In a year when the Directors Branch did what critics long complain that they don’t do — they thought for themselves — an irresistible narrative emerged. When Argo faced off Silver Linings all the way back in Toronto, Silver Linings won the broad consensus vote. However, the press built the “snubbed Ben Affleck” meme and it has really swallowed up the race. Neither Lincoln nor Silver Linings, nor Life of Pi could ever catch the “little movie that could” train, and especially not now. These are all very good films and deserving of more than a popularity contest. The press needs the narrative hook. Maybe the people do too. The awards race IS the movie and the reality show all in one. Is it any wonder Stephen Soderbergh wants to quit the movie business?
At any rate, the Gurus of Gold are divided about which film they think will win this year. Those sticking to Lincoln have mostly stuck throughout the season, or will until the DGA attempts to “correct” what they think the Academy got wrong. But the “anything but Lincoln” pundits have been all over the map. The usually steady Dave Karger was Silver Linings then Les Mis then Lincoln and now Argo. Steve Pond was Silver Linings then Zero Dark Thirty then Lincoln then Argo. Kris Tapley was Argo then Les Mis then Lincoln and now back to Argo. Scott Feinberg was Silver Linings then Lincoln then Argo. I think I started out Argo but have only switched once, to Lincoln. Anne Thompson had Life of Pi at one point before switching to Lincoln and will probably do so until the DGA anoints Affleck. The awards community doesn’t need one more blogger switching to Argo at this point. For me, I’m sticking with Lincoln because Argo still has to overcome some enormous hurdles to win, or as Nate Silver would say, his paths to victory are fewer.
First, back when Ron Howard and Steven Spielberg lost an Oscar nom but won the DGA, their movies didn’t win Best Picture. Braveheart beat Apollo 13 and Out of Africa beat The Color Purple. So Ben Affleck will have to be the first director in all of DGA/Academy history to defy those stats.
The second hurdle is that Affleck would become only the second director since the advent of the DGA to win Best Picture without an Oscar nomination. Now, the press and the guilds might feel it’s a “snub” but to the Academy’s mind they liked other movies better, period. Who’s to say they will fall in line with Argo’s Oscar story? Sure, the film on its own is incredibly likable – but remember, it did not win the Toronto audience award up against Silver Linings Playbook. It also didn’t win any of the early critics awards until Zero Dark Thirty’s controversy took that movie out and the Academy picked five directors that didn’t include either Affleck or Bigelow. The critics then abandoned Zero Dark Thirty (in a cowardly fashion I might add) and embraced Argo as their “anything but Lincoln” choice. The stark contrast between the awards Affleck won after the Zero Dark controversy + the Oscar nominations should be obvious to anyone paying attention. It’s the movie, sure, but it’s also the narrative generated by a press with too much content and not enough juice.
The third hurdle is that Argo must win with only the fourth highest nominations tally. That feat hasn’t been achieved since Chariots of Fire beat Reds 31 years ago. Can it happen again? Sure. But to mimic the Reds/Chariots thing Spielberg would have to win the DGA and then Argo win — and even Chariots of Fire had a Best Director nomination.
Lincoln – 12
Life of Pi – 11
Silver Linings Playbook – 8
Les Miserables – 8
Argo – 7
Amour – 5
Django Unchained – 5
Zero Dark Thirty – 5
Beasts of the Southern Wild – 4
You can’t compare Reds or even Driving Miss Daisy, Apollo 13 or The Color Purple because the Best Picture winners those years weren’t chosen with a preferential ballot. In the days when the preferential ballot was in play only once did the film with 12 nods get beaten by a film with fewer nods and that was when Casablanca beat Song of Bernadette. Casablanca, of course, had a corresponding director’s nomination. During the preferential ballot years, whenever there was a split vote, the film that won Best Picture was the film with the most nominations. And they all had director nominations. The years when Wings and Grand Hotel won Best Picture without a director nomination, there were only three slots for Best Director. It’s possible that those directors would have been represented with five slots.
