February 18, 2013

OSCARS MINUS 6: The “Argo”-ness of It All


So, is it over?

It certainly feels over.  Voting for the Academy Awards ends tomorrow, and last night’s win at the Writers Guild for Best Adapted Screenplay cemented Argo’s astonishing streak of victories over the past 5+ weeks.  With the Oscars still almost a week away, it’s already at the heart of the Argo legend that its seemingly unstoppable rise began literally hours after the nadir of its awards campaign, on January 10, when any realistic chance for victory seemed poleaxed that morning by the Directors branch of the Academy and its snub of Ben Affleck’s celebrated reinvention as a Serious Filmmaker.  Yet that very night, Argo won Best Picture and Best Director at the Broadcast Film Critics Awards, and the momentary thought that this was merely a blip in the race disappeared 3 days later, when Affleck and his film took the big prizes at the Golden Globes.  Since then, it’s taken the top awards from the Directors Guild (a much broader group than the Academy’s chosen directors), the Screen Actors Guild, the Producers Guild, the American Cinema Editors, the BAFTAs, and just about everything else imaginable.  (Skyfall took the cinematographers’ award, Les Miserables the sound mixers, Life of Pi won the votes of the special effects technicians, and Zero Dark Thirty split the Art Directors Guild award with Les Miserables, but that’s about it for the outliers.)

And yet…

The support for Argo seems a bit soft, somehow.  It’s the movie everyone thoroughly likes–and the Affleck snub, as well as the fact that Argo was overtaken by later openings for end-of-the-year critical attention, has given it a very helpful underdog status.  Not to mention that the movie celebrates Hollywood itself and its heroic part in saving hostages, and that doesn’t hurt any.  But it’s not a film that inspires great passion (even fans will admit that the derring-do of the last reel pretty much abandons any claim to the more serious realism of Zero Dark Thirty or Lincoln).  To be sure, the history of the Academy Awards, if it teaches us anything, says that a film doesn’t have to be great to win the Oscar.  In fact, as films like Raging Bull, The Social Network and Fargo can testify (not to mention the non-nominated masterpieces like 2001: A Space Odyssey), greatness can be a polarizing hindrance.  Still, when the moment comes to vote, will a sufficient number of Academy members consider Argo the best picture of the year?

Well, yes, the evidence is that they probably will.  But if Argo could be beaten, who would have a chance?  Life of Pi, Amour, and Beasts of the Southern Wild have never really felt like contenders–they have their strong supporters, and could all vie for Best Director if Argo wins Picture, since Affleck obviously can’t take that prize.  But they have niche appeal, and seem unlikely to swing enough votes for the top awardAs for Les Miserables, it just hasn’t been received with the kind of seriousness a Best Picture winner needs–the instant parodies and ridicule have taken their toll.  Quentin Tarantino, for his part, has two potential routes to Oscar, either by doing something completely unexpected that no one thinks he can pull off (a la Schindler’s List for Spielberg), or hanging around long enough that it becomes an industry embarrassment that he hasn’t won (aka The Departed for Scorsese).  Django Unchained accomplishes neither of those things, so this isn’t going to be his year.  Zero Dark Thirty is the mystery of this year’s awards, a seeming front-runner that apparently lost all its momentum when Washington, from both the left and the right, decided to attack it for what will be seen in retrospect as very weak political reasons.  Sadly, even Jessica Chastain’s brilliant performance appears to be out of the running at this point.

Lincoln, of course, is the obvious alternative to Argo.  It has every credential a Best Picture winner has ever needed, from important subject matter to critical raves to the highest pedigree, plus a shocking level of boxoffice success.  (Even though Argo has been anointed the “fun” piece of American history this season, Lincoln has actually sold $50M more worth of tickets, despite its greater length and far more solemn tone.)  It’s hard to understand, even now, why Lincoln faded so quickly from the awards scene, except that there appears to be a residual resentment against Spielberg and the film’s high seriousness.  (These factors have been worsened to some extent by the studio’s Olympian awards campaign, which treats Lincoln as medicine that’s good for you, rather than the surprisingly entertaining drama it actually is.)

And then there’s Silver Linings Playbook, which is to say that then there’s Harvey Weinstein.  Weinstein is the king of Oscar campaigning, his latest triumphs being the consecutive winners The King’s Speech and The Artist.  He had 3 potential candidates this year, with The Master and Django also in his stable, but he went all-in on Silver Linings, most recently featuring full-page ads in LA trumpeting Roger Ebert’s view that a giant upset could be in the making.  The campaign has already paid off big at the boxoffice, where the film’s slow-burn release has reached $100M (the biggest hit of director David O. Russell’s career, beating out The Fighter), but will it translate into awards for Jennifer Lawrence, Robert DeNiro, Russell and/or Picture?  Silver Linings seems to lack the gravitas Academy members want from their chosen film–in the end, it’s not much more than an eccentric rom-com–but Weinstein has been hitting all the appropriate buttons, with prominent testimonials as to the movie’s impact on the subject of mental health.  The odds are against Silver Linings, but one bets against Harvey Weinstein during Oscar season at one’s own peril.

Thinking of bets, these are the current London odds on Best Picture (via Oddschecker):

Argo:  1:7

Lincoln:  6:1

Silver Linings Playbook:  33:1

Les Miserables:  66:1

Life of Pi:  66:1

Zero Dark Thirty:  100:1

Django Unchained:  100:1

Amour:  150:1

Beasts of the Southern Wild:  200:1

That seems about right, although perhaps Silver Linings should be more like 20:1.  Still, it feels like the 2013 Oscars have at least one surprise in their pocket–if not in Best Picture, then somewhere else.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."