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What even are Oscar predictions, really?

Bryan Bedder
Getty Images

Updated March 12, 2023 at 3:30 PM ET

I've been making Oscar predictions for years now;I did it again this week!So many people make Oscar predictions now that there's a good argument to be made that it begins to create a false idea that people are "locks" or have "a spot." The writer Mark Harris (who, it's fair to note, is married to repeat nominee screenwriter Tony Kushner) has made a good argument that there's a downside to punditry and precursor awards, as they tend to distort the entire process.

But ours tend to happen right before the awards, so that's OK, right? The real question is how on earth you're supposed to go about making these kinds of predictions.

Sometimes, it seems easy. Lots of the other awards — from critics' groups and guilds, mostly — lean toward the same person. This year, an example of that would be Ke Huy Quan, who's piled up all kinds of what they call "precursor awards" for supporting actor for his role in Everything Everywhere All at Once. Who would bet against that? But even that can steer you wrong, as we all learned at the 2021 Oscars, when best actor was moved to the last award of the night. The move sure seemed like a cynical calculation to close with an award given posthumously to Chadwick Boseman, who had won most of the other awards for his work in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. But the award was actually won by Anthony Hopkins, who wasn't present. There is no pileup of previous awards that guarantees anything.

Some people like patterns. Folks like my friend Joe Reid have a strangely (admirably!) encyclopedic knowledge of the history of the Oscars, and they look over that long history to understand what might happen. Joe has even been known to make (playful!) predictions about next year's Oscars right after this year's Oscars.

I have been listening to the wonderfully absorbing book Oscar Wars: A History of Hollywood in Gold, Sweat and Tears by Michael Schulman. The biggest thing I can take away from it is that over the history of the Oscars, you just have no idea how many goofy ideas have always been part of Oscar campaigns, voting and winning. According to the book, the idea of the "career" award that's given to an actor for one role but is really meant to make up for their not getting another one goes as least as far back as Bette Davis winning for Dangerous instead of Of Human Bondage in 1936. Nineteen-hundred-and-thirty-six!

A screenplay award seeming to be a sop to a movie that people consider too weird to win best picture — a theory Glen Weldon has applied on our show to the work of Quentin Tarantino and Wes Anderson, among many others — goes back to a small film you may have heard of called Citizen Kane, which lost best picture in 1942 to How Green Was My Valley but won for its screenplay. (Which screenplay was later the subject of the David Fincher movie Mank, which was the most-nominated movie made in 2020. An oscaroboros!)

Or consider the often odious "brutally honest Oscar ballot" features in places like The Hollywood Reporter and now Entertainment Weekly. The one that ran this week features anonymous comments from an "actor" who complains repeatedly about "wokeness" and then says a variety of horrifying things, such as that Viola Davis and "the lady director" should "sit down, shut up, and relax" about their work in The Woman King not being nominated, because the reason it wasn't nominated was "you didn't deserve it." The punch line is his acknowledgement that he hasn't seen it. How on earth can you account for people so arrogant and so unprofessional that they make confident, condescending pronouncements about who is deserving without watching the movie? There's also a marketer who says they vote partly based on the idea that Oscar recognition should be spread around to lots of movies, which is a very marketer thing to believe, and which has no connection to merit.

I go, in the end, partly with my heart. I do try to acknowledge the factors that seem to be, well, predictive. I'm not going to tell you Paul Mescal is going to win for Aftersun, as a prediction, even though he would be my choice. I think the ballyhoo over Austin Butler in Elvis and Brendan Fraser in The Whale is enough that one of them will win. But at the same time, in close calls, I'm going to tell you a secret: Sometimes I follow my heart.

This follows one year — I believe it was the surprise win of Moonlight over La La Land in 2017 — when I came so close to predicting a big upset I hoped to see and then I talked myself out of it and kicked myself for a year. So close! I embraced my cynicism and paid the price! So now, I follow a complicated formula of precursor awards, the history of the Oscars, the feeling I get when I hold up one finger and try to sense the wind direction, and the secret hopes that reside in my heart that I will be right and glad.

The heart and its ups and downs are as good a place to start as anywhere else, after all. Especially where art is concerned.

This piece first appeared in NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour newsletter. Sign up for the newsletter so you don't miss the next one, plus get weekly recommendations about what's making us happy.

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Linda Holmes
Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.