Since La La Land first premiered way back in August at the Venice Film Festival, Damien Chazelle’s film has stood as the favorite to win Best Picture, and its vice-like grip on the category has only intensified through awards season. BAFTA, the Golden Globes, the Directors Guild, the Producers Guild, even the town’s editors voted it their picture of the year — and the Oscars bestowed the modern-day musical with a record-tying 14 total nominations. (The only other films with 14 nominations in Academy Awards history, All About Eve and Titanic, both won Best Picture trophies.)
But as Oscars voting comes to a close on Tuesday, we have to wonder: Is there an alternate ending to Sunday night, one where Moonlight — a film made for $1.5 million that has grossed over $21 million at the box office — could upend the evening’s expected proceedings? It’s highly unlikely and we wouldn’t advise changing your Oscar pool but here are three reasons why Moonlight could pull off one of the biggest Oscars upsets of all time.
This past weekend Moonlight beat out La La Land at the Writers Guild Awards for best original screenplay. Which is not necessarily a canary in the coal mine — Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight script is an expected Oscar winner, albeit in the adapted screenplay category and not original screenplay, where La La Land may triumph — but perhaps points to flagging guild support for Chazelle’s film. Bear in mind, Lion won with the cinematographers guild over La La Land earlier this month, and the La La Land cast missed out on a best ensemble nomination from the Screen Actors Guild, the Academy’s biggest branch of voters. Speaking of…
La La Land wasn’t nominated at the Screen Actors Guild for best ensemble. This has been explained by team La La as the SAG nominating committee viewing the musical as a two-hander between SAG winner Emma Stone and nominee Ryan Gosling rather than a true ensemble film. But the last best picture winner to capture the award without a corresponding ensemble nomination from the Screen Actors Guild is 1995’s Braveheart. For its part, Moonlight was nominated by SAG in the ensemble category … but lost to fellow best picture nominee Hidden Figures. Which weakens the case for Moonlight, also might suggest the actors’ branch is not as set on its winner as many assume.
Since the results of last year’s presidential election were made official, the atmosphere around the country has become politically charged in ways not seen for years. Heading into Oscars week, agencies are planning rallies instead of parties, nominees are deliberating just how political they are going to get Sunday night should they win, and the idea of sending a message for what Hollywood stands for has to be on the minds of some voters. It’s certainly on the mind of Academy member Mark Duplass, who wrote an impassioned letter published over the weekend urging voters to choose Moonlight. Duplass isn’t a producer on Moonlight, nor does he have a financial stake in its success; rather, the multi-hyphenate was so moved by Jenkins’ unique coming-of-age tale that he wanted voters to consider it more closely in their choice for best picture. He calls it “a miracle” and “important” but more than that he explains why it matters so much to him, especially at this time when the country is so divided. He calls it a “small but sturdy bridge,” adding this: “It is important because it reaches beyond its specific characters and tells the story of all of our dreams and collective life experiences. It simultaneously tells a harsh truth and, miraculously, does it with an air of hope. It is the kind of film I have been trying to figure out how to make for my entire career.”
La La Land, of course, can also be described as a type of film other filmmakers have been trying to make for their entire careers — and, certainly, Chazelle spent years working to get it off the ground. For his skill and effort, the 32-year-old will likely become the youngest best director winner in Oscars history. But if Moonlight pulls off its improbable best picture upset, maybe that’s fitting; after all, Chazelle ends La La Land on a note of bittersweet recognition that people can’t always get what they want.