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The State of the Race: Ruminating on Argo as The Frontrunner


Before I begin, let me explain. It’s true that we’ve reached the moment in every Oscar year where the pundits and the bloggers have thrown up their hands and decided, the Oscar race is over.  Argo will win Best Picture and for the win to make sense it has to take Screenplay, Editing and perhaps one other award — score? Supporting Actor? Sound? Something in me prevents me from being to give my prediction completely over to Argo yet and that’s a certain nagging feeling that comes from looking at Oscar history.

Argo’s a great choice to win.  If it does split and make history, no harm done.  It’s not an embarrassment.  Freaky Oscar years do happen and it’s only when we look at them in retrospect that we use them to compare with today.  For instance, this NY Times piece about Driving Miss Daisy makes it seem obvious the film is a favorite to win and doesn’t make a big deal about the lack for a director nod but that’s because the movie was a bit of a phenom — led the nominations, made a lot of money, was about to win Jessica Tandy her first Oscar in decades and was a hit play on Broadway for years.

The thing about Driving Miss Daisy was that it was produced, famously, by Richard and Lili Zanuck — they were famous enough, like Ben Affleck and George Clooney are famous enough, to override the lack of a director nomination which could prove to be the key to this whole thing.  They also had a great story about a movie no one wanted to make, low budget, huge hit. Sound familiar? Yeah, that’d be Kathleen Kennedy and Steven Spielberg for Lincoln — a movie nobody wanted to make, a famous producing pair and Kennedy, the most nominated producer in history not yet winning an Oscar.

But back then, when Driving Miss Daisy won, the Oscars themselves weren’t an industry. They weren’t a reality show — they rewarded films that did well with the public first.  Now, the public are an afterthought in what is an insular awards industry.  If it was up to the (American) public, Lincoln would win hands down, a recent poll and a box office take of $170 million, in or very near the top ten for 13 weeks tells us so. But the industry doesn’t agree.

And yes, I will admit a certain bias up front for Lincoln.   Most will write me off for that reason. But if you don’t feel like writing me off and you’d like to hear my thoughts on this, read on.

Once we have a precedent-breaking year we simply have to redefine the precedents.  No woman had won before Bigelow. But not all precedents are measured alike. Having lesser nominations and no director nomination is not a history-making choice in a good way. It’s saying that the Academy got it wrong when they didn’t have the guilds to guide them.    I am not sure that is a precedent the Academy wants to set. But we all know most voters won’t think of it that way. They will just, simply, pick the movie they liked best. So why didn’t they pick Argo for more than 7 nominations if they liked it that much? Does the heart have a change of heart if the movie they liked heading in loses “buzz”? Is that how you explain the turnaround?

Since 1967, in split years, Best Picture or Best Director went to the films with the most nominations.  That would support an Argo/Spielberg split.  Splits usually occur when there are two strong films in the race. So far, we have no proof that Lincoln is particularly strong in the best director regard.  On the other hand, almost everyone is predicting Steven Spielberg to get the win. So if Spielberg gets the win, and Tony Kushner gets the win for screenplay and Daniel Day-Lewis the win for actor — how is it Lincoln isn’t going to win Best Picture?  If Lincoln wins only actor that opens the door for a strong Picture/Director film to step up and that could be Silver Linings Playbook or Life of Pi. Hell, Beasts of the Southern Wild could win.  It’s that wide open.

I lived through the Pianist year and I remember how it caught fire at the last minute heading into the race.  We don’t have a film like that in this year’s race, Amour would be the closest.  That’s why I can make the case that Amour could win Director, Screenplay and Actress while Argo wins Best Picture.

In the most recent split years, the films with the MOST NOMINATIONS heading into the race won Best Picture or Best Director — that does favor Spielberg — Crash vs. Brokeback Mountain, Reds vs. Chariots of Fire for director.  But I still think he would have won the DGA as Warren Beatty, Ang Lee did.

The more likely scenario is the DGA DOESN’T predict the split for Best Picture:

  • When Ang Lee won for DGA+Oscar for Brokeback Mountain and Crash won Best Picture.
  • When Driving Miss Daisy won, Oliver Stone won DGA+Oscar – that’s partly because Bruce Beresford wasn’t nominated for the DGA but we’ll never know will we.  That split and history making year was preordained when Driving Miss Daisy won the Globe without a director’s nomination.
  • When Warren Beatty won for Reds DGA+Oscar and Chariots of Fire won Best Picture.
  • When Mike Nichols won for The Graduate and In the Heat of the Night won Best Picture.

So now you’ll say, well none of those years really matter because there were only five Best Picture nominees. And yes, that’s partly true.  So let’s look at the split years when they had more than five (with five best director nominees, not four or three).

