By Colin Covert
Minneapolis Star Tribune
Historians say the lesson of history is that there’s no such thing as a foreseeable future. Honest Oscar forecasters would have to agree.
When Emma Stone and Seth MacFarlane announced the Best Picture nominees Jan. 10, pundits immediately declared a front-runner. “The contest has come down to one film, and it’s ‘Lincoln,’ an excellent, very popular movie by a great director on a subject that inspires, uplifts, redeems. … It’s the perfect Academy movie,” wrote Wesley Morris, the Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic for the website Grantland.
Goldderby.com, which collates the opinions of entertainment journalists nationwide, gave Steven Spielberg’s history lesson a commanding 4-1 odds of winning Best Picture. Online bookmaker Bovada put actual money on the race, giving “Lincoln” 2-5 odds.
In mid-January, “Argo” looked like an afterthought in the best film category. It was a fact-based spy caper with a hefty dose of inside-the-industry humor about Hollywood types who build a cover story concealing a CIA rescue mission to Iran. The film garnered seven nominations, including Best Supporting Actor for Alan Arkin, but not a prestigious Best Actor or Director nod (Best Picture and Director Oscars traditionally go hand in hand).
The movie was undeniably polished and uplifting. Still, it lacked the brio of “Django Unchained,” the moral complications of “Zero Dark Thirty,” the operatic intensity of “Les Miserables,” the gravitas of “Amour,” the life-affirming zest of “Silver Linings Playbook” or the visionary sweep of “Beasts of the Southern Wild” and “Life of Pi.” The Best Picture nomination looked like a symbolic gesture commending director/star Ben Affleck for crafting a good, facile piece of commercial entertainment.
What a difference a month makes. The story of an improbable escape plot has become the unlikely front-runner for Hollywood’s highest honor. Over the past four weeks “Argo” has surged, becoming almost every commentator’s top contender.
The reassessment follows a string of meaningful wins in the run-up to the big show on Feb. 24. The movie won Best Film at the Producers Guild, Affleck won at the Directors Guild and both triumphed at the Golden Globes, Britain’s BAFTAs and the broadcast film critics’ Critics’ Choice Awards. The Screen Actors Guild, the Academy’s largest voting bloc, awarded the “Argo” cast its prize for Best Ensemble Performance. Hedging its bets, bookmaker Bovado boosted “Argo” to the likeliest winner, with odds of 2-7.
This is hardly the first time a dark horse has made a last-minute charge to the head of the pack. Just ask Spielberg about Oscar night 1999. Presenter Harrison Ford looked a little shocked as he read the Best Picture results. The lightweight romantic comedy “Shakespeare in Love” trounced “Saving Private Ryan” even though Spielberg had beaten “Shakespeare’s” John Madden as Best Director.
In 2006, another of this year’s Best Director nominees, Ang Lee, was heavily favored to win a Best Picture prize for his emotionally intense cowboy love story “Brokeback Mountain.” The film swept up critics’ and guild prizes, but lost to “Crash,” a sprawling drama about race relations in Los Angeles that opened to mixed reviews.
Perhaps it shouldn’t have come as such a shock. “Crash’s” huge ensemble cast won the crucial SAG award, and some Oscar observers reasoned that virtually every actor voting for the film shared an agent, manager or publicist with someone on-screen in “Crash.”
Others linked the “Brokeback” backlash to voters’ discomfort with the film’s frank portrait of a gay romance.
This year, it’s not an issue of discomfort, but of which film makes movie-industry voters feel better about themselves. Hollywood adores films about Hollywood, and “Argo” paints its filmmaker characters as brilliant hucksters more adept at the art of deception than even career secret agents.
When Oscar voters applaud a film like this or last year’s love letter to silent-era Tinseltown, “The Artist,” they’re patting themselves on the back. And then there are the intangible factors of personal campaigning. It can hardly hurt the film’s chances that Affleck and the film’s producer, George Clooney, are two of the best-liked, most media-savvy men in film.