So let’s catch up…
The Oscar season started as a wild frontier waiting to be settled, with countless factions warring to stake a claim on the season. The early season standout was Argo, though it was obviously too early to tell…especially with such potent contenders as Lincoln and Les Miserables on the horizon. Lincoln debuted to across-the-board reverence, and suddenly the Best Actor race came into focus, since Daniel Day-Lewis’ portrayal of Honest Abe seemed like the acting juggernaut each Oscar season searches for. Silver Linings Playbook overwhelmed many critics with its charm. Life of Pi overwhelmed many critics with its visual prowess. And yet even with such a slate of agreeable titles, no consensus frontrunner stood out from the pack.
The early portion of Phase One slowed to a lull until the holidays, when Les Mis and Zero Dark Thirty debuted to rapturous receptions that appeared to the set the field we would be discussing for the next several weeks. However, the early celebrations disguised brewing controversies surrounding both films. In the case of Les Mis, the “controversy” was a simple matter of quality – once more critics got a look at the film, they just weren’t that impressed. Zero Dark Thirty suffered a more malignant debate…not among critics, nearly all of whom acknowledged its greatness (to this day, it possesses the highest Tomatometer score of all Best Picture nominees, at 93%), but among social critics, politicians, and misguided do-gooder actors. A film that depicts torture was swiftly cast as a film that advocates torture. And so our presumed clarity was made foggy yet again, and through that fog the only film that seemed like a consensus favorite was the film that started it all…Ben Affleck’s Argo.
The Oscar nominations were announced two weeks earlier than normal – not due to an overall seasonal contraction, but simply a truncated Phase One voting period. As it happens, the shortened voting period clashed with the newly-instituted online voting option, which was intended to make voting easier but instead made it impossibly difficult, since it was fraught with so many issues that many AMPAS members were disgruntled. To amend the problem, the Academy extended voting…by a FULL DAY! So obviously, all those members who were shut out of the online vote were swiftly able to deliver traditional ballots by the deadline. I mean, right?
Well…maybe not. We’ll never know.
What we do know is that the slate of nominees this year is, as ever, filled with the expected titles, including all films mentioned above and filled out by three more: Amour, Beasts of the Southern Wild, and Django Unchained…all great, all deserving, and all pretty much expected, too. After all, anyone who pays enough attention can pretty well guess how the Best Picture category will play out. What we obviously couldn’t guess was that Best Director would become the boondoggle that would define the whole of Phase Two. Just as it seemed Argo was emerging as the default Oscar favorite, Ben Affleck was not included among the Best Director nominees…and if anyone ever thought the word “snub” was overused in previous Oscar discussions, it has now been sufficiently spun into oblivion and should be officially removed from dictionaries for a 10-year discretionary period. Kathryn Bigelow was snubbed too, though her film was already swallowed in TortureGate, so her omission was drowned out by the collective tears being shed for Affleck’s.
From there, the season presumably shifted from a wide-open toss-up to a persistent one-sided juggernaut. Argo won the PGA award, then “surprised” by winning the Best Ensemble prize from SAG. Affleck completed the hat trick by winning the DGA, and suddenly this season, which for months seemed the most unpredictable season in years, took perhaps the most unpredictable turn of all…by become utterly predictable. Argo was the frontrunner in September after its TIFF debut, and it is the frontrunner now, less than two weeks away from the Oscar ceremony.
How did this happen?
Was it a uniformly barbed reaction to the presumed Affleck “snub”? Are all these rewards mere retribution for that glaring omission? Or did we all just simply forget that Argo was the most widely liked film of the season, and “widely liked” is often the key term upon which Best Picture victory hinges?
It’s a little of both, actually. Never would I suggest that the industry threw itself into such a tizzy of injustice that the Academy is now suffering payback for its voting inconsistencies. This is too broad a consensus and too minor an offense, ultimately. Plus, that’s just not how these industry guilds work. Games are played with more frequency than anyone would readily admit, but in general, voters vote for what they like. And they liked Argo for months. What SnubGate may be responsible for, however, is re-engaging those Argo supporters who may have found their film being drowned out of the conversation by the sensation surrounding later releases…even if that sensation wasn’t always positive, it distracted attention. By virtue of being first out of the gate, Argo ran the obvious risk of being forgotten, but it also had the advantage of setting the standard by which all later Oscar releases would be compared. What we’ve seen in the last month is the industry gathering around the season’s first love.
So a wide-open season became very one-sided. If Affleck were nominated for Best Director, no one on the planet would be betting against Argo on Oscar night. But that glaring omission leaves the door open for one last shift in perception. After all, we have a precedent for such a development – only a single precedent, from nearly 20 years ago, but the parallels are so precise it’s eerie. In 1995, Apollo 13 – a fact-based film directed by a former actor, Ron Howard – was an awards season favorite in spite of Howard missing out on a Best Director nomination. The film went on to dominate the guilds in the same manner as Argo has, matching it award-for-award. Naturally, Apollo’s success made it the undeniable frontrunner heading into Oscar night, even without the Best Director nomination. And then came Braveheart…
The prevailing logic would be that voters may steer clear of a Best Picture nominee that isn’t also nominated for Best Director. The categories so often match up because voters think that the film they vote as “Best” would naturally also be the “Best Directed.” It makes sense, to a certain extent, though such an assumption should never become The Rule, and it often has in past years (The King’s Speech was really the best directed film of 2010? Really?). When you think of all possible factors in this boondoggle, Argo is simultaneously at the top of the mountain, and yet still has a steep climb ahead if it wants to win.
Such a contradiction is par for the course this season.