Oscars Analysis: How 'Green Book' Won and Glenn Close Lost

Best Picture Green Book Oscars_Onstage_3 - Publicity - H 2019
Craig Sjodin/ABC

At the end of an awards season in which the top guild and industry prizes each went to a different film, something that had never happened before, the 91st Oscars followed suit, giving at least one award to each of the eight best picture nominees — Black Panther, BlacKkKlansman, Bohemian RhapsodyThe Favourite, Green Book, Roma, A Star Is Born and Vice — and sending home the directors of three of those films with statuettes of their own. Green Book's Peter Farrelly collected Oscars for best picture and best original screenplay; Roma's Alfonso Cuaron for best director and best cinematography (he also picked up the best foreign language film trophy awarded to Mexico); and BlacKkKlansman's Spike Lee for best adapted screenplay.

The fact that the 7,902 voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences — an organization larger than ever before, thanks to a push over the last few years to invite more women, people of color and non-Americans — were willing to award their top prize to Green Book over more "woke" fare came as no less a shock and disappointment to the circle of online kibbitzers known as "Film Twitter" than the election of Donald Trump did to many Americans back in 2016. And, as with Trump's election, this year's Oscar results suggests that the commentariat exists in something of an echo chamber, a bubble not shared by many actual voters.

Film Twitter saw Green Book — Universal's first best picture Oscar winner since A Beautiful Mind 17 years ago — as, at best, a warmed-over version of Driving Miss Daisy, the best picture winner 29 years ago, and, at worst, racist. They also were outraged — not unjustifiably — about past inappropriate behavior on the part of Farrelly and, separately, screenwriter/producer Nick Vallelonga, which, somewhat suspiciously, came to light just as final voting got underway.

Clearly, a significant number of Academy members saw things differently. Many are not immersed in the minute-to-minute twists and turns of the season as chronicled on social media, and others do not feel that considerations beyond their assessment of a film itself should impact their voting. In Green Book, they — yes, the same people who awarded BlacKkKlansman's Lee his first-ever competitive Oscar and made Black Panther costume designer Ruth E. Carter and production designer Hannah Beachler the first-ever black Oscar winners for their respective fields — saw a funny and heartwarming ode to racial harmony.

At the post-show Governors Ball, the win for Green Book — which premiered and won the audience award at September's Toronto International Film Festival, and breaks the Telluride Film Festival's eight-year streak of screening the eventual best picture winner — was heavily debated. In particular, the impact of the divisive "preferential ballot" that the Academy employs only for the best picture category was a focus of conversation. Did Green Book win because it was most voters' second- or third-favorite nominee, or would it have won on a popular ballot, too? One studio chief who asked to remain nameless told me that he is totally convinced it would have prevailed under either format.

But supporters of Roma, the Netflix film that was the odds-on favorite to win best picture, tended to feel differently. They point to the fact that in five of the 10 years since the preferential ballot was implemented (concurrent with the expansion of the best picture Oscar category beyond a cap of five nominees), the best picture and best director Oscars have gone to different films, a far higher rate than ever before. If one agrees with the widespread assumption that most people vote for the same film for best picture and best director, then one can see why it would be frustrating that a plurality is enough to win best director, but an outright majority is required to win best picture, something that can only be achieved, in a year without a runaway frontrunner, when lower-ranked films then come into play.

In fairness, this year's picture/director split is at least partly attributable to the fact that the directors branch of the Academy did not even provide the rest of the Academy with the option of honoring Farrelly for best director; indeed, Green Book becomes only the fifth film in 91 years to win best picture without having even been nominated for best director, following in the footsteps of 1927's Wings, 1932's Grand Hotel, 1989's Driving Miss Daisy (awkwardly enough) and 2012's Argo. (It also becomes only the third film, in the 24 years in which the best ensemble SAG Award and the best picture Oscar have coexisted, to win the latter without having been nominated for the former, following 1995's Braveheart and 2017's The Shape of Water.)

