravity, which was garnering a groundswell of support in other categories, and seemed to be the popular, more accessible favorite. The graphics people were alerted to make a last-minute adjustment, and I stayed with that through the final round of guessing. It was close enough to give me a stomachache. (Believe it or not, the predictions truly are made based on our best assessment of voters. There’s no advocacy or favoritism. The cold, hard pragmatism of wanting to be right guides those choices.)

The call was made: Gravity it would be, by a hair. But then I flipped a quarter, and Sean called it: Tails, it would be 12 Years a Slave.

Again — shoulda trusted the coin.

My mistake was to overthink something that voters decide on by the heart and gut. The key to Oscar victory is getting viewers to feel something deeply, to spill tears, to hold the hand of the person next to them, even if it’s a stranger.

12 Years a Slave did that, but Gravity did too. That’s why this was such a tricky one. But while Gravity grabs you by the throat, 12 Years a Slave grabs you by the heart. That’s how a film gets its name inside that big, golden envelope.

It’s always nice to be right, but if I had to be wrong, at least it was to the benefit of a beautiful, heartbreaking, historically meaningful and (sadly) timely film. 12 Years a Slave busted my heart. But it is mended somewhat by this lovely victory, which — if there was any doubt — establishes this film in the canon as a must-see for generations to come.

Prediction-wise, this was a B-minus year, if I’m being generous. (C-plus if I’m not.) Last year I was 21 for 24, this time 19 for 24. But I was glad to get all the major categories right except for Best Picture — a small consolation. That included the tricky Original Screenplay prize — which many had going to American Hustle. The biggest nail-biter apart from picture was Supporting Actress, and Lupita Nyong’o proved victorious over Jennifer Lawrence, who had recently claimed the BAFTA for her performance — leading many to switch their predictions to her.

But voters were reluctant to give Lawrence another Oscar so soon after last year’s win for Silver Linings Playbook, and although they liked her brash 1970s housewife immensely, there was no denying the power of Nyong’o’s debut as the plantation slave Patsey, who — despite her great strength and will — led a trapped, doomed existence. That win was one of the high points of the night, and nobody clapped and cheered louder than Lawrence.

Mostly when I stuck my neck out, it was a bad move. Instead of Captain Phillips winning for editing, Gravity took home the prize. And instead of the Mickey Mouse short Get a Horse!, it was the French sci-fi tale Mr. Hublot that won animated short. I was also off on costume design, thinking the randy old-timer vote from the Academy would nudge American Hustle across the finish line. It turned out to be The Great Gatsby.

I also regret not listening to the handful of voters who told me the sweet, fantastical Helium — about a dying boy regaled with stories of a magical land by a hospital janitor — would win Live-Action Short. It was difficult to find Academy members who had watched all the shorts, so I relied more on critical reviews for consensus. But critics (who largely heralded the spousal-abuse escape drama Just Before Losing Everything as the best of the lot) are a different breed from Academy members — more cynical, and less likely to be swayed by sentiment.

Another tight call was Documentary Feature, which I correctly marked as 20 Feet From Stardom, which is a finger-snapping and toe-tapping musical exploration of the backup singers on some of rock and roll’s greatest recordings and musical groups. The Act of Killing, in which Indonesian death-squad members somewhat obliviously re-create their war crimes, is perhaps the more daring, and cinematically innovative, film, but the Academy went feel-good on this one.

That’s what I thought would hurt 12 Years a Slave, since other compelling-but-challenging dramas had fallen victim to it in the past. Brokeback Mountain is the famous example of that, an ahead-of-its-time gay love story that won a lot of top prizes before the Oscars, and then lost Best Picture to Crash. The hurdle then was members who shied away from “the gay cowboy movie,” and I feared they would again turn away from the “brutally intense slavery movie.”

But Brokeback happened almost a decade ago, and the Academy has undertaken efforts in recent years to diversify its ranks and expand its way of thinking. The group’s open-mindedness fluctuates over the years, but this year few could quarrel with the selections: Gravity, a thrilling, technologically innovative, survival drama claimed seven Oscars for its masterful storytelling, including Best Director; Dallas Buyers Club, the low-budget, high-energy defiance tale about two AIDS patients who become friends while fighting for their own survival, collected the Supporting Actor and Lead Actor wins, as well as Best Makeup; and 12 Years a Slave won Supporting Actress, Adapted Screenplay, and Best Picture for breathing new life into the story of Solomon Northup, an outsider, a free man, who is forced to live in the skin of a slave because the color of his matches theirs.

As one-offs, the Academy even made room for the imaginative Her, giving Original Screenplay to Spike Jonze’s offbeat love story about artificial intelligences and the men who love them, and the melancholy spiral Blue Jasmine, offering Best Actress to Cate Blanchett for her role as a woman who has been pretending so long she no longer knows what is real.

That’s a danger the Oscars often succumb to — losing touch. In a business of make-believe, it’s easy to do.

This year, at least, they kept it real.

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