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The State of the Race: The Heart is a Lonely Hunter

“We are homesick most for the places we have never known.”
― Carson McCullers

We knew it was going to be a crazy year because for the first time in 65 years of DGA/Oscar history the Oscar nomination ballots were turned in before the DGA nominees were announced. For a weary and busy Academy, the DGA can often provide a guidepost on how to vote. Usually there are one or two names that don’t match, but they’re not usually the two strongest contenders in the race.  That was unusual. This is partly because Academy voters were flying blind, without the DGA, PGA, WGA and ACE Eddie. They had only the films they’d seen and knew they liked to consider as evidence.  Not the powerful expert testimony of a voting body as big and powerful as the Directors Guild.

This experiment in accelerated deadlines could have gone either way. It could have confirmed to us what many assumed — that everyone votes roughly at the same time and they all vote for roughly the same things. Or it could show how very much the Academy voters lean on the major guilds. I think today it revealed the latter.

But the way it went was that two films with deep guild support and precursor heat across the board, including numerous critics awards and DGA nominations, both missed Best Director at the Oscars — Ben Affleck for Argo and Kathryn Bigelow for Zero Dark Thirty. Surely, these were the two biggest shocks of the day, and completely unpredictable. We always say we want surprises but what happens when those surprises don’t turn out the way we want them to?

My best advice to Ben Affleck and Kathryn Bigelow is to look at Ang Lee and Steven Spielberg. These two are embattled veterans of Hollywood and the Oscar race and both have been left out many times. Both have lost in crucial ways, in humiliating ways. Both are directors with career peaks that mark two of the most contentious Oscar years in history: Saving Private Ryan vs. Shakespeare in Love and Brokeback Mountain vs. Crash.  Look at them now.  Look where they stand today.  They’ve both weathered the storms and emerged to once again direct two of the best films of their careers.

Ang Lee and Steven Spielberg represent the resilience of artistic evolution that can come from suffering these kinds of losses. Defeat is not always a bad thing.   

There will be many explanations given for why Kathryn Bigelow and Ben Affleck were left off the list. The first and most compelling reason, to me, was the hasty date change by the Academy — in Bigelow’s case especially, the urgency forced a premature verdict based on fast first impressions even faster knee-jerk backlash. But the second reason is more basic and nothing new. It may simply be that films by other directors are more emotionally moving. Beasts of the Southern Wild and Amour and deeply touching, unforgettable films. Add to that Life of Pi and even Silver Linings and you have a group of four found ways to make audiences respond emotionally.  Amour and Beasts of the Southern Wild are visionary, outstanding works of art. It is too bad that their directors’ nominations came at the expense of two great filmmakers this year.

Bigelow has already made DGA history by being the first woman to be nominated for two DGA awards.  But we can’t lay blame on sexism and leave out the thorny politics involved in Zero Dark Thirty. We really can’t because the politics made an enormous difference this time.  Like it or not, this profound controversy has become one of 2012’s strangest hallmarks — that Zero Dark Thirty found itself square in the middle of an ongoing war of ideology and interpretations of history.  Bigelow is the one, sadly, who has received most of the scorn.  And yet, we can’t even say these factors are the whole reason for Zero Dark Thirty’s disappointing showing.  At the end of the day, the directors that did get in made films that appealed to the heart in undeniable ways, something Zero Dark Thirty and Argo don’t try to do. In a year where it felt like hot-button politics would drive the zeitgeist, the year has instead turned to focus on relief — films that offer up a catharsis.  So the two stories about the middle east became, perhaps, too sensitive to touch, and the tales that illuminated the spirit were suddenly more attractive.  Strange, that.

The rickety, imperfect masterpiece that is Lincoln took the lead today with 12 nominations, deserving every one. Lincoln is about so many things.  It is distinctly American and is the work of three equally vital sources of inspiration. Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book, but also her living memorial of Abraham Lincoln himself, done right over a period of many years. Tony Kushner’s screenplay written and rewritten, down from 300 pages to just one pivotal moment in Lincoln’s presidency and in American history. And a director who has come a long way since the old days of haunting backlots with his super-8 and his baseball cap. Spielberg was so careful this time around to not include so many overly sentimental flourishes but instead let the story speak for itself.

It is not surprising, at the end of the day, that this film is leading nominations across the board.

