One could suggest that we and other pundits have exhausted the conversation around the 85th Academy Awards. We might not argue with that, but while we’ve had plenty of opportunities to examine the surprises, the snubs, the show itself, both its best/worst moments and how it can improve, we personally haven’t looked closely at why the outcomes landed where they did (you can see the full list of winners here). And now that the dust has settled, we wanted to analyze why “Argo” won Best Picture and take a general deeper dive into some of the winners.
So, why did the part-dramatic-CIA-nail-biter, part-Hollywood-satire and part-‘70s-political-thriller-homage win Best Picture over all comers? Well, as always, there were several factors at play.
The Ben Affleck Sympathy Card
As you know by now, Affleck has gone from mid-aughts US Weekly punchline to one of today’s most celebrated mainstream American directors. Hollywood adores a second act story, and this narrative alone would be enough to play out a great arc as to why the actor-turned-filmmaker would win the Best Director prize. But of course, even before that narrative had a chance to become fully exploited, a curveball arrived: Affleck (like Tom Hooper, Kathryn Bigelow and Quentin Tarantino) was snubbed for a Best Director nomination. And almost before anyone could claim major outrage, Affleck started winning some key Best Director awards on the road to the Oscars (Golden Globes, Critics Choice) and then went on to win even more (including Oscar’s best augur, the Director’s Guild Award). The conventional wisdom is that to reward his snub for Best Director, “Argo” won Best Picture as a corrective. While that’s the tidy version of the narrative, that’s hardly the full story. Sympathy will only take you so far, as Emmanuelle Riva and Robert De Niro can both attest. There has to be more for an Oscar.
The Academy’s Conservative Autocorrecting In Lieu Of A Clear Winner
Consensus years are the norm at the Academy Awards. Look through the pages of Oscar and you’ll see lots of big sweeps with 6 or more Oscar wins (“The Hurt Locker” in 2010, “Slumdog Millionaire” in 2009) and when the wins number 5 (like “The Artist” in 2012), often those movies are still taking all the key awards like Best Director, Best Picture and Best Actor. The Academy as a collective body works best when it has a clear consensus of what it’s going to rally behind. However, when the Academy is confused about what to do, and no clear winner has emerged, you get an ugly, messy year like 2005 in which “Crash” took Best Picture. That year was similar to this year: a lot of healthy competition for best picture – “Brokeback Mountain,” “Capote,” “Good Night, and Good Luck,” and “Munich” — that threw the narrative into disarray.
So what the Academy tends to do in lieu of a consensus winner (or not knowing which good picture to award) is recede and go with the safest, easiest bet. This is exactly what happened in 2005 with “Crash,” and to a lesser extent happened in 2010 when “The King’s Speech” beat out the edgier “The Social Network,” a film that critics and cinephiles loved, but as a two-hour-long episode of “Law & Order” didn’t convince the Academy. Arguably, this played out in 2000 as well. The safe pick, “Gladiator,” won Best Picture, while Best Director went to the “edgier” film “Traffic” by Steven Soderbergh. In a year where there’s healthy competition, finding a consensus winner is even more difficult, hence the scattered winners of the 85th Academy Awards. Though one must note: pundits also like a consensus year, as we’re all used to having a clear-cut winner and disarray throws us for a loop too (god forbid our predictions are off or it’s a “surprise” year). A divided house is a confused house.
Then There’s The Competition
Steven Spielberg films are notoriously nominated but hardly ever given awards at the Oscars. “Lincoln” was a textbook example. Nominated for 12 awards (more than any other picture in 2013), it took two home, which is one of the lowest comparable averages in Oscar history. Daniel Day-Lewis was a shoo-in, but the historical document of rectifying an amendment (slavery seemed to be besides the point, this was a film about passing a bill in Washington) wasn’t exactly emotional or totally involving; something to be admired more than loved, and that, as the awards showed, was a deciding factor in the outcome. A much stronger contender for Best Picture, given the Academy’s tendencies, was the feel-good mental illness cum romantic dramedy “Silver Linings Playbook.” It certainly received its share of votes, but simply couldn’t outgun the Affleck/”Argo” train. Perhaps its ending was a little too neat. Likewise, “Life Of Pi” was “Avatar,” but with a heart and soul, a dazzling technical achievement, but one with a much deeper core and spiritual center. Cleaning up with the most Oscars of the evening (four), “Life Of Pi,” was clearly Affleck film’s biggest threat. Perhaps its Achilles heel was its conventional, “this is how I remembered it” framing device in the screenplay, whereas “Argo” took the Best Adapted Screenplay for its taut and well-constructed narrative that hit each crucial beat on cue like a perfected algorithm. The other films in competition were never going to be a real threat except for “Zero Dark Thirty,” arguably our favorite of the bunch, but a picture, like “Lincoln,” probably too cold for the Academy. Additionally, the film took a hard blow to the knees thanks to “pro-torture” anti-campaigning in December that you can bet rival studios had a hand in.
