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.
We’ll never know if Affleck’s Argo took the lead because of the perceived “snub” or because it was just a movie everyone really liked. We only know that it began in the lead back during Telluride and Toronto but was then overtaken by films like Zero Dark Thirty and Lincoln. Even Silver Linings Playbook seem to outshine Argo when it took the audience award at TIFF. But when each of these films got pummeled during the lead-up to the Oscar race — unfairly maligned, I might add — Argo suddenly reemerged victorious. Once it was seen that Affleck had been left off the directors list it put into motion a potent narrative that has swallowed up Oscar 2012.
By the way, the fact that Argo was initially dwarfed by several other bigger movies only drives the narrative even further — the David and Goliath aspect of all that is too juicy to resist. Some might say simply, well, the movie is just that good — it must be if it’s winning everything, even the Scripter. I would say if that was so why didn’t anyone see it sooner? — why didn’t it top the box office over Lincoln? why didn’t it start out as the critics darling like Zero Dark Thirty? And why wasn’t it getting the kinds of audience reactions Les Miserables did early on?
Argo, in effect, became the default choice, the bowl of porridge that was just right — but that all kind of happened after Oscar nomination ballots were already turned in. Given more time before ballots were due, many believe Affleck would have been in there. People en mass don’t deviate much from the general consensus — as you can see by how the race has played out. Affleck would likely have been nominated and the film would have Dances With Wolves all the way through the season, easily taking every award.
But now we’re stuck with the knowledge that Argo wasn’t among the five best-liked films chosen by the director’s branch it only caught its full head of steam once the charm offensive/snub narrative took hold. I recount the sequence of events for the historical record because it matters to me how things went down. None of this means Argo isn’t a deserving winner. If it were me I would prefer one of the films by the five nominated directors to win instead but you can’t have everything. Argo is as good as any movie to win in the past few years. It’s also a movie you can sit anyone down in front of and they will get it if not love it — and that, my friends, is how you define an Oscar best picture winner these days.
Affleck’s charm is his secret weapon. He’s whip smart, appearing sharp on Bill Maher and adept before Congress to protest treatment in the Congo. And on top of that, he seems to have Bill Clinton’s gift for making even the lowest of the low feel like they have a “special relationship” with him; he’s already charmed three of my colleagues — Kris Tapley, Anne Thompson and Scott Feinberg. Thompson tweeted after the BAFTAs, “way to go Ben!” Can you imagine anyone saying “Way to go Steven!” No, no one is on a first name basis with Steven Spielberg that way.
Affleck began the campaign season following in George Clooney’s footsteps, almost down to the letter. But Affleck is more approachable, less aloof than Clooney. Two years ago Clooney was up in Telluride chit-chatting with journalists and calling Oscar bloggers by their first names. They were all huddled up against him on the night they were celebrating The Descendants. He made friends with them and they ushered his movie through the season with ease. Affleck has done the same thing, hanging out and chit-chatting with journalists and bloggers. But unlike Clooney’s suave cordiality, Affleck’s appeal runs warmer — he seems genuinely nice. He even had a special relationship with Q&A host John Horn, since they both shared office space during the filming of Argo at the LA Times building. Everyone feels like they know Ben.
I too was once caught up in the Affleck charm offensive when I spoke briefly with him while he was publicizing The Town. He was so nice but more than that. He quoted Shakesepare in Love for me when I told him the only way my 14-year-old daughter knows him is as Ned in that film. He won me over (although I was already an early fan of his work). I deliberately steered clear of his gravitational pull this year, other than attending two screenings of Argo where he appeared and once again charmed the pants off of both crowds.
No other director this year has this much charisma — and in a competitive season with some very very good films up for Best Picture, the charm offensive has perhaps given Affleck all the edge he needed to tip the scales in a consensus vote. In truth: who can resist him?
The Oscars have a distinct but fairly recent tradition of the transformation from “handsome actor” to Oscar-winning director. It makes sense, when you remember that the Oscars are controlled by actors and if “one of them” makes it as a director it opens yet more doors for actors. The charm offensive worked when Robert Redford beat Martin Scorsese for Raging Bull, it worked again when Kevin Costner beat Martin Scorsese for Goodfellas, and again when Clint Eastwood beat Martin Scorsese for The Aviator. It kind of worked when Mel Gibson beat Ron Howard (who’s an actor himself, of course, but he lacks the good looks and sex appeal of the others). When you think about it, how in the world could anyone compete with that heat, least of all nerdy Spielberg or stoic, lovely Ang Lee?
I have only predicted two movies to win this season. Argo and Lincoln. I never wavered from either of them. But after I saw Lincoln, Life of Pi and Zero Dark Thirty, they blew Argo away to me. All of them are good movies of course but two out of three of them took me places I’d never been, down deep. At that point I figured Argo would be like Clooney’s Good Night, and Good Luck — it would run parallel to the winner but it wouldn’t BE the winner. That seemed most likely at the beginning and I always figured it would be a threat but once Affleck didn’t make the director list it seemed impossible to overcome such a disadvantage.
It’s hard to make a case for anyone to feel sorry for Steven Spielberg, or Kathryn Bigelow or even Ang Lee because they all have Oscars. All three of their movies are good enough to be called “Best Picture of the Year,” but none of them will win. Affleck’s light is too bright, his film too likable; when The USC Scripter gives their prize to Argo over the combination of Pulitzer Prize winning Doris Kearns Goodwin’s illustrious book and Pulitzer Prize winning Tony Kushner revelatory screenplay (it’s one of the few works this year that can be said about with a straight face) you know there is no stopping this unstoppable force. Chris Terrio being a USC grad might have had something to do with that win but either way, the end result is the end result.
When directors win with a limited body of work behind them — Affleck only has three movies under his belt so far — it is hit and miss as to whether they can recover from an Oscar win, which should really come at the peak of your career. The ones who win early rarely flourish after having climaxed so soon. Sam Mendes never seemed to evolve much artistically after American Beauty. His efforts were interesting but never caught the Academy by storm. Now he’s directed Skyfall, which is a huge hit and worthy of an Oscar nod; but alas, it was not to be. Paul Haggis did not benefit much when Crash won and has anyone ever heard from Bruce Beresford or Hugh Hudson again after Driving Miss Daisy and Chariots of Fire won? Robert Redford has made good movies after Ordinary People but Oscar only really paid attention to Quiz Show, not A River Runs Through it. Kevin Coster became persona non grata, although he’s picking up steam on TV now.
At the end of the day, you have to just be happy for Affleck, who is calling this experience a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Everyone who knows him, or thinks they know him, will be cheering him on from the sidelines. I am not ruling out a standing ovation at the end. He already got two at the Critics Choice awards. Will there suddenly be a backlash against him? Who knows but he’s certainly already weathered enough slings and arrows in his life. He can handle more.