Oscar Race: Gravity Rockets Into the Favored Tier, But Can It Win?

The weekend's guild awards put Alfonso Cuarón's space odyssey in the conversation with '12 Years a Slave' and 'American Hustle'

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Warner Bros.

We might be seeing the makings of a three-horse race.

On Saturday night, the Screen Actors Guild gave its top award for Outstanding Cast in a Motion Picture to American Hustle, one of the three movies at the front of the nominees for the Motion Picture Academy’s most valuable statuette. And on Sunday, the Producers Guild of America declared that its Darryl F. Zanuck Award — in plain English, their best picture prize — would go to the other two main Oscar contenders: 12 Years a Slave and Gravity.

In the PGA awards’ 25-year history, this was the first tie for its highest honor. A single vote could have changed the flat-footed tie. As Brad Pitt, one of the producers of 12 Years a Slave, joked when he spoke on stage Sunday night, “I got my vote in at the last minute. I voted for Gravity.”

(READ: Lily Rothman’s 9 Things You Need to Know About This Year’s Oscar Nominations)

So over the weekend, big awards went to the three films that led in last Thursday’s Oscar shortlist: American Hustle and Gravity with 10 nominations, 12 Years a Slave with nine. Slave bolted out of the gate with its domination of awards from critics’ groups. Then Hustle seemed to seize the Big Mo with the SAG citation and Academy nominations for Picture, Director, Original Screenplay and all four acting slots. Today, though, the Oscar pendulum is as jittery as Jacqueline Bisset giving a Golden Globes acceptance speech. The Academy has never announced a tie for Best Picture — but, this year, anything could happen.

Why the sweet frenzy in Hollywood? Because the reviewers’ prizes, including the Critics’ Choice Movie Awards (which went last week to 12 Years a Slave), and the Golden Globes (Slave for Best Drama, American Hustle for Best Comedy or Musical) are mere baubles bestowed by outsiders. SAG and the PGA comprise thousands of movie professionals, and many are also Academy members who will vote for the real deal. Critics groups give mere hints to the ultimate Oscar awardees, while the producers and actors offer the first hard clues to the outcome.

(READ: Corliss’s morning line on this year’s Oscars)

The SAG ensemble award is not a particularly reliable indicator of the Oscar for Best Picture. In its 19 years it has been “wrong” nine times, including two years ago, when it chose The Help over the eventual Academy winner The Artist, and four years ago, with Inglourious Basterds over The Hurt Locker. SAG members tend to vote for movies with large casts of familiar actors, as in The Birdcage, Traffic and Little Miss Sunshine (all Oscar runners-up). Hence the lure of American Hustle, with its constellation of stars. SAG was also the first industry group to point to the 2006 Oscar triumph of Crash, a sprawling drama that employed half of Hollywood, over the more intimate cast of Brokeback Mountain.

The Producers Guild has a much stronger record in anticipating the ultimate Oscar winner: 17 times out of 24. (Its only “misses”: The Crying Game, not Unforgiven, in 1993; Apollo 13, not Braveheart, in 1996; Saving Private Ryan, not Shakespeare in Love, in 1999; Moulin Rouge!, not A Beautiful Mind, in 2002, The Aviator, not Million Dollar Baby, in 2005; Brokeback Mountain, not Crash, in 2006; and Little Miss Sunshine, not The Departed, in 2007.) In early 2011, when the PGA and SAG both chose The King’s Speech over The Social Network, which was the overwhelming favorite of the critics, the Oscars‘ Best Picture was all but officially decided.

(READ: How SAG and the PGA crowned The King’s Speech)

The PGA also employs the same byzantine system of preferential balloting that the Academy adopted in 2009 when it increased its number of Best Picture finalists from five to as many as 10. This year’s PGA list of 10 coincided in eight films with Oscar’s list of nine. The Producers cited Blue Jasmine and Saving Mr. Banks; the Academy ignored those and added Philomena. But none of these can be seen as credible competitors to the three front-runners.

At the end of an eight-day stretch that included the Golden Globes, the announcement of Oscar nominations, the Critics’ Choice awards and the SAG and PGA parties — which Kevin Spacey, a PGA presenter, dubbed “Awards Hell Week” — what do we know? Have we come away with any wisdom, or even a few educated guesses?

