The last 100 hours or so in Hollywood has been intriguing, to say the least. The Oscar nominations on Thursday sent a series of shockwaves throughout the industry and were marvelously reflective of a tightly contended, stellar year of filmmaking. And of course, two names have been on everyone’s lips since the Thursday morning bombshell: Ben Affleck and Kathryn Bigelow.
First and foremost, I don’t think it’s an “embarrassment” that they were left off the list of Best Director nominees. That word has been thrown around a lot this weekend but I think it’s a facile direction to go. Let’s be honest. Steven Spielberg, Ang Lee, Michael Haneke, Benh Zeitlin and, though I don’t like the film, David O. Russell (it is, after all, a genre rarely recognized, certainly for direction) is a strong, fascinating slate of nominees. And it would appear the two who scooted Affleck and Bigelow out of the mix were Haneke and Zeitlin. So let’s look at that.
We have the director of a foreign film and the young mind behind a fabulous independent film that has become a Cinderella story. It’s hard to hate on that kind of vision from this branch, truly. The intrigue in that category this year has everything to do with the drum I’ve been banging all year long: this has been an incredibly competitive season, particularly in the Best Director arena, where Affleck and Bigelow certainly have illustrious company on the sidelines.
With all of that out of the way, there is obviously something interesting in the air this season. While the Critics’ Choice Movie Awards and Golden Globes happened outside the frame of Oscar voting, they have built an incredible amount of momentum for “Argo.” Last night after the show, Warner Bros. publicists were adamant that they still had a shot. Of course, they wanted to take council and feel it out. “What do you think our chances are, honestly?” But the vibe I got was one of not throwing the towel in by a longshot, and that passion can go a long way.
The theories abound. Maybe the directors figured Affleck and Bigelow were safe and sound so they let their vote be heard elsewhere. Maybe they wanted to put an actor-turned-director in his place as they did Ron Howard in 1995. And on that note, Howard won the DGA that year. I think there’s a very real possibility that Affleck does the same. But it was, of course, “Braveheart” that ultimately took the Oscar.
Things are a little different this time around, however. The preferential ballot is the best ammunition the campaign has right now. “Argo” and “Silver Linings Playbook” are the only two films that seem to be universally praised when I talk to Academy members. There’s just never a bad word said about them. They are, again, generally agreeable. And when those #2 and #3 votes start mattering, they’ll be showing up there.
There’s also the idea floating around that there could be a sense of reactive goodwill to Affleck’s snub. Normally I’d call that hogwash because things speed up in the second phase, but this year, again, is different. We have six weeks. That’s such a massive amount of time to flex a strategy, and when you’re as motivated as the Warner Bros. team is now, that matters.
Of course, others will pull out their tricks. DreamWorks and Steven Spielberg flashed their ace in the hole last night when Bill Clinton presented the “Lincoln” clip and in his comments, cemented the film’s zeitgeist status (and could have even sewn up the Oscar then and there). Harvey Weinstein obviously has a playbook for this kind of thing. And Fox will certainly sit back and gladly watch the blood fest as their unassuming 11-nominee wonder from a visionary (that has raked in more box office than any other Best Picture nominee worldwide) looks for its opportunity. But I would wager none of them have the same drive Warner has now.
My favorite film of the Best Picture nominees is “Django Unchained.” My second favorite is “Amour” and my third favorite is “Lincoln.” If I’m honest, I think one of those three should win. But if I’m REALLY honest, I’d say I don’t really want to see that. “Django” could get its reward in the screenplay arena where Quentin Tarantino has already been recognized in the past. “Amour” is a massive longshot and it seems to me the win is in the nominations. Plus, a win for Emmanuelle Riva (which is very possible) would be a great piece of recognition for the film. Spielberg, meanwhile, has been amply rewarded and Daniel Day-Lewis will make a lovely steward for the film on Oscar night. But an “Argo” win is the stuff of storybooks.
I know some find the film thematically flat or dramatically manipulative and people are free to their opinion. I would argue that we need more films like “Argo,” mid-budget dramas that don’t bog down in brand appeal and find an audience rather than die on the vine and yield safe, overtly commercial productions. But Affleck’s story these last few years is an inspiring one. A decade ago, his name was literally a joke. And he’s climbed out of that pit tooth and nail and shown real chops in the process. To see him take the stage on Oscar night as part of a Best Picture-winning “Argo” crew, hopping over this last hurdle in the Best Director category, would just be the ultimate capper on this journey. Speaking personally, it would just register more as an Oscar win than any other film in the category.
Those are the moments I like at the Oscars. Objectivity on quality has to go out the window. We all like what we like and think this or that should win for a reason. But, objectively, Ben Affleck deserves this leg up. He’s earned it.