“Fame you’ll be famous, as famous as can be, with everyone watching you win on TV, Except when they don’t because sometimes they won’t.”
― Dr. Seuss, Oh, the Places You’ll Go!
The stealthy Oscar campaign behind this year’s stunning victory lap by Ben Affleck and his Argo-movie-that-could are the same folks, not too surprisingly, who were behind Crash’s victory against Brokeback. This is a stealthy crew who don’t want you to know what they see coming a mile away.
When the race first began, it felt wide open. Many of us believed that whatever won the Producers Guild would change the dynamics of the race. Why, because that would be ten films with a preferential ballot. Moreover, with a wide open race no one really knew what the consensus vote would be. We knew critics liked Zero Dark Thirty, and when it faltered, Argo — but the Academy, not so much. Toronto likes Silver Linings and the Academy agreed. Critics didn’t award Lincoln, but the Academy did, with 12 nominations.
Finding director now will be tricky. I don’t know what voters will do but I have my doubts they will reward Spielberg. If they were going to reward him for the high achievement that is Lincoln it would have shown up at the DGA. As it is, I think I’ll have to bet that if Argo wins BP, Michael Haneke will win Director, Actress and Screenplay for Amour.
My hope would be that people, whereupon seeing Argo becoming winner-takes-all would back way off of their Lincoln hate but alas, such is not the case. Hollywood-Elsewhere’s Jeff Wells, who thought Life of Pi would never go anywhere, that Beasts of the Southern Wild was too “ugly” for Oscar voters and that Argo was too ordinary or mediocre for Oscar voters has now dropped all of that just to continue (what he thinks is) beating Lincoln to the ground. It is the most bizarre thing. His continual need to embarrass anyone who was predicting Lincoln — and come to that, many of the commenters here who feel that same need, act as though joining the general consensus and choosing Argo is some heroic feat. Picking the predictable is anything but heroic — if anything, you get to hide behind the mob and avoid humiliation.
There are so many great movies brought to the public’s attention this year. Beasts of the Southern Wild and Amour, particularly, and to see those directors celebrated by the Academy is one of the coolest things I’ve seen the Academy do in 14 years. They broke with the consensus. They rebelled. They said: for once we’re not going to do what everyone else says we have to do. For once, you can’t herd our choices into a pen — we decide. But the combination of Argo being the choice of voters and Ben Affleck being a popular celebrity, made the vast amount of voters in the industry decide to override the directors. If they override them at the Oscars it will be the first time in history such a thing has happened. When Driving Miss Daisy won, its director wasn’t nominated for a Globe, a DGA or an Oscar. Ben Affleck winning the DGA, then not getting an Oscar nomination but winning Best Picture? Never happened.
But I’m not going to bet against the Crash team to push this baby over the edge. Overriding the directors branch should be an easy enough feat. What that will mean is that we will no longer look to the directors to lead the race. We will no longer consider the directors branch to be powerful and, in fact, any film could win theoretically, whether the directors choose it or not. Funny, that.
Watching the rise and fall of Zero Dark Thirty no doubt contributed, at least in part, to Argo’s success. I think the critics chose Argo because they had to abandon Zero Dark Thirty, but the industry has chosen Argo because it’s the only one they can all agree upon is best. It’s a perfect storm, if you will. The Globes and BFCA voters had their ballots in before Oscar nominations but Argo’s win immediately following Affleck’s “snub” was like fire on gasoline.
Here is a rough timeline of Zero Dark Thirty’s rise and fall:
- September 16, 2012 – Argo loses to Silver linings Playbook at TIFF
- December 3, 2012 – Zero Dark Thirty wins New York Film Critics award for Picture, Director
- December 5, 2012 – Zero Dark Thirty wins National Board of Review Picture, Director, Actress
- December 9, 2012 – Zero Dark Thirty wins Boston Film Critics Picture, Director, Screenplay
- December 10, 2012 – Zero Dark Thirty wins Washington DC area film critics Picture, Director, Actress
- December 10, 2012 – David Edelstein writes in his review that “Dick Cheney would have loved Zero Dark Thirty”
- December 10, 2012 – Glenn Greenwald’s headline “Zero Dark Thirty: new torture-glorifying film wins raves“
- December 10, 2012 – Zero Dark Thirty torture debate
- December 11, 2012 – CNN: Did torture really lead to Bin Laden?
- December 12, 2012 – MSNBC Does Zero Dark Thirty promote torture?
