Since I spend so much of my time making a case for Lincoln’s much easier paths to victory than Argo’s, let’s talk a little about how Argo became the film to beat all of a sudden. First, let’s look at the structure of the race so far, then I want to take you back to 1985, and then through Driving Miss Daisy, and out back through the changing landscape of the industry.
First, here is a timeline of events.
— Argo is announced as a surprise player in Telluride. Ben Affleck has directed two films before, Gone Baby Gone and The Town. Awards Daily loved both and have been loyal and devoted Affleck followers for years. We were excited to see Argo. It already had positive buzz heading into the race. A few of us saw it in Telluride and called it the Best Picture frontrunner to beat. Affleck received a standing ovation.
— Silver Linings Playbook wins the Toronto International Film Festival’s audience award, beating Argo. It then beat Argo at the Hampton’s International Film Festival. But I and Kris Tapley and a few others were holding on to Argo.
— Lincoln played the New York Film Fest. It would go on to dominate the nominations across the board, but to date has not won any award for best film or director. Pundits circled around not knowing whether to embrace a difficult film or not. Most settled on something other than Lincoln winning.
— Les Miserables screens in New York. Dave Karger, Kris Tapley and Tom O’Neil, not to mention dozens of other pundits, declare it as the film to beat. It will sweep the awards, Gold Derby declared. Silver Linings Playbook was still hovering as the Toronto winner.
— Roger Ebert said Argo would win Best Picture. Everyone teased him for it.
— Argo faded into the background as Zero Dark Thirty announced its presence with authority. The best reviews of this year and last year, it suddenly zoomed to the top as the film to beat. The New York Film Critics and dozens of other groups named it their top film of the year. Then controversy — the film took a major tumble. The filmmakers beat back the controversy but there was only much they could do. It was like fire on gasoline.
— Oscar ballots were turned in prematurely for the first time since — well, ever. Before the DGA, PGA or WGA could tell them what to do the Academy went and did what they wanted to do instead. While Zero Dark Thirty and Django Unchained were late breakers, Les Miserables and Argo were not. All of these directors were left off the Best Director list when the Academy announced, in their place Benh Zeitlin, Michael Haneke, David O. Russell.
— Heading into the Critics Choice awards, Argo was already surging. This was partly due to all of the Zero Dark Thirty advocates jumping ship, and partly due to many who had embraced Les Miserables now seeing the bad reviews, not having anywhere else to turn. Argo never had much critics support at all until around the BFCAs. It won there, Picture and Director, but curiously, nothing else. Tony Kushner won Screenplay. Affleck received two standing ovations and was suddenly the talk of the town.
— Argo wins the Globe, again, curiously, only Picture and Director – -not screenplay or supporting actor or anything else.
— It looked like Argo could keep going with this momentum swing heading into the PGA. The Globes were held on January 13th and PGA ballots didn’t have to be in until January 24th. SAG ballots were due January 25th and WGA ballots were also due January 25. These are all caught right in the heat of Argo’s most fertile moment. Argo wins the PGA and the SAG ensemble. But so far, Chris Terrio has not won any of these major awards, it’s just been Picture, Affleck and SAG ensemble.
— Time to sit and bake — a lot can happen in a couple of weeks. Oscar ballots don’t go out until February 8th.
Now that voters know what the industry choice is, they have the chance to decide whether they agree with that choice or not. History tells us that Argo was never that well liked by the Academy to begin with, that they simply liked other movies better. And that reminded me of 1985, the year Steven Spielberg was supposedly snubbed for the Color Purple:
From Damien Bona’s Inside Oscar:
Africa, Purple 11, Spielberg 0
Out of Africa and The Color Purple tied with eleven nominations each, but Spielberg, who had already won a Directors Guild nomination, was not in the Academy’s Director race. Sydney Pollack was there, as were the directors of the other three Best Picture nominees: Prizzi’s Honor’s John Huston, Witness’ Peter Weir, and Kiss of the Spiderwoman’s Hector Babenco. The fifth nominee was Akira Kurosawa for Ran, which pulled in a total of four nominations. Japan’s official entry for Best Foreign Film didn’t get nominated for anything. The Los Angeles Critics’ favorite, Brazil, it won two nominations for Art Direction and Original Screenplay.
