Everybody’s fine: closing thoughts on an Oscar season of multiple narratives

Hours before last night’s Academy Awards ceremony, I was called up by a UK news network that required a last-minute talking head to discuss the evening ahead. In the cab on the way to the studio, the channel’s researcher briefed me on the ground we’d cover, before asking, “So what’s the big story of the night going to be?”

I reeled off something about “Argo” being the probable Best Picture winner, with a side order of The Vindication of Ben Affleck, but inside I was slightly thrown by the question. What was the big story going to be at the end of a long, circuitous race in which no one film has had everything its own way — but one which looked ready to test any number of rare precedents, and perhaps create one or two of its own?

The question was no easier to answer as a lengthy, sluggish, tonally conflicted ceremony drew to a close with host Seth MacFarlane and pocket-sized pep factory Kristin Chenoweth smarming out the last and least welcome of the show’s many — most would agree too many — musical numbers. What narrative had we been left with? Was there more than one? Or was there not one at all, beyond the Academy telling us, “Here are some films we liked, and here are some prizes we’ve given them?” I’m not sure.

“Argo,” to the surprise of absolutely no one who had been paying even tangential attention to this race for the past two months, did indeed win Best Picture, along with the writing and editing prizes that seemed inevitably bound to it when it became the inarguable frontrunner. (Remember the number of pundits tying themselves in knots over the always-faint possibility of the film winning nothing but The Big One? Seems a long time ago.)

And yes, one could say Ben Affleck was vindicated, though that would imply he had been roundly turned away by Hollywood at any point in the season — which, as demonstrated by the swift and sincere show of industry affection for him from the very day a branch of just 369 Academy voters collectively announced they slightly preferred the work of five fine filmmakers to his, was hardly the case. (You could reach further back, claiming that this amounted to an official pardon for Affleck’s odd, undeserved career slide in the early 2000s, back when he carried a different Jennifer on his arm, but even that’s surely water under the bridge: “Hollywoodland” and, more auspiciously, “Gone Baby Gone” both earned him industry favor over half a decade ago, even if Oscar was slower to come around.) 

Rather than a pointed rejection of Affleck himself, or the product of a conspiracy against handsome, talented actors-turned-directors by some sinister cabal of gnomic auteurs, Affleck’s Best Director omission was simply One Of Those Things That Sometimes Happens — not an especially clear or compelling narrative, as they go, but it’s the one we got. 

The Academy — which, despite the cause-and-effect theories dreamed up by more excitable pundits, was looking likely to reward “Argo” well before the nominations were announced — responded by making the best of an unusual, not necessarily embarrassing, situation. Voters unable to pick their favorite film for Best Director were given the opportunity to hand a major prize to another film they admire — a conundrum, one would think, only to those who follow the widespread internet logic that any Oscar race comprises a) your favorite, and b) four other unworthy nominees WHO MUST LOSE AT ALL COSTS. (It’s an approach that leaves you perilously unlikely to enjoy the ceremony, particularly if, like me, you’d only personally have voted for the eventual winner in two-and-a-half of 24 categories. I don’t advise it.)   

As it turned out, the film that gained the most from this curious turn of events wasn’t Steven Spielberg’s nomination leader “Lincoln” but Ang Lee’s “Life of Pi,” which numerically led all comers with four awards at the evening’s close — the first time since 2004 that the Best Picture winner hasn’t at least tied for most wins of the night. It’s a result that, to judge from the response I observed on Twitter and at the industry party I attended last night, surprised more onlookers than it did pundits, many of whom had some time ago sensed that Spielberg’s stately, ever-so-slightly chilly presidential biopic was more respected within the Academy than it was fiercely loved.

“Life of Pi,” by contrast, turns out to have been arguably the most interesting stealth contender of the season, one that has exceeded awards expectations at many a turn — and for no other reason than the fact that a lot of people do love it, and are in equal measure moved and awed by its rare fusion of spirituality and spectacle. (Not for nothing is comfortably the highest-grossing Best Picture nominee internationally, a strangely underplayed advantage throughout the season.) That emotional kick, combined with universal, near-childlike “how did he do that” wonder at Lee’s luminous craftsmanship, is surely what edged it ahead of “Lincoln” in a Best Director showdown that, for all its exciting uncertainty, could hardly have been more gentlemanly in tenor.

