All the films up for Best Picture are formidable challengers in their own right. But only one of these has a secret weapon: a charming, handsome actor-director most people have known for years. The public knows his suave celebrity disposition, the industry knows his reputation as one of the nicest guys in town. Good luck going up against that.
Likeable movie, likable star with an added narrative of having been “snubbed” — it’s easy to see how this wildfire started and why it keeps burning. The one factor that can’t be underestimated, though, is the presence of an actor in the race with a really successful movie. Actors-turned-directors can do serious damage when they’re in the mix because they bring with them a whole career that everyone has seen develop onscreen for years — we grew up together! We feel intimately involved with an actor’s ups and downs, his good times and bad relationships, his successes and failures feel personal. Ben Affleck’s story is a good one because there was a time when he was considered a self-absorbed joke. But he’s come back and reinvented himself as respectable filmmaker, affectionate husband and father, his whole beautiful family photographed daily. He’s made three films but finally hit the jackpot with Argo.
It’s a scrappy success story but an irresistible one. Voters like to think their vote is doing someone some good. Either they’re rewarding impoverished Indian children and the nice plucky director who made that movie, or they’re making Oscar history with Bigelow, or they’re finally rewarding Scorsese or the Coens after years of neglect. If there isn’t an emotional imperative they won’t throw their weight behind something. Somehow, the imperative this year has been to reward Affleck — if not to make amends, at least to show he’s not taken for granted.