Oscars Analysis: What Saturday's '1917,' 'Ford v Ferrari' and 'Little Women' Wins Mean

Sam Mendes - DGA - Getty - H 2020

Saturday night was the award season's version of the presidential election season's upcoming Super Tuesday: A storm of results came in all at once, offering — or at least appearing to offer — a bit of clarity about the overall race.

The biggest deal, by far, was the 72nd Directors Guild of America Awards, where the prize for outstanding directorial achievement in motion pictures was won by 1917's Sam Mendes. This all must feel a bit like deja vu for the British helmer: Indeed, it was exactly 20 years ago that he won the DGA Award for his directorial debut, American Beauty, and then, like all but seven DGA Award winners over the 71 years since the creation of the DGA Award, went on to win the best director Oscar; moreover, as in all but 17 of those 71 years, the DGA Award winner's film — his — went on to win the best picture Oscar, too.

It's hard to pinpoint why the directors' union is such a strong predictor of these categories, considering helmers account for only a small portion of the membership of the full Academy, which determines the best picture and best director Oscar winners — currently, just six percent — but the numbers are undeniable.

One thing to consider, though: Since the Academy expanded its best picture Oscar category a decade ago to create the possibility of more than five best picture nominees, and concurrently introduced a preferential ballot system to select its best picture winner, the DGA Award winner and the best director Oscar winner have differed only once (in 2013, when Argo's Ben Affleck won the DGA Award but Life of Pi's Ang Lee won the Oscar), but the DGA Award winner's film and the best picture Oscar winner have differed four times (in 2014, when the Gravity's Alfonso Cuaron won the DGA Award, but 12 Years a Slave won the Oscar; in 2016, when The Revenant's Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu won the DGA Award, but Spotlight won the Oscar; in 2017, when La La Land's Damien Chazelle won the DGA Award, but Moonlight won the Oscar; and in 2019, when Roma's Cuaron won the DGA Award, but Green Book won the Oscar).

What's that all about? Well, it appears to me that, in the aforementioned time period, the DGA Award and the best director Oscar have tended to go to the director who had the toughest filmmaking challenge, but the best picture Oscar has tended to the film that was perhaps less revered but more enjoyed. Which, to me, suggests that Parasite, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and Jojo Rabbit should not yet be counted out for the best picture Oscar, even if Mendes himself looks like as good a bet as ever for a film that is made to appear as if it was captured in a single take.

Speaking of which, that is almost certainly what caused the top prize at the 34th American Society of Cinematographers Awards, the ASC Award for Outstanding Achievement in Theatrical Releases, to go to 1917's legendary lenser Roger Deakins. But caveat emptor: This is Deakins fifth ASC Award (tying the record previously held alone by Emmanuel Lubezki), but he has only one Oscar to his name, which should serve as a stark reminder that the will of cinematographers is not always heard by the full Academy, perhaps because cinematographers account for only three percent of the overall Academy membership, which picks the best cinematography Oscar winner. Indeed, over the prior 33 years in which both prizes have previously been presented, they have chosen the same winner only 14 times. Still, it is almost unimaginable that Deakins won't snag his second Oscar in three years for such tour de force work in what is at least one of the Academy's favorite films of the year.

One place where 1917 wasn't represented on Saturday was at the 56th Cinema Audio Society Awards. This organization of sound mixers chose to award its top prize, the best mixed motion picture – live action CAS Award, to Ford v Ferrari, one of the films that 1917 is nominated against — along with Ad Astra, Joker and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood — for the best sound mixing Oscar. The top CAS Award winner has gone on to win the best sound mixing Oscar in 13 of the last 23 years, which is encouraging news for Ford. But it's not like 1917 was 'snubbed' by CAS — CAS nomination voting concluded before 1917 had even screened, so it's not like 1917. So we really have no clearer idea of which way this Oscar category is leaning — towards the war film (recent winners include Saving Private Ryan, Black Hawk Down, The Hurt Locker, Hacksaw Ridge and Dunkirk) or the speeding vehicles film (recent winners include The Bourne Ultimatum and Mad Max: Fury Road).

Meanwhile, over at the 47th Annie Awards, recognizing the year's best work in animation, virtually every result was a shocker. Klaus and I Lost My Body, Netflix's first two animated features, dominated, while the presumptive favorites against which it is also nominated for the best animated feature Oscar — Toy Story 4, Missing Link and How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World — went home emptyhanded. Klaus won a field-leading seven Annies including best animated feature, direction, editing, production design, character design, character animation and storyboarding, and I Lost My Body claimed three, best independent animated feature, writing and music.

Last, but certainly not least, Saturday brought the 32nd USC Scripter Awards ceremony, which is the one that I attended, as I do every year. It's a lovely event, held inside the University of Southern California's majestic Edward L. Doheny Library, and it celebrates screenwriters who have adapted work from pre-existing texts and the authors of those source materials. The Scripter selection committee is composed of only about 50 people, all of them writers of one sort or another, whereas the Academy consists of about 8,000 people, only about six percent of them writers, so it's hard to understand why one would be predictive of the other. But, in what will come as welcome news for this year's Scripter Award winner Little Women, a best adapted screenplay Oscar nominee, the fact of the matter is that the Scripter Award and the best adapted screenplay Oscar have gone to the same film 14 times, including in eight of the last 10 years: The Social Network, The Descendants, Argo, 12 Years a Slave, The Imitation Game, The Big Short, Moonlight and Call Me by Your Name.

Should Little Women go on to win the best adapted screenplay Oscar, it will mark the first time that a woman has won a screenplay Oscar — adapted or original — since Juno's Diablo Cody 12 years ago; the first time that a woman has won the best adapted screenplay Oscar since Brokeback Mountain's Diana Ossana 15 years ago; and the first time that a woman without a male writing partner has won the best adapted screenplay Oscar since Sense and Sensibility's Emma Thompson 25 years ago.

Sunday night will bring the 62nd Grammy Awards — and mark exactly two weeks until the 92nd Academy Awards. Final Oscar voting begins on Thursday and runs through the following Tuesday.