“If you are losing a tug of war with a tiger, give him the rope before he gets to your arm. You can always buy a new rope.” – Max Gunther
A quick timeline:
January 10th – Oscar nominations, Ben Affleck and Kathryn Bigelow left off January 10th – Ben Affleck wins Best Picture and Director at the BFCA January 13th – Ben Affleck wins Best Picture and Best Director at the Globes January 24 – PGA ballot deadline January 25 – SAG, DGA deadline
You build momentum one win at a time, but particularly so if it is an unexpected win. What Ben Affleck’s double wins did on the heels of his presumed “snub” threw fire on gasoline and set into motion a narrative that would turn what was once a wide open Oscar race into one of those years where one movie wins everything — like Slumdog Millionaire. In fact, that was the last time a movie won as many awards as Argo is winning. The drama continues every step of the way because everyone knows that the one award Argo can’t win is Best Director. It was a blessing in disguise.
That it is up against evil Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln makes it all the more juicy. I just saw a headline yesterday that read “will Argo steal Lincoln’s Best Picture Oscar?” Even when it was clear Argo was going to win that narrative kept chugging away and will continue up to Oscar night. People love that kind of thing. It makes us all think justice is being done. The good guys are winning against the bad guys. It’s the nature of humans, and the nature of the Oscar race.
For me, watching the Oscar race all of these years has been like Timothy Treadwell entering the Grizzly Maze. He starts out kind of observing them as photojournalists might – with healthy objectivity – observe them but keep a safe distance. Over time, he becomes too involved and eventually, falsely, believes he can influence the outcome of the cold, indifferent natural world. As we watch his narcissistic personality disorder take over his more gentle nature, he loses perspective and then gets eaten by one of the bears he sought to protect.
I have always envied people who can stumble into the Oscar race and not really care about the outcome. They slip in and out of them easily, never taking them too seriously, showing up to do the job but never taking a particular side, loving being on the winning side but not really thinking any of it matters much. It’s just a dumb contest, after all, who cares. I did that, or tried to, for the few years of Oscar watching. When I first started I wanted to know why some great films never won Oscars. I set out to track them from the beginning of the year on through to Oscar night. I thought if I could show people how it went down they would not forget the best ones and they would think about their vote more seriously. Sometimes it seemed to make a difference, like when Adrien Brody surprised in the Best Actor category. But it was impossible to think any of it meant something after Brokeback Mountain lost to Crash and then later, when The Social Network lost to The King’s Speech, and now when Lincoln, Zero Dark Thirty and Life of Pi are losing to Argo. None of these winners are bad films. They are the consensus choice that said we liked this movie better than all of the others.
It is really not the problem of the race itself but those who become too invested in it. If you keep track of the things that generally define greatness and see in the end that those things don’t matter it can become as frustrating and maddening as Timothy Treadwell watching the bears starve to death because there is no rain. And if you care too much people start to wonder about you.
Even still, I applaud Ben Affleck, George Clooney, Gran Heslov and Chris Terrio for their marvelously entertaining Argo. And yes, it is all of those things. Who can’t be happy for Terrio, in particular, a nice guy and a talented writer who wrote something that a lot of people really love? Or Affleck, for that matter, smartly put front and center during the awards race. They’re on the winning side and they can’t be stopped. Might as well hop on their hay wagon, crack open a cold one and sing along. Or you can sit on the sidelines being miserable about the outcome not being what you’d hoped, what you’d imagined or what, in your darkest moments, never thought possible. It’s a choice to make at the end of the slog.
And so I remember back to 2010 when at least the Social Network had won every critics award it went up for – and it was rejected by the industry — Best Picture was read by Steven Spielberg:
This year isn’t ending in a tragedy. Voters found a great movie that they liked. It has transformed the careers of Ben Affleck and Chris Terrio. I have not regretted one minute of this year. Who could not have been inspired by these great movies this year. The endgame is, well, the celebration.
