Another Best Director/Picture Split Means...What?
“Moonlight” is the fourth best picture in five years to win without its director winning.
Lost in the controversy and just plain WTF shock of Oscar's best-picture envelope screw-up (Waterhoouuuse!) is the fact that this is the second best picture in a row with light at the end of its title: First “Spotlight,” now “Moonlight.” #OscarsSoLight.
I thought I was vaguely original with that hashtag, but when I began to tweet it this morning, #OscarsSoLight was already a thing. Thousands, tens of thousands, were ahead of me. That's what I get for hosting a party, then cleaning up after the party, then going to bed and not tweeting anything until like 12 hours later. Lazy.
No, what's really lost amid the envelope controversy is the fact that the connect between best picture and director may be broken forever.
A little history. I was born in 1963, and into my mid-30s best director and picture matched every year but four:
- 1967, when Mike Nichols won for “The Graduate” but best picture went to “In the Heat of the Night”
- 1972, when Bob Fosse won for “Cabaret” but best picture went to “The Godfather”
- 1981, when Warren Beatty won for “Reds” but best picture went to “Chariots of Fire”
- 1989, when Oliver Stone won for “Born on the Fourth of July” but best picture went to “Driving Miss Daisy”
In the 18 years since? We've had a director/picture split eight times:
- 1998, when Steven Spielberg won for “Saving Private Ryan” but best pic went to “Shakespeare in Love”
- 2000, when Steven Soderbergh won for “Traffic” but pic went to “Gladiator”
- 2002, when Roman Polanski won for “The Pianist” but “Chicago” won best pic
- 2005, when Ang Lee won for “Brokeback Mountain” but “Crash” won best pic
- 2012, when Ang Lee won for “Life of Pi” but “Argo” won best pic
- 2013, when Alfonso Cuaron won for “Gravity” but “12 Years a Slave” won best pic
- 2015, when Alejandro Innaritu won for “The Revenant” but “Spotlight” won best pic
- 2016, when Damien Chazalle won for “La La Land” but “Moonlight” won best pic
What's going on? Well, the recent splits may be the result of the preferential voting system for best picture, which the Academy adopted in 2009. Now you need 50 percent + 1 vote to win, and if no film has that after ballots are counted, then the film with the least top votes leaves the race and its votes are redistributed to the voter's second-place choice. And on and on until you get your 50+1.
The Academy used this system from 1934 to 1945 until it went with the more straightforward “Whoever has the most votes, wins” method from 1946 to 2008. During that period, which is most of the Academy's history, you had 13 director/picture splits over 62 years, or approximately 21% of the time. Since 2009, we've had four splits in eight years: 50/50.
The oddity is that in its first three years, the preferential system went with the same old director/picture combo, even with such middling fare as “The King's Speech.” Then something changed. Not sure what.
But I'm in favor of it. Makes the Oscar pools that much more interesting. It's also a small stick in the eye of the auteur theory, which I've never bought into.