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The Secret Ingredient in the Oscar Best Picture Race

The goal of an Oscar campaign is to get Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences members to see the film, or to remind them why they liked it. An important element is the backstory. “Best” is hard to define, and there are a lot of great films each year, so the backstory is like a literary footnote, explaining why this film is not only great, it’s unique.

“Citizen Kane,” “The Wizard of Oz” and “Casablanca” all have backstories about their difficult production history. The films are terrific on their own, but the backstories help increase your appreciation.

This year, Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” and Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird” have terrific built-in stories: “This is an established performer who has found his/her voice as a first-time writer-director.” As a bonus, both films tap into the zeitgeist and help bring inclusion/diversity to the Oscar race.

“Call Me by Your Name” and “The Shape of Water” share a similar background: This is a love story, made with love. It’s not an original angle; you could have said the same thing about “Marty,” “Moonlight” or many other awards films. But in an era of movies designed by committee, when eight of the top 10 box office hits in 2017 were sequels, the message of love and personal care seems more important than ever.

In each of these four films, the backstory makes it hard for industry viewers to separate what’s onscreen from their knowledge of the production — and that’s a good thing.

In theory, “Phantom Thread” has a great backstory: The reteaming of Paul Thomas Anderson and Daniel Day-Lewis, in what is touted as the actor’s last movie performance ever. However, cynics remember the long tradition of actors changing their minds: Sarah Bernhardt completed her “farewell tour” in 1905, and then made three subsequent farewell tours. Frank Sinatra announced his immediate retirement in 1971 and continued to perform for more than a decade. Anthony Hopkins vowed he was quitting acting in 1998, and he’s been prolific ever since. DDL is entitled to change his mind, but if he does, he should wait until after March 4.

The speedy production pace is a key part of Sony’s “All the Money in the World” and Fox’s “The Post.” With the former, Ridley Scott pulled off an amazing feat in a few weeks, filming Christopher Plummer’s scenes and inserting them into the “finished” film; Plummer earned the only Oscar nom for the film. With “Post,” Steven Spielberg assembled a top-drawer cast and crew in record time, delivering it less than six months after it began production. They felt a sense of urgency in addressing the topics of sexism, truth, the First Amendment, and the relationship between the press and the White House.

Backstories enhance appreciation of a film, but in truth, the entire awards season has its own backstory.

It’s hard to remember an Oscar race with more uncertainty: There is no clear front-runner, with the best-picture winner “narrowed down” to maybe five of the nine contenders.

Despite the suspense, the Oscar race is not the No. 1 topic at awards events. Instead, #MeToo and #TimesUp have dominated the year’s awards conversations, following several years of #OscarsSoWhite discussions about the industry’s lack of diversity and inclusion.

Harassment, bullying and discrimination have persisted for decades, but thanks to the internet and social media, the entertainment industry’s inaction has been thrust in the spotlight. While 2017 featured some great work, there is a dark cloud hanging over the entire season and it raises the question: If awards season is a celebration of Hollywood, what kind of an industry are we supposed to be celebrating? And what do we do about it?

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