(SEE: Corliss’s 10 Best Movies list, including GravityAmerican Hustle and 12 Years a Slave)

The acting categories are coming into focus. From the beginning of the awards season, with the New York Film Critics Circle vote on Dec. 3, Cate Blanchett has been a lock as Best Actress for Blue Jasmine and Jared Leto as Best Supporting Actor for Dallas Buyers Club. Since then, Jennifer Lawrence (American Hustle) has challenged Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave) for Best Supporting Actress. That race remains close, with Nyong’o slightly in the lead because of her SAG win.

With victories at the Golden Globes and especially the SAG awards, Dallas Buyers Club’s Matthew McConaughey has become the favorite over 12 Years a Slave’s Chiwetel Ejiofor. McConaughey may have padded his lead with his appearances at the Globes and SAG. These shows are televised, and Oscar members watch them, in part to decide whom they’d like to see giving thanks on Oscar night. The acceptance speeches function as final auditions for the big prize.

(FIND: Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto on TIME’s Best Movie Performances of 2013)

Both times, the lanky Texan aced his presentations with florid eloquence, saying at SAG, “It really shines a great light on this bull ride we call acting. I’ve been able to recently find some characters that I can humble myself to their humanities and get feverishly drunk on their obsessions.” Add this to McConaughey’s 20 years in Hollywood, primarily as a rom-com stud but lately as a fearless actor in adventurous films, and you have the recipe for a win from Oscar voters. They like the guy and want to hear him give another acceptance speech.

But wait, there’s more. This Saturday the Directors Guild of America will give its prize — the most reliable of all Oscar barometers. Since the award was established in 1948, it has predicted the Oscar winner for Best Director all but seven times. One of those seven came last year, when Ben Affleck took the DGA trophy for Argo but was not nominated for an Oscar in that category; Argo went on to win Best Picture.

(READ: Argo Thank Yourself — Ben Affleck at last year’s Golden Globes)

Last year’s Best Director Oscar winner was Ang Lee for Life of Pi. This time, Alfonso Cuarón is favored to win the DGA prize — and perhaps the Oscar — for Gravity. Both Pi and Gravity are fantasy-dramas, laden with amazing visual effects, about a person stranded alone in the harshest elements (the former at sea, the latter in space). Both display the directing craft at its highest level of artistic and technological dazzle. If the DGA chooses Cuarón, the Academy may agree.

But that doesn’t mean his film Gravity is a solid bet for Best Picture. In the 84 previous Oscar ceremonies, no sci-fi movie has ever taken the Academy’s top award — not 2001: A Space Odyssey (which wasn’t even nominated in 1969, when Oliver! won), not E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (lost to Gandhi in 1983) and not Avatar (lost to The Hurt Locker in 2010). Gandhi? Oliver!? Really???

(READ: Why Avatar lost at the Oscars)

Those choices prove Oscar’s devotion to the cinematic status quo. The Academy’s members want movies that touch the heart, not expand the mind. They prefer films that employ lots of actors and traditional technicians — the gaffers on the set — not the unseen effects geniuses who helped Cuarón conjure up Gravity (total visible cast of two). The digital future of movies is anathema to Academy voters; they’ll take the old in new packages. They especially cherish movies set in the recent or distant past, like eight of the 10 winners in the 1990s, and nine of the Best Pictures since then. If possible, based on a historical event (The Hurt Locker, The King’s Speech, Argo). And if the movie is about movies, so much the better; hence the wins in the last two years for The Artist and Argo — love letters to the wonder of Hollywood.

Things the Academy members don’t like: going out to the movies (they usually watch the nominees on screeners in their media rooms) and 3-D (because old people don’t want to put glasses over their bifocals). Gravity, like Avatar, demands to be seen in a big theater and in stereo-vision. Those who see the movie at home are missing the all-important Awe factor.

In short, the very elements that make Gravity the year’s best movie are the ones that are likely to keep the Academy choosing it as Best Picture — even with a shared win at the PGA.

(READ: Corliss’s review of Gravity — “the glory of cinema’s future”)

If that’s the case, we’re back to a two-horse run-off between American Hustle, a fact-based dramedy set in the 1970s, and 12 Years a Slave (fact-based drama, 1840s). Both films can be seen at home, in good old 2-D — the Academy’s favorite D — without missing important aspects of their appeal or power. And both have touchstones in venerable Oscar winners: Slave is the anti-Gone With the Wind, and American Hustle a kind of Annie Hall with a caper twist and two couples instead of one. In other words, Oscar business as usual.

Which of these two — if these are the two — will win? We’ll save that for later. After all, Oscar night isn’t till Mar. 2.