1939 –Rebecca-11 nominations, 2 wins – picture, cinematography
Grapes of Wrath-7 noms, 2 wins–supporting actress, director
The Letter-7 noms, 0 wins
The Philadelphia Story — 6 noms, 2 wins-actor, screenplay
The Long Voyage Home–6 noms, 0 wins
Foreign Correspondent–6 noms, 0 wons
Our Town — 6 noms, 0 wins
The Great Dictator–5 noms, 0 wins
Kitty Foyle–5 noms, 1 win–best actress
All this and Heaven too-3 noms, 0 wins

1936  – The Life of Emile Zola–10 noms, 3 wins–picture, screenplay, supporting actor
A Star is Born–7 noms (plus honorary win) 1 win–screenplay
Lost Horizon–7 noms, 2 wins– art direction, editing
The Awful Truth–6  noms, 1 win for director
In Old Chicago-6 noms, 2 wins — supporting actress, assistant director
The Good Earth–5 noms, 2 wins — cinematography, actress
One Hundred Men and a Girl–5 noms, 1 win for score
Captains Courageous–4 noms, 1 win for actor
Dead End–4 noms, 0 wins
Stage Door–4 noms, 0 wins

The Great Ziefeld–7 noms – 3 wins — picture, dance direction, actress
Anthony Adverse-7 noms – 4 wins-supporting actress, editing, score, cinematography
Dodsworth-7 noms, 1 win art direction
San Francisco-6 noms, 1 win sound
Mr. Deeds Goes to Town–5 noms, 1 win–director
The Story of Louis Pasteur-4 noms, 3 wins–actor, writing/story
Romeo and Juliet — 4 noms, 0 wins
Three Smart Girls, 3 noms, 0 wins
A Tale of Two Cities–2 noms, 0 wins
Libeled Lady-1 nom, 0 wins

The truth is, no one really knows what movie is going to win.  No one knows what anyone in any category will be when those envelopes are opened. The Academy pulled a major surprise when they pushed the date back to being before the guilds. Did they do this to create what we have right now? Utter chaos and confusion? Or did they give us time to ruminate on what had just won the guilds.  And if we have time to think about it, what then?

Will voters go back and look at Lincoln a second time? Will they dig their heels in? Will they watch Robert De Niro cry on Katie and decide to give Silver Linings their vote on the basis of extraneous popularity appeal?  It’s anyone’s game, my friends, anyone’s game.  And these days, the campaigns decide the race, not the films.  Sadly.

At the end of the day, precedents were made to be broken.  This could indeed be one of those crazy years we look back on to compare confusing scenarios we’re faced with.  But for me, I have to adhere to the stats in the face of confusion – I am just built that way.