I think I’ve survived the grizzly maze for another year. And as Timothy Treadwell said moments before being eaten alive, “There is no, no, no other place in the world that is more dangerous, more exciting than the Grizzly Maze. Come here and camp here. Come here and try to do what I do. You will die. You will die here. You will frickin’ die here. They will get you. I found a way. I found a way to survive with them. Am I a great person? I don’t know. I don’t know. We’re all great people. Everyone has something in them that’s wonderful. I’m just different. And I love these bears enough to do it right. And I’m edgy enough and I’m tough enough.”
As we close down shop for this bizarre season which started in Telluride with Argo and ended in Los Angeles with Argo, it’s a good time remember once again that the films that get out there early often have the staying power to go the distance. This is the combination of being underestimated (Argo was seen as an also-ran heading into the race) and to have proven staying power to run the gauntlet. Argo stood back while the other films got trashed. This has been true going back many years now: The Artist, The King’s Speech, The Hurt Locker, Slumdog Millionaire, No Country for Old Men, The Departed, Crash all came out early in the year or around the time of Toronto/Telluride. You have to really go back to Million Dollar Baby to find a late-breaking Best Picture winner. Remember that for next time.
Also remember that the least offensive really does win the day. All of the most recent Best Picture winners had the least or nearly the least negative reviews. To win these days you have to be a Teflon movie with Teflon filmmakers – meaning, you can’t hate them. Hating them is like kicking a puppy. The more you hate on them, the more lovable they become. Remember that too.
But there’s nothing wrong with celebrating the ones that won’t win. They are beautiful losers that are made better because they don’t appeal to the consensus. Great art, by definition, has trouble doing just that. Oh sure, sometimes you get lucky and the consensus manages to get behind great art. But it doesn’t happen often. Usually Best Picture is Ms. Right Now. The first flush of unbreakable love that has a shelf life. Chocolate only stays sweet for so long.
But I have to also say that what made this year for me were the best readers and commenters on the web. The community of Oscar watchers drives this site — it did back in 1999 and it does now. So I am not alone in the Grizzly Maze.
In one week we’ll watch George Clooney, Ben Affleck and Grant Heslov make Oscar history. It will be a joyous occasion. I keep remembering Ben Affleck and Matt Damon scrambling to the state on their surprise win for Good Will Hunting. They were so stunned to be there, so surprised by their win because they looked like kids who just got let out of high school for the summer. Now Affleck’s back to take the big prize. He’s come a long way, baby. We can be on his winning side on Sunday. It’s either that or get eaten by one of the bears.
It’s worth mentioning that this is the fourth consecutive year where the major guilds will dictate how the Academy votes. That’s been so, really, since they changed up to ten. I don’t think it’s really possible now, with so many movies in the mix, for there to be any surprises on Oscar night.
Here are the categories I think are up for grabs — meaning, any name could be read because they have no official frontrunner.
Best Director (leaning Spielberg or Ang Lee or David O. Russell). Best Actress (leaning Emmanuelle Riva or Jennifer Lawrence) . Best Supporting Actor (leaning Christoph Waltz, Tommy Lee Jones or De Niro). Best Original Screenplay (leaning Zero Dark, Amour or Django) . Sound Editing (leaning Skyfall or Argo or Life of Pi). Animated Feature (leaning Wreck-it Ralph or Brave). Cinematography (leaning Life of Pi or Skyfall). Art Direction (leaning Anna Karenina or Life of Pi). Score (leaning Life of Pi) . The shorts (leaning Curfew, Open Heart, Paperman).
Seem Locked: Picture-Argo , Adapted Screenplay-Argo, Supporting Actress-Anne Hathaway , Editing-Argo, Foreign Language Film-Amour, Best Actor (perhaps)-Daniel Day-Lewis , Costumes-Anna Karenina , Sound-Les Miserables , Visual Effects-Life of Pi, Documentary–Searching for Sugar Man, Makeup-Les Miserables , Song-Skyfall.
On these charts you can see how once Oscar changed up to more than five Best Picture nominees the guilds and Oscar have been uniform: one winner all of the time.
Producers Guild | Best Picture
Won Guild | Won Oscar