- December 12, 2012 – New York Times – torture scenes open reopen debate
- December 12, 2012 – Hollywood Reporter – Zero Dark Thirty, how to sell it
- December 13, 2012 – Argo wins San Diego Film Critics Picture, Director, Screenplay
- December 16, 2012 – Argo wins Southeastern Film Critics Association
- December 17, 2012 – Zero Dark Thirty wins Chicago Film Critics Picture, Director, Screenplay, Actress, Editing
- December 18, 2012 – Argo wins the Florida Film Critics Picture, Director, Screenplay
- In a December 19 letter to the chairman and CEO of Sony Pictures Entertainment, which produced the film, three senators alleged it was “grossly inaccurate and misleading in its suggestion that torture resulted in information that led to the location” of bin Laden.
- Friday, January 4th, 2013 – Naomi Wolf calls Kathryn Bigelow Leni Reifenstahl
- Critics Choice ballots due — January 8, 2013
- Oscar nominations — January 10, 2013 – Kathryn Bigelow, Ben Affleck and Tom Hooper not nominated for director.
- Critics Choice Awards — January 10, 2013 – Argo wins Picture, Director
- Golden Globe Awards — January 13, 2013 – Argo wins Picture, Director
- January 13, 2013 — Ed Asner and Martin Sheen send letter to Academy voters to boycott Zero Dark Thirty
- January 15, 2013 – Kathryn Bigelow writes an op-ed defending Zero Dark Thirty
- PGA/WGA/SAG ballot deadline — January 25, 2013
- PGA Awards — January 26, 2013 – Argo wins
- SAG Awards — January 27, 2013 – Argo wins ensemble
- January 28, 2013 – Michael Moore launches defense of Zero Dark Thirty
- January 30, 2013 — Martin Sheen retracts statements against Zero Dark Thirty
- DGA Awards — February 2, 2013 – Argo wins DGA
- February 8, 2013 – Oscar ballots are sent out.
That is one hell of a rise and fall. I will always believe that Argo benefited from it – after all, Argo is the anti-Zero Dark Thirty. It’s a movie about the nice guy CIA doing nice guy things, funny thing, enlisting Hollywood with a thumping Led Zepplin vibe. Men do all the work, women are to be protected and rescued. Our enemies are chasing us but we get away, hero saves the day. Neither Maya nor Tony Mendez ever got to take credit but by the end of Zero Dark Thirty you don’t want to see Maya collect awards but you do want to see Affleck as Mendez. Everything Zero Dark Thirty is, Argo isn’t. Argo never pretended to be anything more than a good old fashioned crowdpleaser. And Kathryn Bigelow has already won, Ben Affleck hasn’t. So give him the Oscar — everybody wins.
The torture debate was still worth having. Zero Dark Thirty is still the better film. And so it goes. Awards aren’t everything. What was it Luis Bunuel said about the Oscar? “Nothing would disgust me more morally than winning an Oscar.”
At the end of the day I will admit that it’s sad to see Lincoln get the shaft. But what can you do? You can’t make people “like” a movie they don’t. And if you are looking for those kinds of accolades you mostly have to make films that don’t push out towards the edges but skate right down the middle. Audiences want to be soothed and entertained nowadays — hell, look at the previous two Oscar winners: The Artist, The King’s Speech and now, Argo — these are films that do not challenge us in any way. They are solid, good films that no one hates.
But you can still write about the Oscar race without focusing on the end result. That Beasts of the Southern Wild was rewarded for making a film with $1.8 million is incredible. That Amour, a film in French, got Picture, Director, Screenplay and Actress is incredible. That a live action short called Inocente introduces us to a vibrant artist who turned her invisible identity as an immigrant and her abusive past into art which bursts forth from her because it has nowhere else to go is incredible. That we now know who Rodriguez is thanks to Searching For Sugarman is incredible.
I understand that as I write this, I am hopefully offering some comfort for people who feel as I do, kind of weirded out by how voters turned their noses up at Spielberg’s beautifully written ode to Abe Lincoln that has really captured the public’s attention ($170 million) and their heart. But the Oscars have stopped being about the American public a long time ago. And I understand that many readers and those who follow me on Twitter want to see more drama so that they can pile on the hate. Juicily. But sorry, we’re all out of that.
Despite the way it’s all turning out it has been a great year for awards, where the rewards are woven delicately through the familiar strains of how the Oscars usually go. We must never forget we are here to celebrate films, not necessarily to only care about who wins the horse race. At least, that’s my hope. This is why I keep reminding myself because I know how easy it is to forget how little all of it really means.