Netflix had a very good night: Its four total wins — three for Roma, plus best documentary short for Period. End of Sentence. — tied Universal, Disney and Fox for the most of any distributor this year. The streaming service is obviously disappointed that Roma came up short in the best picture race, but, with the benefit of a little distance from the campaign, it will become clear how remarkable it is that a black-and-white, non-English-language, star-free, two-and-a-half-hour film from the streaming service some in Hollywood regard as an existential threat to the moviegoing experience as we know it ever came as close to winning the top prize as this one did. While Netflix certainly spared no expense in promoting the pic, it is also true that one literally could not have designed a harder film to sell to the Academy. Imagine what could happen when the company has a conventionally good awards contender to push, especially now that the albatross of 'Will Hollywood ever give a best picture Oscar nomination to Netflix?' has been shed.

In the acting races, Bohemian Rhapsody's Rami Malek, Green Book's Mahershala Ali and If Beale Street Could Talk's Regina King were widely predicted winners as best actor, best supporting actor (for the second time in three years) and best supporting actress, respectively. In addition to being testaments to excellent performances, these wins were about other things, as well — Malek's and his collaborators' perseverance even after the tumult caused by Bryan Singer during and after the film's production, and Malek's stamina on the campaign trail; Ali's grace even as his collaborators' blunders came to light, and his acclaimed work on True Detective that is currently rolling out on HBO (just as that show's first season was rolling out when Matthew McConaughey won his Oscar a few years ago); and King's standing in the community — her first Oscar comes even after she was inexplicably denied SAG and BAFTA award nominations, without which only one other performer has ever won an acting Oscar (Marcia Gay Harden for 2000's Pollock).

The biggest shocker of the night, which will be remembered as one of the biggest shockers of all time, was the best actress upset of The Wife's Glenn Close by The Favourite's Olivia Colman, even after Close won Critics' Choice, Golden Globe and SAG awards. Only one other actress (Julie Christie for 2007's Away from Her) and two actors (Russell Crowe for A Beautiful Mind and Eddie Murphy for 2006's Dreamgirls) have ever won all three of those precursors and then lost at the Oscars. Going into the night, the 71-year-old was already the most Oscar-nominated living performer, male or female, without a win, and now extends that undesirable record by losing for the seventh time.

How did this happen? It's impossible to say for sure, of course, but it likely has to do with the number of Academy members who actually saw Close's film versus Colman's. Colman's The Favourite, which was distributed by Fox Searchlight (which never gets enough credit for its campaign prowess), was nominated for 10 Oscars (tied with Roma for most), including best picture. That meant most voters made it a priority to check it out — and, indeed, Colman is extraordinary in it. The Wife, on the other hand, was a much lower-profile film; it received no nominations other than Close's, and therefore was a lower priority for voters as they budgeted their time.

People have occasionally won major Oscars, including best actress, as their film's sole nominee — for example, Julianne Moore, another revered vet who was Oscar-less despite multiple nominations prior to Still Alice (2014), a Sony Classics film, like The Wife. But it is only going to become harder to do so as the Academy explodes in size as the result of inviting many younger people to join. People who are active and busy, in the prime of their career, simply do not have as much time to devote to considering films as do retirees, but, rightly or not, tend to still vote even if they haven't seen every nominee in a category.

Meanwhile, the Academy, for all the flak it takes, should also get credit for making quite a few hip choices this year. Not only did it award indie icon Lee the first competitive Oscar of his trailblazing career and give three prizes to the groundbreaking comic book adaptation Black Panther — the two for costume design and production design, plus best original score, just two weeks after its score also won a Grammy — but it also awarded best animated feature to Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (a rare winner not from Disney or Pixar); best documentary feature to Free Solo (which is every bit as cinematic and dramatic as any narrative film); and best original song to A Star Is Born's "Shallow," a genuine hit that also won a Grammy earlier this month.

As for the Oscars ceremony itself? Despite a lot of hiccups along the way — the announced, and then abandoned, popular Oscar; selection of Kevin Hart as host; and consolidation of four awards — the final product was actually quite good. Kudos to Donna Gigliotti, who produced it for the first time (20 years after she was onstage accepting best picture honors for Shakespeare in Love), and Glenn Weiss, who directed it for the fourth time (although he may be best known for proposing to his wife after winning an Emmy last fall). They stared down plenty of skepticism over their decision to do a host-less show for the first time in 30 years, and the truth is a host wasn't really missed at all. The show — like its ratings, which ticked up slightly from last year — was undoubtedly helped by the fact that an unusual number of popular movies were in contention for and won top awards. But it was also lean (running only slightly over its desired three-hour runtime), entertaining, inclusive and, even in these divisive times in Hollywood and America at large, mostly apolitical.