*Song of Bernadette – 12
For Whom the Bell Tolls – 9
*Casablanca – 8
Madame Curie – 7
*The More the Merrier – 6
*The Human Comedy – 5
The Ox-Bow Incident
*Heaven Can Wait – 3
Watch on the Rhine – 1
Now, homies, you keep predicting Argo. I agree that it is an extremely likable film. Ben Affleck is an extremely likable guy. The movie is funny, easy breezy, causes zero discomfort. You have your narrative all plugged in that the press can’t go let of — all they want to talk about is Ben Affleck losing that director nomination and the awards community giving him a make-good. I grock all of that and I’m not trying to talk you out of your predictions. Probably anyone with a brain would pick Argo right now if they had to bet hard, cold cash. But me? I am having a hard time with the stats and the history. My inner Nate Silver tells me that the film that will win will have a corresponding director nomination and not be fourth in line for nods — so that leaves Lincoln, Life of Pi or Silver Linings Playbook. I know, it is counter-intuitive.
Out of Africa even won without a DGA or WGA or Eddie win. So even if Argo wins all of those, it could still lose Best Picture. But again, as many people love to tell me — this year is out of whack with the date change (maybe it is and maybe it isn’t – we’ll never really know for sure) and that history was made to be broken. My thinking is this: if the Academy feels as enamored with Argo and Affleck as everyone else has so far then it probably can’t lose. I can’t speak for Academy members. I don’t know Academy members. Alls I know is that many of them lived through Steven Spielberg and the Color Purple and Ron Howard and Apollo 13 — they never felt obliged to reward anyone out of pity or likability. Just saying.
Now on to Best director:
The Hitfix crew, Kris Tapley and Greg Ellwood believe as I do, that it is unlikely Spielberg will win Director and Argo win Best Picture — so they have Ang Lee picking up the slack in their narrative of Argo winning. That would mean they would really really REALLY have to hate Lincoln, as Fanboy Nation hates Lincoln, for that scenario to play out and it would redefine who the Academy is. $168 million at the box office tells us that Lincoln is far from hated outside the bubble of Hollywood.
For that to play out, it would be another “first” unless Spielberg wins the DGA. So how many firsts are we going to have to break? Can it happen? I suppose. It could snow tomorrow in Los Angeles too and even though I said it wasn’t likely to happen it could still happen. But my feeling is that if it’s going to split it at all it will split in Lincoln’s, not Argo’s, favor. But hey, I’ve been wrong before so don’t listen to me. Also, I think if Ang Lee is going to win Best Director, Life of Pi will win Best Picture. Out of Africa and Braveheart both won BP and took director with them.
Historically speaking, it’s much more likely that the film with the most noms wins BP and a director with a smaller number of noms wins BD. Usually the more critically acclaimed film wins BD in a split (like Steven Soderbergh, like Roman Polanski, like Ang Lee, like Spielberg, like Beatty, like John Ford, etc) but most of the time, picture and director don’t split.
I have to admit it would be funny to see it split and to see Spielberg and Ang Lee have the trophies in the end — both of them famously won director and then lost Best Picture — with Saving Private Ryan and Brokeback Mountain. They are two of the best directors the film industry has ever known. 12 noms for Lincoln and 11 noms for Life of Pi, including director, makes it very likely that they two could split the house.
On Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress, the Gurus of Gold and Gold Derby both have Daniel Day-Lewis breaking with Academy history and winning his third Oscar. They also have Anne Hathaway winning Best Supporting Actress, unanimously. So we’ll move on to Best Actress:
Now that Emmanuelle Riva has entered the race, the world is turned upside down in the Best Actress race. It is no longer two actresses in two popular films going head to head — it is a three-way race.
I feel like it’s totally wide open. Jennifer Lawrence won the SAG and the Globe. Chastain won the Globe. Who will win the BAFTA? If Emmanuelle Riva wins there, well, forget it. Meryl Streep won the Globe and the BAFTA and the Oscar. Viola Davis won the SAG. The BAFTA won’t impact the Best Picture race, I don’t think (maybe it will if Ang Lee represents over there but if Argo wins we are still at the same stalemate as we are now) but it will or could effect Best Actress.
With four acting nods, it’s not likely Silver Linings will go home empty handed. I figure, it has to win one of those. If it isn’t going to upset and win Best Pic and Best Director (which it very well could), Lawrence might be the consolation prize. If they want to reward the more seasoned actress they might pick Chastain, who has her roots in theater and has proved versatility. But my money is on Riva, whose birthday will be the same day as the Oscars and who is exactly as old as the Oscars themselves. Moreover, Amour is so beloved that it earned Pic, Director, Screenplay and Actress. Of course, Lawrence has all of that and more.
