Oscars: What 'Green Book's' Best Picture Win Says About Film Academy

Universal Studios
'Green Book'

Why Olivia Colman's triumph over Glenn Close was "inevitable" and more takeaways from Sunday's hostless ceremony, which also featured surprising omissions from the "In Memoriam" list.

The most surprising thing about this year’s Oscars was how little surprise there was. True, Olivia Colman was named best actress rather than Glenn Close, and Green Book beat out Roma for best picture; but the unexpected wasn’t all that unexpected, the unpredicted not all that unpredictable. 

This said, there were lessons to be learned from the 91st Academy Awards that may serve pundits and campaigners well in the years to come.

1. THE OLD ACADEMY RE-EMERGED TRIUMPHANT

Two years ago, Moonlight’s victory over La La Land seemed to herald the appearance of a new kind of voter, more indie- and art-house-minded, more open to the artsy and the avant-garde. The infusion of new members, many drawn from the independent and international arenas, led some observers to believe the kinds of movies the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences would reward were changing. With some 1,700 newcomers added to the Academy rolls in the last two years alone, there was no reason to believe the group as a whole would vote as it had done in the past, but Green Book’s victory laid that argument to rest; one cynic called it “the best film of 1965.” Its win proved that the Academy remains somewhat old-school in its taste and prefers liberal, un-“woke” comfort-food to a black-and-white, foreign-language auteur-driven oeuvre, no matter how dazzling that work may be.

2. YOU DON’T NEED A HOST — BUT YOU DO NEED STARS

The first few Oscars handed out Sunday night zipped along at a dizzying pace, a refreshing change for audiences used to hanging beside their TV screens for hours before their ballots are more than half full. If the telecast lacked some of the comedy a good host might have provided (not to mention moments of shock-and-awe and sheer razzle-dazzle), it made up for that in pace. This was good news for an institution that just recently threw up its hands in despair after Dwayne Johnson passed and losing Kevin Hart as host late in the game. The Academy has spent years fretting over who will become the new Billy Crystal. Guess what? It doesn’t need him. 

By contrast, notably absent from the telecast were the kind of heavyweight stars that audiences tune in to watch. Where were Brad Pitt, George Clooney, Denzel Washington, Jennifer Lawrence, Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock and a host of other A-listers who didn’t deign to appear on the show? Once upon a time, Hollywood’s mega-wattage stars turned out en masse for the industry’s leading event; now, they have to be begged to appear and even then say no.

Somehow, the Academy has lost clout with its own most prominent members, and that could be a much more dangerous threat to its future ratings than an overlong show.

3. DIVERSITY PAYS OFF

It was thrilling to see Black Panther rewarded for its costumes and production design, both created by some of the most talented below-the-line players in Hollywood today. It was startling, too, because Oscar traditionally goes to period pieces where the costumes and production design strut their feathers for all to see — as in The Favourite, an exquisitely beautiful picture whose costume designer, Sandy Powell, has already won three times in the past. The Black Panther winners — Ruth Carter for costumes, Hannah Beachler (along with Jay Hart) for production design — won on merit; but one has to wonder whether merit alone would have triumphed without the Academy’s laudable attempts to bring its ranks into the 21st century.

4. PLAY UGLY, PLAY PERIOD, PLAY AN ACCENT

Once again, voters opted for acting they could see, and stuck to this reporter’s rule for winning: Play period, play ugly, play with an accent and play big enough that everyone knows you’re acting. In all four categories, the Academy opted for actors in period pieces; in three of the four, they went with actors who put on an accent or clearly changed their voices; and in three of the four they also selected actors who made themselves less physically appealing than in real life. Both Glenn Close and Olivia Colman gave stellar performances, but it was inevitable that Colman’s performance as cranky Queen Anne in The Favourite was going to win, given this truism: She played a period piece, played it ugly, played it big and played it with an accent.

5. IT’S WIN-WIN FOR NETFLIX

OK, the streaming company lost the ultimate bauble. So what? It still walked away with a fistful of Oscars for Roma and the documentary short Period. End of Sentence.; made itself known as the most talked-about brand of awards season; and proved it could deliver an Oscar campaign right up there with the best. Reed Hastings, Ted Sarandos and company might have liked to win their first best picture Oscar, but they won this match on points. No major filmmaker will now hesitate to do a deal with the company and no potential subscriber will have grounds for saying Netflix doesn’t have A-list movies. Nor was the streamer hurt by gossip about the outrageous amount of money it heaped on the Roma campaign, with reports starting at $25 million and going into the stratosphere from there. That might irritate rivals; but what filmmaker who values his picture wouldn’t leap at the chance to get the same thing?

6. NOMINATIONS DON’T EQUATE TO WINS

The Favourite walked into the Oscars with 10 nominations and left with one win. That was delicious for Colman but a terrible blow to the film’s distributor, Fox Searchlight, which in recent years has been masterful in converting nominations into awards. It’s not the first time, of course, that a picture with multiple noms left relatively empty-handed — just ask Steven Spielberg, whose The Color Purple earned 11 nominations in 1985 and didn’t take home a single statuette. This should be a reminder to all campaigners that phase one of the race has nothing to do with phase two and that the kind of broad support indicated by a fleet of nominations doesn’t equate to a final win.

7. CONTROVERSY DOESN’T HURT

Despite so much mud being thrown at Green Book, none of it stuck. The opposite may even have been true. There’s a counter-argument that voters didn’t like being told what to think and held firm, regardless. That may be true, or it may simply be that whatever offenses were committed (Viggo Mortensen’s use of the n-word while talking about racial progress; writer Nick Vallelonga’s tweet supporting Trump’s claim that Muslims in New Jersey celebrated the fall of the Twin Towers) weren’t deemed serious enough for members to shift their choice. The lesson from this? Smear tactics might work, but the smear has to be incredibly disturbing to derail a campaign.

8. THERE ARE KNOWN UNKNOWNS AND UNKNOWN UNKNOWNS

Insiders will continue to debate for years why Green Book won and whether it would have done so with a different voting system. The movie earned the top accolade after voters ranked their top choices for best picture, 1 through 8, with the films tallying the fewest No. 1 votes eliminated and their ballots transferred to the next choice on the ballot — until one film had more than 50 percent of No. 1 votes. The Oscars use that “preferential” system for best picture alone; in the other categories, whoever gets the most votes on the first ballot wins.

What that means, as many have noted, is that the winner is ultimately the picture liked by the largest number of voters rather than the one adored by a few. Would Green Book have won with a different voting methodology? It’s impossible to know. Just as it’s impossible to know whether Roma came in second and how many votes separated the two. 

Future campaigners will have to keep working on this assumption: It’s not enough for a picture to be loved by a small group; it must be liked by almost everyone, too.

9. IT’S EASIER TO WIN AN OSCAR THAN TO MAKE THE “IN MEMORIAM” LIST

Where, oh where was Arnold Kopelson? The twice-nominated producer, who earned a best picture Oscar for Platoon, wasn’t even mentioned in the annual roll call, a list designed to offend even more Academy members, it seems, than those who protested the proposed elimination of four Oscars from the telecast. Each year, the "In Memoriam" section gets the same fallout, and the fact that a longer list exists online doesn’t help. Time for the Academy to make the rules clear for who’s onscreen and who isn’t; to broaden the selection committee; and to explain why others like Gary Kurtz (the Star Wars producer) and Stanley Donen (the Singin’ in the Rain director) couldn’t be squeezed in.