Friday, February 21, 2014

How a Rookie Beats America's Sweetheart for Best Supporting Actress

One week from Sunday is the least transparent election of the year: the Academy Awards. Like every year, most of the winners are foregone conclusions—including Best Actor (Matthew McConaughey), Best Actress (Cate Blanchett), and Best Supporting Actor (Jared Leto). One category, however, where there is some suspense is the fourth acting category: Best Supporting Actress.

The category pits 12 Years a Slave's Lupita Nyong'o, in her first film role, against last year's Best Actress champ, Jennifer Lawrence, in American Hustle. To the naked eye, it looks like a mismatch: Lawrence is the most beloved person in Hollywood these days, and her film is the most nominated this year, with 10 nods.

But in a twist, Oscarologists overwhelmingly predict Nyong'o to prevail on awards night—and it's actually not as crazy as it sounds. The merits of their performances aside, the numbers—that is to say, statistics from Academy Award history—are on Nyong'o's side.

Two factors are seen as potential impediments to Nyong'o. The first, of course, is that she's a rookie; why would the Academy honor a performer who hasn't paid her dues? However, Oscar actually has loved debutantes in the past. A full 73 actors and actresses have been nominated for an Oscar in their first film role, and 16 of them ended up taking home the gold. That's a 21.9% success rate—not statistically dissimilar from the straight 20% odds that a nominee carries into a category with five nominees.

The second potential obstacle is, sadly, Nyong'o's race. The Academy is overwhelmingly old, white, and male—in other words, the most conservative demographic group. In the past, they have been perceived to shy away from voting for diversity (think Meryl Streep over Viola Davis in 2011 or Crash over Brokeback Mountain in 2005). But that's not exactly a fair charge. In the acting categories at least, black nominees have also triumphed at just about average rates. In fact, their 22.2% success rate (14 wins in 63 nominations) is even better than the flat one-in-five odds.

One piece of Oscar conventional wisdom is supported by the numbers, however—but it's a point against Lawrence. Academy voters like to spread the wealth and usually avoid granting a performer two Oscars in a row. Lawrence, as a winner last year for her role in Silver Linings Playbook, is thus at a disadvantage here, at least if history is to be trusted. Of the 32 opportunities actors have had to win two Oscars in a row, it's only happened five times over the years; that's a below-average success rate of 15.6%.

Those who aren't following the Oscars closely this year may think Lawrence looks like a lock in theory. But a Nyong'o win is backed up by both anecdotal and empirical evidence. Don't let an uninformed assumption ruin your Oscar pool this year.

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