2012  Ben Affleck, Argo
2011 Michel Hazanavicious, The Artist Michel Hazanavicious, The Artist+
2010 Tom Hooper, The King’s Speech Tom Hooper, The King’s Speech+
2009 Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker+
2008 Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire+
2007 Joel and Ethan Coen, No Country Joel and Ethan Coen, No Country+
2006 Martin Scorsese, The Departed Martin Scorsese, The Departed+
2005 Ang Lee, Brokeback Mountain Ang Lee, Brokeback Mountain* (Crash+)
2004 Clint Eastwood, Million Dollar Baby Clint Eastwood, MDB+
2003 Peter Jackson, Return of the King Peter Jackson, Return of the King+
2002 Rob Marshall, Chicago Roman Polanski, The Pianist (Chicago)
2001 Ron Howard, A Beautiful Mind Ron Howard, A Beautiful Mind+
2000 Ang Lee, Crouching Tiger Steven Soderbergh, Traffic (Gladiator)
1999 Sam Mendes, American Beauty Sam Mendes, American Beauty+
1998 Steven Spielberg, Saving Private Ryan Steven Spielberg (Shakespeare in Love)
1997 Jim Cameron, Titanic Jim Cameron, Titanic+
1996 Anthony Minghella, English Patient Anthony Minghella, English Patient+
1995 Ron Howard, Apollo 13 Mel Gibson, Braveheart+
1994 Robert Zemeckis, Forrest Gump Robert Zemeckis, Forrest Gump+
1993 Seven Spielberg, Schindler’s List Steven Spielberg, Schindler’s List+
1992 Clint Eastwood, Unforgiven Clint Eastwood, Unforgiven+
1991 Jonathan Demme, Silence of the Lambs Jonathan Demme, Silence of the Lambs +
1990 Kevin Costner, Dances with Wolves Kevin Costner, Dances with Wolves+
1989 Oliver Stone, Born on the Fourth of July Oliver Stone, Born on the Fourth of July (Driving Miss Daisy – director Beresford not nommed for Oscar or DGA)
1988 Barry Levinson, Rain Man Barry Levinson, Rain Man+
1987 Bernardo Bertolucci, Last Emperor Bernardo Bertolucci, Last Emperor+
1986 Oliver Stone, Platoon Oliver Stone, Platoon+
1985 Steven Spielberg, Color Purple Sidney Pollack, Out of Africa+
1984: Milos Forman, Amadeus Milos Forman, Amadeus+
1983: James Brooks, Terms of Endearment James Brooks, Terms of Endearment+
1982: Richard Attenborough, Gandhi Richard Attenborough, Gandhi+
1981: Warren Beatty, Reds Warren Beatty, Reds (Chariots of Fire)
1980: Robert Redford, Ordinary People Robert Redford, Ordinary People+
1979: Robert Benton, Kramer Vs. Kramer Robert Benton, Kramer Vs. Kramer+
1978: Michael Cimino, Deer Hunter Michael Cimino, Deer Hunter+
1977: Woody Allen, Annie Hall Woody Allen, Annie Hall+
1976: John Avildson, Rocky John Avildson, Rocky+
1975: Milos Foreman, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest Milos Foreman, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest+
1974: Frances Coppola, Godfather II Frances Coppola, Godfather II+
1973: George Roy Hill, The Sting George Roy Hill+
1972: Frances Coppola, The Godfather Bob Fosse, Cabaret (Godfather)
1971: William Friedkin, The French Connection William Friedkin, The French Connection+
1970: Franklin J. Schaffner, Patton Franklin J. Schaffner , Patton+
1969: John Schlesinger, Midnight Cowboy John Schlesinger, Midnight Cowboy+
1968: Anthony Harvey, Lion in Winter Carol Reed, Oliver+
1967: Mike Nichols, The Graduate Mike Nichols, The Graduate (In Heat of the Night)
1966: Fred Zinneman, A Man for all Seasons Fred Zinneman, A Man for all Seasons+
1965: Robert Wise, The Sound of Music Robert Wise, the Sound of Music+
1964: George Cukor, My Fair Lady George Cukor, My Fair Lady+
1963: Tony Richardson, Tom Jones Tony Richardson, Tom Jones+
1962: David Lean, Lawrence of Arabia David Lean, Lawrence of Arabia+
1961: Jerome Robbins, Robert Wise, West Side Story Jerome Robbins, Robert Wise, West Side Story+
1960: Billy Wilder, The Apartment Billy Wilder, The Apartment+
1959: William Wyler, Ben Hur William Wyler, Ben Hur+
1958: Vincent Minnelli, Gigi Vincent Minnelli, Gigi+
1957: David Lean, Bridge on the River Kwai David Lean, Bridge on the River Kwai+
1956: George Stevens, Giant George Stevens, Giant (Around/World in 80 Days)
1955: Delbert Mann, Marty Delbert Mann, Marty+
1954: Elia Kazan, On the Waterfront Elia Kazan, On the Waterfront+
1953: Fred Zinnemann, From here to Eternity Fred Zinnemann, From here to Eternity+
1952: John Ford, The Quiet Man John Ford, The Quiet Man (Greatest Show on Earth)
1951: George Stevens, A Place in the Sun George Stevens, A Place in the Sun (An American in Paris)
1950: Joseph L. Mankiewicz, All About Eve Joseph L. Mankiewicz, All About Eve+
1949: Robert Rossen, All the King’s Men Joseph L. Mankiewicz for A Letter To Three Wives (All the King’s Men)
1948: Joseph L. Mankiewicz for A Letter To Three Wives John Huston, Treasure of the Sierra Madre (Hamlet)
1947 Elia Kaza for Gentleman’s Agreement
1946 William Wyler for The Best Years of Our Lives
1945 Billy Wilder for The Lost Weekend
1944 Leo McCary for Going My Way
1943 Michael Curtiz for Casablanca
1942 William Wyler for Mrs. Miniver
1941 John Ford for How Green Was My Valley
1940 John Ford for The Grapes of Wrath (Rebecca)
1939 Victor Flemming, Gone with the Wind
1938 Frank Capra, You Can’t Take it With You
1937 Leo McCary, The Awful Truth (The Life of Emile Zola)
1936 Frank Capra, Mr. Deed Goes to Town (The Great Ziegfeld)
1935 John Ford, The Informer (Mutiny on the Bounty)
1934 Frank Capra, It Happened One Night
1933 Frank Lloyd, Calvalcade