But that doesn’t mean Lincoln is our winner. There are many different ways the race could go from here on out. All stats and  precedents could be tossed  in a year when the entire process was thrown into disarray. Here are just some of the weird things that have happened this year that have never happened before:

  • Oscar ballots were turned in before the DGA, PGA, WGA and ACE announced
  • BAFTA decided for the first time ever to vote only from individual branches, with no “long list”
  • Oscar voters voted only on the films they were able to see which, with less time to dig down the stack of screeners, might mean they voted without having seen everything.
  • The kerfuffle with online voting — who knows how that may or may not effected voting in the end.
  • Usually Critics Choice ballots would be cast AFTER Oscar nomination so tonight we might see Kathryn Bigelow and Zero Dark Thirty win, even though Bigelow is not even nominated for an Oscar. That disconnect could cause a ripple effect and could maybe impact Zero Dark Thirty’s awards in other categories down the road.
  • The DGA now has only two contenders who’ve gone on to be nominated for the Oscar so really, the Critics Choice prize can probably only go to either Ang Lee or Steven Spielberg — but what if it doesn’t? What if it goes to someone else, like Tom Hooper or Bigelow or Afleck? Could that signal enough strength for an eventual Best Picture win for those films, even without a Director nod? If it comes down to precedent, we know those upsets are rare.

As of now, only one film has gathered every component a Best Picture winner needs, and I’m not even going to touch the critics awards.  A SAG ensemble nod, WGA, DGA, PGA certifiction, and probably ACE Eddie (tomorrow those nominations come out), and the most nominations heading into the race. Nominations in key categories: Picture, Director, Actors, Screenplay, Editing.  The films with all those bases covered is Lincoln.

Second to Lincoln would be Ang Lee’s Life of Pi because it also has WGA, DGA, PGA and probably ACE Eddie. It has no acting nominations and wasn’t nominated for the SAG, which makes it a LONG SHOT — an exception that carries a logical asterisk. *(a film about a sole survivor doesn’t leave much room on the boat for an ensemble to shine).

After that, there are really only three other movies that can win, based on stats, and those would be Beasts of the Southern Wild, Amour and of course, Silver Linings Playbook.

With key nominations for Silver Linings Playbook in Picture, Director, Acting (all four categories), Editing this film has the stuff to go all the way. It could win the SAG ensemble, the Globe for musical/comedy, maybe even the Producers Guild. It could win Best Picture and Director or some combination therein. But Silver Linings lacks the Globes nod for Director AND Russell got left out of the DGA nominations. That puts Silver Lining at a disadvantage already, perhaps too crucial to overcome, though not impossible.

Any other potential winners must prevail without a director’s nomination. It’s not impossible, it’s just harder, and it goes against 84 out of  85 years of Oscar history. But this is a strange year anyway so it’s possible we have to disregard precedent entirely and could see an Oscars like we’ve never seen before. For those of you who are hoping for something like that, if there ever was a year it could happen this could be it.  Be careful what you wish for.

The Best Actress race feels like it’s been severely shaken up. True, with four acting nominations it doesn’t seem like Silver Linings will go home without winning one of those — it could win any one of them, in fact, even Best Actor. But I have to think, and agree with In Contention’s Kris Tapley, that at this point it’s Emmanuelle Riva’s to lose. She will be the oldest Oscar nominee but more importantly, she gave the best and most central performance. It’s a long shot, I realize, but with so much broad support for Amour Riva has just become an essential force to be reckoned with. Jennifer Lawrence could be Silver Lining’s one big win but it is probably down to those two.

Jessica Chastain could benefit if the buzz on Zero Dark Thirty reverses itself to make up for perceived slights. And that could happen if, say, Zero Dark Thirty wins tonight’s Critics Choice awards and Bigelow gets a standing ovation and another chance at the mic. Without a DGA nomination, sympathy could build for Chastain to be Zero Dark’s big win.

As for the sudden shock today over the absence of Kathryn Bigelow and Ben Affleck, I am not really sure that I can invoke the dread topic of sexism without noting another another hopeful nominee — and that’s Ava DuVernay for Middle of Nowhere.  As enthusiastically advocated as I and many others did, her name was nowhere to be found in an original screenplay category of all white men. Sexism, racism — these forces are deeply ingrained in our awards race, in Hollywood and in America. Yet you’ll not find many voices of outrage to decry the diss for DuVerna. And that is because the critics failed to raise her up to the heights that they did Bigelow and Zero Dark Thirty.

Did Kathryn Bigelow direct one of the best films of 2012? I think so. Did Affleck deliver with Argo ? Absolutely. But I also think Middle of Nowhere was, and Beasts of the Southern Wild and Amour.  2012 was an embarrassment of riches across the board.  This is a year most of us will never forget, from the extraordinary range of brilliance in the race, to the way the race has veered beyond expectations so far.  Something tells me we are not done being surprised.