But it was the Spielberg snub, dubbed by the New York Post as “Omission Impossible,” that everybody wanted to talk about. Columnist Kirk Honeycutt chortles, “What wouldn’t you have given to be a fly on the wall over at Spielberg’s headquarters on Wednesday?” But the director knew better than to repeat his humiliation of ten years earlier when cameras caught him getting news the Academy had rejected him for Jaws in favor of Federico Fellini; this time the non-nominee was, as the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner put it, “vacationing on a yacht in some undisclosed waters.”
With no Spielberg around for a response, Warner Bros. jumped into action with a trade paper ad that expressed “sincere appreciation” to the Academy for eleven nominations and then concluded, “At the same time, the company is shocked and dismayed that the movie’s primary creative force — Steven Spielberg — was not recognized.” Aljean Harmetz reported that “a number of people …made the assumption that Spielberg had masterminded the statement,” although Warners denied the accession. Columnist Martin Grove warned, “It would be best for all concerned that the balloting not take place under a “cloud” and recommended that the Academy “appoint a blue-ribbon panel” to investigate “any organized effort to dissuade voters rom nominating Spielberg.” Academy President Robert Wise said forget it, maintaining that the members of the Directors Branch “voted their artistic and creative feelings.” One member, Henry Jaglom, vented his feelings, telling the Los Angeles Times, “The nominations for Banenco and Kurasawa are great. The whole thing is a sign the Directors Branch is growing up.”
“In the end, it really wasn’t much of a contest after all,” summed up columnist Gregg Kilday, “Pollack’s detour to shake Spielberg’s hand as he made his way to the stage played like a laying of hands, a welcoming gesture suggesting that Spielberg, for enduring the controversy gracefully, had finally earned membership in the club.”
That was the Academy then. They were well known for deciding to go a different way from the Directors Guild, with these famous “snubs”:
Vertigo: Alfred Hitchcock
Five Easy Pieces: Bob Rafelson
The Conversation: Francis Ford Coppola
Serpico: Sidney Lumet
Jaws: Steven Spielberg
Taxi Driver: Martin Scorsese
Manhattan: Woody Allen
The Right Stuff: Philip Kaufman
The Big Chill: Lawrence Kasdan
Stand By Me: Rob Reiner
Broadcast News: Jim Brooks
When Harry Met Sally: Rob Reiner
A Few Good Men: Rob Reiner
The Age of Innocence: Martin Scorsese
The Shawshank Redemption -Frank Darabont:<—!!!
Sense and Sensibility: Ang Lee
Apollo 13: Ron Howard
As Good as it Gets: Jim Brooks
Jerry Maguire: Cameron Crowe
The Green Mile: Frank Darabont
Almost Famous: Cameron Crowe
Moulin Rouge: Baz Luhrmann
The Two Towers: Peter Jackson
Dreamgirls: Bill Condon
Little Miss Sunshine: Faris & Dayton
Into the Wild: Sean Penn
Christopher Nolan: Inception
David Fincher: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Ben Affleck: Argo
Kathryn Bigelow: Zero Dark Thirty
Tom Hooper: Les Miserables
Paul Thomas Anderson: The Master
Quentin Tarantino: Django Unchained
So you see, the Oscars don’t take to rewarding films with their directors missing, no matter who they are. All of the times I thought about As Good as it Gets or Moulin Rouge winning I should have known that they were missing that crucial nod.
But what might make Argo different? It will have to be the movie and not the Affleck hype. If they really just genuinely like it above all others it has a chance to defy what seems like impossible history. We’ve a ways to go yet but there is no denying how many people love Argo. It wouldn’t be winning everything in sight otherwise.
It won a preferential and a weighted ballot. It won over the 4,000 some odd in the PGA and the 100,000 some odd in SAG. That tells me that people can’t agree on any movie in the race EXCEPT Argo. It’s a movie no one hates and a lot of people love. It’s a crowdpleaser. It’s produced by George Clooney and is directed by and stars Ben Affleck. It is a movie about Hollywood and America doing the right thing.
Ben Affleck is the one person voters seem to be rooting for — he IS the little director that could. But I don’t think that can give him the Oscar win. It has to be about the movie. And if it is, game over. One thing’s for sure – the press won’t let the story go — for one thing, Affleck is a movie star so he makes for great copy. What do you think, does Argo have the stuff to be the winner this year and defy all odds?