“Argo” Is A Crackling Little Thriller, Albeit Not Exactly Revelatory
And let’s not take away from “Argo” itself, a taut and engaging nail-biter that was awarded on its own merits (and that everyone seemed to love in September, but then, in typical Oscar fashion, started to turn against when it started to emerge as the frontrunner at the last minute). Affleck directed the shit out of the movie. It’s got great, engrossing, do-or-die stakes, excellent suspense and tension, and a crackling pace. Yes, its villains were black and white and its attempt to inject personal stakes for Affleck’s lead rang false for some, but all in all it was arguably the tightest, though perhaps safest film of the bunch as its politics weren’t controversial: it was easy to get behind and root for, and despite the potential complexity of the story, it ultimately felt simple. Again several factors rolled into one, equaling the Oscar win.
How Ang Lee won Best Director
The answer in many ways was easy: Ben Affleck wasn’t nominated. With the actor-turned-filmmaker out of the picture, the competition was essentially Lee, David O. Russell and Spielberg (Michael Haneke and Benh Zeitlin never had a shot at winning and their nomination was a “welcome to the crowd” nod). Spielberg wasn’t going to win for the reasons already illustrated. “Lincoln” barely touched anyone outside of the craftspeople, who were in awe of its admittedly admirable texture, but it ultimately was the Daniel Day-Lewis show and he scored his gold. David O. Russell was Lee’s biggest threat. Featuring a combustible and intoxicating energy, “Silver Linings Playbook” balanced myriad human tones and beautifully expressed the heartbreak and pain parents endure with problem children (something the Academy’s average median age of 62 could probably relate to). But Lee had the VFX edge. Not only was “Life Of Pi” dramatic, soulful and beautifully compelling, Lee created a massive spectacle and easily the most immersive story told in 3D. James Cameron himself got behind “Life Of Pi,” and it’s easy to see why; he too was impressed with the spectacular achievement — utilizing a realistic CGI tiger that co-lead the movie, employing an unknown as the star, shooting a film set on the ocean on a soundstage, yet all to the film’s benefit rather than detriment. Lee, when you think about it, was the logical choice.
Best Supporting Actor
Let’s not get into Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress (Anne Hathaway) as they were obvious locks since December and their respective narratives never wavered. We’ll admit it: Christoph Waltz winning for “Django Unchained” was the biggest head-scratcher of the bunch. Yes, groundswell support for the actor crested late in the game, but three actors seemed to be in line for the prize ahead of him. Tommy Lee Jones had won the SAG award. Philip Seymour Hoffman had won the fluffy but good-augur Critics Choice award, and Robert De Niro had his first good role in what felt like over a decade. While Jones seemed like the frontrunner, many assumed De Niro would eventually take the prize. But Waltz, who won the Golden Globe earlier in the season, snuck in there. It’s slightly odd if only because he won the same prize only three years ago for “Inglourious Basterds,” and worse, the roles were pretty similar; that of an effete, flowery and mannered German individual (the main difference being an antagonist in the earlier film, a protagonist in the latter). So why did Waltz win over the others? Both actors campaigned and were repped by Harvey Weinstein who knows how to grease the voters’ wheels, but Waltz is a lovely gentleman while De Niro can be frosty and reticent at best, so that could have been the deciding factor. Oscars are just as much about the likeability factor, folks.
The Best actress race at the end was always between Jennifer Lawrence (“Silver Linings Playbook”) and Emmanuelle Riva (“Amour”) and the rest (Jessica Chastain, Naomi Watts, Quvenzhané Wallis) would just have to be happy to be there, even though they all delivered great performances. But when you boil it down to a popularity contest or easier pill to swallow, “Silver Linings Playbook” beats “Amour” by a mile. Did “Amour” – about an elderly couple whose love is put to its ultimate test when the wife suffers a debilitating stroke – connect with the Academy? With five nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director, hell yes. But, while life-affirming and beautiful in its own way, “Amour” is also punishing and brutal; you’re watching an old woman slowly die. “Silver Linings Playbook,” on the other hand, features this raucous, uncensored, loveable (and gorgeous) freak of nature in Lawrence’s erratic character trying to survive the death of her husband by sleeping with her entire office. She’s looney tunes, but has a good heart, and she’s a big part of why the off-the-charts chemistry of David O. Russell’s movie works. She’s a total firecracker. And in person, as we all know, she’s an unfiltered, riotous hoot. While Riva has somewhat of a language barrier to campaigning, the lovely and appealing Lawrence will charm your pants off. Was Riva deserving? Hell yes, but again, deserve ain’t got nothing to do with anything when it comes to Oscars.
Agree, disagree? Tell us below. Until next year…