Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Myth of the "Best Editing" Oscar

I've gotten more deeply entrenched in the Oscar race this year than in any previous year. It's been at once fascinating and infuriating, because 1) the level of politics and the whole concept of this being a "race" (which I may post about soon) is rather astounding, and 2) because this has been one of the most interesting and unpredictable Oscar races in recent memory - and the nominations haven't even been calculated yet! Even though some contenders (Jeff Bridges, Mo'Nique, Christoph Waltz) practically have their names already engraved on a statue, other races may actually be impossible to guess until the envelope is opened on March 7. And one of those is, amazingly, the Big One.

But pundits do like their little predictive tools, and I've heard more than one person say that we'll know Best Picture when we know who wins Best Editing.

*screeching brakes sound* What?

That may be gobble-dee-Na'vi to you, but this has been a long-standing myth in the Oscar race. I remember James Cameron saying back in 1998 that he'd know if Titanic was going to win Best Picture if it took the Editing award, because since everyone votes on every category for the final vote, most voters don't really know what goes into editing and just vote for whatever they're voting for for Best Picture. That made sense to me at the time - the editing nominees are actually decided only by other editors, but the winner is voted on by everyone, so there might be some favoritism at play rather than an honest look at what's the best in that field (which is probably why a lot of Best Pictures rack up so many total awards). But I don't think it's true that it's always (or even often) just a blind vote. First of all, I think actors - the biggest voting branch in the Academy - are VERY well aware of how editing works, because the editor is the one who decides how much of their performance ends up on screen. This is why one of the secrets of good screen acting is to make nice with the editor. Second, people in general just know a lot more about how editing affects a movie. Most of you have seen those re-edited movie trailers, where for instance The Shining is re-cut with different music to look like a family comedy. People aren't that stupid.

But there are still Oscar pundits who point to historical data. Data which I have to assume they are pointing at without even looking at it, because the history is NOT on their side in the Editing = Picture argument. Let's look at the past 20 years and see if it's really held up by the facts, shall we?

2008 - Editing: Slumdog Millionaire, Picture: Slumdog Millionaire - MATCH
2007 - Editing: The Bourne Ultimatum, Picture: No Country for Old Men
2006 - Editing: The Departed, Picture: The Departed - MATCH
2005 - Editing: Crash, Picture: Crash- MATCH
2004 - Editing: The Aviator, Picture: Million Dollar Baby
2003 - Editing: Return of the King, Picture: Return of the King - MATCH
2002 - Editing: Chicago, Picture: Chicago - MATCH
2001 - Editing: Black Hawk Down, Picture: A Beautiful Mind
2000 - Editing: Traffic, Picture: Gladiator
1999 - Editing: The Matrix, Picture: American Beauty
1998 - Editing: Saving Private Ryan, Picture: Shakespeare in Love
1997 - Editing: Titanic, Picture: Titanic - MATCH
1996 - Editing: The English Patient, Picture - The English Patient - MATCH
1995 - Editing: Apollo 13, Picture: Braveheart
1994 - Editing: Forrest Gump, Picture: Forrest Gump - MATCH
1993 - Editing: Schindler's List, Picture: Schindler's List - MATCH
1992 - Editing: Unforgiven, Picture: Unforgiven - MATCH
1991 - Editing: JFK, Picture: The Silence of the Lambs
1990 - Editing: Dances With Wolves, Picture: Dances With Wolves - MATCH
1989 - Editing: Born on the Fourth of July, Picture: Driving Miss Daisy

So in the last 20 years, 11 Best Picture winners have also taken the Editing prize, while 9 have not. A majority, but barely. And in the last 10 years, it's been split exactly in half, five-for-five. In the last 5 years, it has matched 3 times and not matched twice.

The Screen Actors Guild's equivalent of Best Picture (Best Ensemble Cast), meanwhile, which most Oscar pundits dismiss as an actual predictor, actually has a (very) slightly better record at predicting Best Picture. 6 of the last 10 Ensemble winners at the SAGs went on to see their movie win Best Picture at the Oscars. The record in the last five years matches the Editing statistic. I can't go back 20, because the awards only go back 15 (and the Ensemble award for movies only 14), not counting this year's, of course. And yet next to NO ONE is predicting Inglourious Basterds to take Best Picture after last night's SAG win.

What does all this mean? Diddly-squat, probably. All I'm saying is that, in a year with 10 slots for Best Picture and preferential ranking votes (as opposed to just one vote for the winner) for whichever of those 10 movies gets the crown, the Best Picture could very well be an upset. Who knows - even my beloved Up might find itself on the pages of Oscar history.

[Pictured above, Thelma Schoonmaker, winner of three Academy Awards for Editing - for Raging Bull, The Aviator, and The Departed.]

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