A funny thing happened on the way to Argo‘s seemingly inevitable Oscar night loss: it’s become the arguable front-runner for Best Picture.
Back on January 10th, when Ben Affleck failed to garner (heh) a Best Director nomination, most people saw that as the end of Argo‘s serious contention for the top prize. Only once in the history of the Oscars has a film won Best Picture without its director being nominated as well. That was Driving Miss Daisy, which won in a year that, looking back, didn’t have the strongest slate of nominees (Born on the Fourth of July, Dead Poets Society, Field of Dreams and My Left Foot). Argo found itself up against films from Steven Spielberg and Quentin Tarantino, the zeitgeist-y Zero Dark Thirty, and the spectacles of Life of Pi and Les Misérables. Affleck not getting a nod for his direction was seen as an indication of weak support for the film overall from the Academy, and most pundits had the race pegged as a coronation for Lincoln, with possible upset bids from Zero Dark Thirty or Life of Pi. Affleck’s snub made for a good story, but that was it.
Then Argo won the Golden Globe for Best Picture, with Affleck taking the prize for directing. Most were quick to point out that Globes voting was finished before the Oscar nominations were announced, so this shouldn’t be seen as some kind of righting of Oscar wrongs. Besides, the Globes and the Oscars rarely align as it is. It was a nice bit of redemption for Affleck and company, but it was a consolation prize, nothing more.
But in quick succession, Argo has won the Producers Guild Award for Best Picture and the Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Cast, and Affleck picked up the Directors Guild Award for directing. Why is this important? Well, while not perfect, the PGA award has been a fairly reliable barometer for the Best Picture Oscar (it’s matched the Oscars 16 times in 25 years). The SAG award doesn’t have the best track record in correlation with the Oscars, but with actors making up the largest branch of the Academy, their support of Argo is pretty significant. And only 13 times since the DGA began handing out its award since 1948 has the film by the winning director not won Best Picture at the Oscars. Finally, consider this: since the SAG started its awards in 1989, their Outstanding Cast award has aligned with the PGA and DGA seven times. Six of those times, the winning film went on to claim Best Picture (only Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 missed out, losing to Braveheart in 1995).
So if you want to look at trends and statistics, Argo‘s suddenly an incredibly viable threat. But I think there’s something going on here besides crunching numbers and watching trends. I touched on it a little in my review of the film, but the spate of awards love coming the film’s way has only made it seem more obvious to me. Industry types are rushing to honor the film because the film honors the industry. It ennobles the profession, telling a story where Hollywood is the hero. A vote for Argo is a vote for what they do. I’m still convinced this attitude — along with plenty of arm-twisting from the Weinsteins — is what helped Shakespeare in Love pull the upset over Saving Private Ryan. Now it looks like Spielberg might fall victim to it once again, even if repeating his Best Director win from that year does seem like a lock). Hollywood loves nothing as much as itself. The chance to give its top prize to a film that returns that love may be too much to resist.
I’m still pulling for Lincoln, but I think I’d be okay with an Argo win. I’d feel bad for Spielberg — although he could end up with his third individual Oscar, I feel like he’s earned at least three or four more Best Picture statues than the one he got for Schindler’s List — but this wouldn’t be something similar to Crash or The Artist winning. It’s a deserving film. And one hell of a comeback story, considering most of us had it put out to pasture less than a month ago. We’ll know in three weeks if that story gets its Hollywood ending.