Best Supporting Actor is likewise all over the map. The reason for this is that all of these contenders have won before. Phillip Seymour Hoffman won lead for Capote. Robert De Niro won lead for Raging Bull and supporting for the Godfather II. Alan Arkin won supporting for Little Miss Sunshine. Tommy Lee Jones won for The Fugitive and Christoph Waltz won for Inglourious Basterds. There is no urgency to award any of them. Tommy Lee Jones won the SAG, which was an unexpected win for Lincoln. History tells us that it’s evenly split between whomever wins the Globe and the actor that wins the Oscar in this category — therefore I would imagine it might come down to Jones vs. Waltz. On the other hand, Hoffman and Waltz have the benefit of appearing in two leading roles disguised as supporting roles, which might mean they too are the two strongest contenders to beat.
Screenplay is trickier. Neither category seems particularly predictable. In Original Screenplay you have Michael Haneke up against Quentin Tarantino (who won already for Pulp Fiction) and Mark Boal (who won already with The Hurt Locker). Haneke has the Picture and Director going for him so I would think it will fall in his favor. But only one of these three is nominated for a WGA — Mark Boal — so he could get some momentum from a DGA win.
Adapted Screenplay is where the heat of this race resides. The strongest Best Picture contenders are facing off in this category and they represent three very different styles and genres of film. Argo and Silver Linings are both driven by one-liners and wit throughout. Both make me chuckle every time I watch them. Argo has “you can teach a Rhesus monkey how to be a director in a day” and Silver Linings has “There will always be a part of me that is dirty and sloppy, but I like that, just like all the other parts of myself.”
They both involve stories with characters you care about — neither makes you feel dumb or unable to get the references or understand the text. They are both strong contenders to win both the WGA and the Oscar. Argo will probably win the WGA the way things are going. Unfortunately for all of us, the best screenplay in the bunch could get overlooked because its treasures are buried so deeply beneath layers of complexity. I feel the need to point out Tony Kushner’s extraordinary writing because I can tell by the film’s critics, those who call it boring or “just people talking” are missing the boat.
Lincoln’s script is about the 13th amendment and 1865. But it is also about the notion of equality — the very thing that Lincoln’s legacy has done to influence our president today. Lincoln was the first president to mention the right to vote the country’s newly prescribed black citizens. At the end of Lincoln he qualifies this because Kushner knows what many of the hysterical blowhards have been shouting about — that Lincoln’s views were far from perfect; you don’t become the most popular president in 1860s by touting the equality of blacks. He wasn’t yet an abolitionist but he was likely moving in that direction. We’ll never know because he was shot in the head a few months into his second term. Similarly, Obama is now the first president ever to use the word “gay” in a major public address. In Lincoln, Kushner’s screenplay points this out in vivid, magnificent fashion. But first, the passage about black men and the vote:
I did say some colored men, the intelligent, the educated, and veterans, I qualified it.
Mr. Stevens is furious, he wants to know why you qualified it –
No one heard the intelligent or the educated part. All they heard was the first time any president has ever made mention of Negro voting.
Still, I wish I’d mentioned it in a better speech.
Mr. Stevens also wants to know why you didn’t make a better speech.
But for me, the greatest strength of the Lincoln screenplay is that it is also full of wit and relishes the beauty of the English language — which makes it not just a great adaptation of Doris Kearns’ Goodwin’s book, but a standalone work. Few screenplays I’ve ever seen come across the awards race stand on their own as great works but Lincoln’s is one of those. This may be the best passage in it — no doubt, those who called the movie “boring” weren’t listening to this part. To them it’s just Lincoln mumbling again. But look at this passage (which Ryan referenced in his beautiful piece about the film) and think about how it applies today to repression and oppression to inequality:
Euclid’s first common notion is this: “Things which are equal to the same thing are equal to each other.” Homer doesn’t get it; neither does Sam. That’s a rule of mathematical reasoning. It’s true because it works; has done and always will do. In his book, Euclid says this is “self-evident.” D’you see? There it is, even in that two-thousand year old book of mechanical law: it is a self evident truth that things which are equal to the same thing are equal to each other. We begin with equality. That’s the origin, isn’t it? That balance, that’s fairness, that’s justice.
Finally, Beasts of the Southern Wild and Life of Pi are both brilliant adaptations. Pi because it is an adaptation of an “unfilmable book” and Beasts because it is full of elevated language and poetry. There probably isn’t one screenplay in this category this year that isn’t good. They all are.