Oscars 2011: How 'The Social Network' Could Still Win (but Probably Won't)

In the final hours before the Academy Awards, a look at the factors that are affecting the Best Picture race



Just a few weeks ago, the Oscars were approaching and all seemed right with the world. The Social Network, David Fincher's riveting meditation on the messiness behind the creation of Facebook, was every critic's choice for movie of the year. Its sparkling script, by Aaron Sorkin, and Fincher's restrained but typically adamantine direction created an indelible portrait of a modern antihero.

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Then Hollywood started talking. The director's guild, the producer's guild, and then, fatefully, the actors guild all spoke, with one voice, in favor of The King's Speech, Tom Hooper's evocation of how Britain's King George VI learned to overcome his stutter. While boasting an enjoyable performance by Colin Firth as the troubled monarch, the thing is cinematically workmanlike and woefully predictable. (It's not as if anyone would make a movie about someone not overcoming a stutter.)

But this all made for a fun and unthreatening night out, and Hollywood—which at Oscar time has been rewarding more challenging movie-going experiences of late—nevertheless has almost unanimously given every award that wasn't nailed down to the Weinstein Company production.

To Social Network fans, to put it bluntly, The King's Speech has become a royal pain in the ass.

In a fairly comprehensive survey of predictions, the website Awards Daily found 38 places predicting a King's Speech win, and seven opting for The Social Network. (Two were rooting for Inception—now that would be an upset.)

Gold Derby's list is similar, finding 22 pundits bowing to the King, and but six friending The Social Network.

Not everyone is happy. Jeffrey Wells, the emotional and energetic proprietor of Hollywood Elsewhere, has called The King's Speech "a high-end buddy flick." Wells deemed it a "cultural-spiritual tragedy" that the film won the Director's Guild of America honors.

Roger Ebert, less melodramatically, agreed:

If I were still doing "If We Picked the Winners" with Gene Siskel, my preference for best film would be "The Social Network." It was not only the best film of 2010, but also one of those films that helps define a year. It became the presumed front-runner on the day it opened, but then it seemed to fade.

If you are a King's Speech hater—or just think, more defensibly, that's it's a nice film a cut or two above the ordinary—there are just a few areas of hope.

One is that there are a few discernible cracks in its façade. The thinking on best direction, for example, is that Fincher might pull out a win. He lost the director's guild award to Hooper, and that's generally a fairly dispositive result. But the British Film Institute, while predictably lavishing plaudits on The King's Speech, gave direction to Fincher over Hooper, who you think would have been a hometown hero.

It used to be extremely unusual for best direction and best picture to go to different films—perhaps one year in ten. But it has happened three times in the last decade, though the last time was in 2005, when Crash took best picture and Ang Lee won best director for Brokeback Mountain.

Second is the effect of preferential voting—another recent process change by the Academy. In the past, voters marked only a top choice on their ballots. With five nominees, it was theoretically possible for a winner to take the award with a bit over 20 percent of the vote.

But now, with the expansion to ten best picture nominees, the voters rank all ten of the films. (Or are supposed to, anyway.) Here's how the accountants tally the vote: If there is no clear majority winner on the first round, they eliminate the lowest vote-getter—and apportion that film's second-tier votes to the remaining nine films. The process is continued until a film hits the 50 percent mark. (There are about 6,000 academy voters, incidentally.)

You can see how this process could affect the outcome in various ways. In the most extreme case, a film loved by a devoted percentage of the voters (say, 35 percent) but reviled by the remaining 65 percent might come out on top in the first round of balloting--yet never see its tally increase.

Presented by

Bill Wyman is the former arts editor of Salon.com and National Public Radio.

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