Back in 2000, we self-appointed geniuses at Inside.com built an elaborate statistical tracker for Oscar contenders. We measured factors large and small — hair color, past awards record, relatives in the business, daily publicity breaks, whatever. Then we turned the crank once a day, and assigned a numerical score to the pictures, actors and filmmakers. On the advice of Michael Hirschorn, one of Inside’s founders, we ran the point system all the way out to the first decimal place, e.g. 773.1 for Traffic today, versus 769.7 for Gladiator. “It’ll drive people crazy,” Hirschorn said of the decimal decision.
The tracker worked about as well as that more time-honored method, a daily gut check after reading the trades. But it might have done better if we’d accounted for what lately has become one of the more telling markers of a best picture winner—that is, a “Hollywood ending.”
In a just-published book called Totally Scripted: Idioms, Words And Quotes From Hollywood To Broadway That Have Changed The English Language, author Josh Chetwynd says the Hollywood ending used to be known as the “Keystone finish,” after Max Sennett’s Keystone Studios. “Cities may crumble, plagues may strike and zombies run amok, but only the villain (the unwanted husband, the unwelcome suitor or the tax collector) is in jeopardy,” Chetwynd quotes the New York Times, which described the formula in 1936.
Essentially, the Hollywood ending is a happy one; people leave the theater with a feeling that movies turn out well, even if life doesn’t.
At a quick pass, it appears that five of the last six winners of the best picture Oscar had just such an ending. In Spotlight, the good journalists won. In 12 Years A Slave, Solomon Northup got home, as did those hostages in Argo. In The Artist, our actor-hero survived the talkies. As for The King’s Speech, George VI patched up his stutter and won the war.
If Birdman, which won in 2015, ended on a triumphant note, it was a twisted one — no Hollywood ending there. And the prior four years had mostly darker winners. Only Slumdog Millionaire, in 2009, broke a run of downbeat endings in The Departed, No Country For Old Men and The Hurt Locker.
So the Oscar voters’ mood seems to swing, with happy endings largely ascendant in the last half dozen years.
Using the Producers Guild of America nominees as a rough proxy for likely Best Picture nominations from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences on Tuesday, this year’s voters are likely to face choices that split right down the middle.
Without getting too deeply into spoiler territory, Moonlight, Lion, Hidden Figures, Hell Or High Water and even Hacksaw Ridge pretty much have classic Hollywood endings. Things turn out well, at least for those left standing at the end of the movie.
If they were rebuilding Inside’s Oscar tracker today, the statisticians would probably give a 6-4 point advantage for a happy ending, figuring that’s how things have worked for a decade. But there’s a case to be made for another mood swing this year, especially given Hollywood’s post-election anxiety. “I’m confused, I’m angry,” the director Ava DuVernay, whose documentary 13th is in contention, said at a gathering heavy with Oscar voters last Sunday. So we’re stuck with a gut-check after all.