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When predictions go wrong: My 2021 Oscar pick misfires

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It’s important to own your mistakes.

As someone who has been writing about movies professionally for well over a decade, I’ve had my share of bad takes. Whether it was early praise of a film that failed to hold up upon closer inspection or condemnation of a movie that ultimately proved its excellence, I’ve got some misses on my resume.

That carries over to the Oscars as well. This year marked the 14th time that I’ve predicted the outcomes of Hollywood’s biggest night. As with everything else, I’ve had my ups and downs when it comes to making these picks. Some years are better than others, but every time out, I whiff on plenty of choices.

This year was no different. And so, in the spirit of accountability, I’m going to discuss some of the predictions where I went awry. Any pundit can bask in the praise that comes with being right, but precious few will take the time to own the moments where they were wrong.

This week, I’m here to own those moments.

In a lot of ways, the 2021 Oscars looked primed to provide a series of predictable winners. So many of these races – big and small alike – looked to be all but locked up going into the evening’s ceremony. By all appearances, it was a year to go with chalk. But as it turned out, it wasn’t all that simple.

I’m not going to go through the picks I got right – that’s self-celebratory nonsense. What I will do is offer up the categories I got wrong (feel free to check my work by taking a peek at my Oscars prediction story at and share a little bit about how I was led astray.

Best Adapted Screenplay

Prediction: Chloe Zhao – Nomadland

Winner: Christopher Hampton and Florian Zeller – The Father

This was perhaps the first big surprise of the evening for me – one that would prove predictive of what was eventually to come (more on that later). I had it in my head that “Nomadland” was going to win big at this year’s Oscars, but while the film took home plenty of trophies, this was not one of them. Part of me was in love with the idea of Zhao getting four wins, I think – she only wound up with two, poor thing – and so I went with her here. But people who have seen it love “The Father,” and this win was a harbinger of just how much. It’s a tight, taut script – one that absolutely warrants the victory here, even if I predicted otherwise.

Best Cinematographer

Prediction: Joshua James Richards – Nomadland

Winner: Erik Messerschmidt – Mank

“Nomadland” is a visually stunning film, one that takes full advantage of the haunting, yawning emptiness of the American west in a way that we don’t often see on screen anymore. It’s beautifully framed and a joy to look at. And yet, in retrospect, I wonder why I didn’t see Messerschmidt’s win coming. “Mank” is an absolutely beautiful film to look at, one that takes full advantage of the stark contrasts of black and white and uses modern techniques to pay homage to the innovative work being done in the era being portrayed.

Best Documentary (Short Subject)

Prediction: A Concerto is a Conversation

Winner: Colette

Best Live Action Short

Prediction: The Letter Room

Winner: Two Distant Strangers

I’m grouping these two together because the truth is that the short film categories are always ripe for predictive chaos. I rolled the dice a bit here, taking a gamble on “A Concerto is a Conversation” based on not much more than a hunch. I watched and quite liked “The Letter Room,” so that was my pick (though I will confess that by the time my own Oscar party rolled around, I changed my mind and opted for “Two Distant Strangers”). There’s no way of really knowing with the shorts – you just get in there and take your swings.

Best Song

Prediction: “Speak Now”

Winner: “Fight for You”

My pick of “Speak Now” was built on the idea that the Academy would want to recognize “One Night in Miami…” and star Leslie Odom Jr. in some way. He wasn’t going to win in Supporting Actor, so this nomination – Odom sings the song – seemed like the place to acknowledge his excellent work in that film. Frankly, this one is always kind of a mystery for me, so a misfire isn’t much of a surprise.

Best Actress in a Leading Role

Prediction: Carey Mulligan – Promising Young Woman

Winner: Frances McDormand – Nomadland

I was back and forth on this one A LOT as I was preparing my picks. I wound up going with Carey Mulligan not because I believed in the superiority of her performance, but because all indications were that she had made a late push to surge into the lead in the conversation. And there’s no disputing that she made a lasting impression with her work here. But I still wasn’t convinced. Even in my predictions story, I made clear that I personally found McDormand’s work to be worthy of the win. I should have stuck with my convictions, because McDormand secured the victory – her third, making her just the fourth woman to do so, joining a club that includes Katharine Hepburn, Ingmar Bergman and Meryl Streep. Her portrait of a tough, isolated woman trying to adjust to an entirely new way of life is bleakly funny and quietly brilliant. “Nomadland” won Best Picture, and I don’t believe that happens without Frances McDormand. And yet – I went with Mulligan. It’s an apt illustration of the notion that if you try to play the game too hard, you might well wind up outthinking yourself. Mulligan was great, but McDormand was just a tiny bit greater.

Best Actor in a Leading Role

Prediction: Chadwick Boseman – Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Winner: Anthony Hopkins – The Father

And here we have it. The selection that ended the evening. One of the biggest surprises in recent Oscar history. EVERYONE thought that Chadwick Boseman was going to win this award. I thought he was going to win. You thought he was going to win. Even the producers of the telecast thought he was going to win, shuffling the categories and placing this one at the end, likely expecting a poignant and memorable close to this unconventional show. It was arguably the biggest lock of the entire evening. And then … he didn’t win. Anthony Hopkins did, winning for a performance that is being credibly considered as one of the best – if not THE best – of his entire illustrious career. Some even posited that had circumstances been different, he would have been the favorite. But so many believed that the Academy would choose to memorialize the career Boseman might have had by rewarding this final performance. And to be clear, Boseman is outstanding in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” It’s the sort of performance that gave us a glimpse of what was to come … only there was no more. But instead, the voters chose to reward one of cinema’s elder statesmen, an all-time great who at 83 becomes the oldest ever to win an acting Oscar. And let’s be crystal clear here – Chadwick Boseman didn’t lose an Oscar on Sunday night. Anthony Hopkins won it.

Last modified on Tuesday, 27 April 2021 06:57


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