Many might be tempted, upon observing “Lincoln’s” relatively paltry Oscar returns — two awards from a mighty 12 nominations, the least accrued from that many or more since “Becket” in 1964 — to forge a narrative along the lines of “The Academy turns against ‘Lincoln.'” But that wouldn’t be true, either. It was clear, from the auditorium-wide warmth that greeted Daniel Day-Lewis’s history-making Best Actor win, from the unexpected singling-out of the film’s intricate but understated production design, that this was a film the Academy wanted to see rewarded — just as they wanted to see “Argo” rewarded, just as they wanted to see “Life of Pi” rewarded, and several others besides.

Yes, Ben Affleck would almost certainly have brought “Argo’s” win total to four had he been nominated for Best Director, but that doesn’t mean “Life of Pi” was simply a surrogate for their affections. (I’ll leave it to Seth MacFarlane to bring a smutty Helen Hunt joke into this.) Had voters been so defensively devoted to “Argo” that they wanted to see it win at all costs, it could easily have taken an extra win for Alexandre Desplat’s score, or muscled into that fragile tie for Best Sound Editing.

But it didn’t. Voters liked a lot this year. Whether many individuals consciously vote this way or not, the collective vote arranged itself so as to honor as much of what they liked as possible. And three cheers for that. When the Academy expanded the Best Picture field from five nominees four years ago, the intended aim was to celebrate a broader spread of titles, and this year saw the highest percentage of Best Picture nominees walk away with a prize since the change’s inception.

Eight out of nine films took at least one win, and if that seems a little hard on “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” any cutaway during the telecast to an elated-looking Quvenzhane Wallis — joyously brandishing her puppy-dog handbag and plainly having the time of a life destined for greater times still — made it clear how welcome she and her scrappy little film felt in the Academy’s embrace. (Off-color cracks by Seth MacFarlane notwithstanding.)

Is that the narrative? Everyone’s a winner, even when they lose? It’s corny, but we’ll go with it. After all, it’s a narrative Michelle Obama tried to convince us — during a presenting gig that must count as the ceremony’s most significant surprise — that all the Best Picture nominees themselves are aiming to peddle. I, for one, am uncertain of what obstacles “Amour” teaches us we can overcome, but I’ll avoid splitting hairs. And speaking of “Amour,” I wanted to see Emmanuelle Riva become history’s oldest Oscar winner as much as anyone, but I refuse not to be delighted for the klutzily radiant Jennifer Lawrence, excited for the brilliant career that lies ahead of her, or enduringly appreciative of her performance in “Silver Linings Playbook,” the kind of spitting, sparking catherine-wheel of a comic turn that I’d like to see recognized more often.

I’d like to say that the show emerged as victorious as the films it rewarded, but even that resists a clear story angle. Neither as diabolical as the morning’s more inflamed reviews insist it was, nor anything like as fresh and subversive as Seth MacFarlane’s defenders will claim it was with increasing revisionist enthusiasm, it was a labored, out-of-time affair that I have little inclination to review in great detail — partly because the ever-eloquent Alan Sepinwall has relayed my very thoughts in almost uncanny detail.

And yet its few moments of greatness — Daniel Day-Lewis’s humble, witty, perfectly pitched acceptance address, 76-year-old Shirley Bassey’s ferocious rendition of a Bond classic that ought to have ushered in a similarly gold-plated medley, the delicious surprise and even more delicious fairness of that Best Sound Editing tie — will last a lot longer in my memory than that shouty, narrowly conceived musicals tribute or MacFarlane’s icky Clooney-Quvenzhane sex jokes and bizarrely unnecessary dismissal of incumbent Best Actor winner Jean Dujardin’s career. (Hey Seth, call us when you have a Scorsese project in the pipeline.)

My single favorite moment of the telecast was an all-too-brief one: former exotic entertainer Channing Tatum and trained ballet dancer Charlize Theron taking to the floor for a swirling Rogers-Astaire tribute in which neither artist could have looked more beautiful, or more simultaneously in and out of their element. (Hey, casting directors: anyone wanna give those kids a musical?) It was a moment of two superstars in perfectly paired partnership, the kind of graceful collaborative spirit Hollywood often only pretends to be about, usually by way of florid acceptance speeches — but it was an apt lead-in to a larger dance where the spread of films rewarded left us with far more perks than wallflowers.