Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Oscars 2013: How Did 'Argo' Take the Lead?

Sometimes Oscar prognosticators are slow on the uptake. After all, if something unexpected happens once, it's a fluke. Twice, and it's a coincidence. But three times? That's a trend. And four times is -- what? A groundswell? A movement?

So it is with Argo. After Ben Affleck failed to secure a Best Director nomination, pundits counted it out of the Best Picture race, since no film has won that Oscar without also being nominated for Best Director since 1989's "Driving Miss Daisy." Nonetheless, hours after the Oscar nominations were announced, "Argo" picked up Best Picture at the Critics' Choice Awards. Then it did so a few days later at the Golden Globes. And this past weekend, it won the top prize at the Producers Guild Awards on Saturday and then at the Screen Actors Guild Awards on Sunday.

So, yeah, okay, we get it. "Argo" is the frontrunner. Still, how did it come from behind, despite the Oscar snub, to take the lead? There are a number of theories.

"Argo" was always the frontrunner; we just got distracted when newer, shinier movies came along. According to this theory, "Argo," the first of the major Oscar hopefuls to be released, was on top from the beginning, but later releases like "Lincoln", "Silver Linings Playbook" and "Zero Dark Thirty" briefly distracted critics and awards voters. But support for "Argo" was always strong, the theory says, it was just drowned out by the brief fancies for the newer films.

"Argo" is the most likable -- or maybe just the least unlikable -- of the nominees. This theory explains why the other movies fell by the wayside. "Zero Dark Thirty" was halted in its tracks by the controversy over its depiction of torture. "Lincoln" had its own historical anomalies. "Silver Linings Playbook," as a comedy, seems slight, and its portrayal of mental illness makes some viewers uncomfortable. "Life of Pi" is too foreign, "Django Unchained" too violent, "Amour" too uncompromisingly bleak and "Beasts of the Southern Wild" too precious. So that leaves "Argo," a film that everyone at least respected, if not loved, and one that nobody has anything bad to say about.

"Argo" makes Hollywood a hero. Oscar seldom smiles on inside-baseball movies about the workings of Hollywood. Last year's "The Artist" was a notable exception, and "Argo" paints a more flattering portrait of the industry than that film did. In an era when Hollywood is often cast as a villain (both by politicians and by its own filmmakers), "Argo" makes the whole town (represented by the composite character Alan Arkin plays) come off as a hero and a patriot. Sure, the movie has some gentle, satirical tweaks at the town for being built on lies and hype, but it's that gift for deceit that makes the merchants of movie fakery in "Argo" ideal partners in a secret espionage operation. No wonder the Producers Guild smiled on "Argo"; it's the only movie in memory that makes a hero out of one of the Guild's own.

Actors love "Argo." Here, it's the narrative behind the production and release of "Argo" that matters. It's a critical and popular hit directed by a member of the Screen Actors Guild, and it represents his redemption after years of being a Hollywood joke. (So it gives hope to every other member of SAG that, given the right project, they could do as well as Ben Affleck has.) According to that narrative, Affleck's Oscar snub isn't a disqualification, just one more obstacle he's had to overcome on his way to a coronation. Also, TV actors (who make up a large chunk of the SAG voters) love Affleck for giving plum roles in "Argo" to performers generally thought of as TV actors (such as Bryan Cranston, Tate Donovan, and Victor Garber).

    Of course, the voting patterns of TV actors don't matter at the Academy Awards, but actors still make up the largest branch of the Academy. Curiously, actors aren't likely to honor "Argo" for any of its performances. (Its only acting nominee, Arkin, is likely to lose to either Tommy Lee Jones of "Lincoln" or Christoph Waltz of "Django," who won the SAG and Golden Globe prizes, respectively.) Rather, they just admire Affleck for getting it made at all. Same with the producers, whose proportional voting system most closely resembles that of the Academy, and whose top prize has anticipated the Best Picture Oscar for 16 of the 23 years since "Daisy." If Affleck wins the Directors Guild prize this weekend, we can all drop our pencils; this unpredictable race will finally be predictable.

By the way, for those keeping track of other categories besides Best Picture: SAG wins for Jennifer Lawrence ("Silver Linings Playbook") and Anne Hathaway ("Les Miserables") mean those two continue to be the frontrunners for Best Actress and Supporting Actress, respectively. "Wreck-It Ralph" won the PGA prize for Best Animated Feature, an award that has predicted the Oscar-winner in four of the last five years. The PGA's documentary prize went to "Searching for Sugar Man," which is no guarantee of an Oscar victory. Still, it's something to go on.

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