I’m not saying that as an insult to Argo. Surely, Argo is a fine film – and considering what normally wins Best Picture, it certainly meets my qualifications of what constitutes a “worthy” winner. The criteria are simple – in 50 years, when a new me comes along and wants to watch all of the Best Picture winners and they come to Argo, will they at the very least enjoy the film? Will they think it is a good movie? And I think Argo more than qualifies in that regard. I watched it again this past weekend, and it worked well even the second time through.
No, the reason I think future generations of Oscar watchers will ask how the hell Argo won the Best Picture Oscar has nothing to do with the quality of the film, but rather the lack of precedence for a film like Argo winning the big prize on Oscar night. Argo is a political thriller with far more emphasis on the thriller than the political (does the film have any real political viewpoint other than the most simplistic, uncontroversial one?)The film is also a Hollywood comedy, with Alan Arkin brilliantly chewing the scenery, and John Goodman offering comedic help in the Hollywood sections of the movie.
How many thrillers have ever won the Best Picture Oscar? The Silence of the Lambs perhaps, but most people would see that as a horror film. The French Connection, maybe, but that’s more of a crime drama – same with The Departed, In the Heat of the Night and No Country for Old Men. Rebecca? Well, that’s more of a romance with thriller elements, and really Argo has very little in common with it.
No, the Best Picture winner Argo most resembles would probably be The Sting (1973). It is a con artist comedy, where Robert Redford and Paul Newman hatch a complicated plan to con Robert Shaw, and then pull it off. Sub in Ben Affleck for Redford and Newman and the country of Iran for Robert Shaw, and that’s a pretty good description of Argo.
But The Sting is generally seen as a weak winner – sandwiched between the two Godfather films among Best Picture winners, and triumphing over a horror film (The Exorcist), a romantic comedy (A Touch of Class), a foreign language drama (Cries and Whispers) and a nostalgic teen comedy (American Graffiti), the fact that The Sting won that year makes a little bit of sense. No, I don’t think most people still think The Sting should have won (I bet Exorcist, Cries and Graffiti would have more supporters today), but it fits in more comfortably among Best Picture winners than any of them would.
And also, The Sting not only got nominated for Best Director, but George Roy Hill actually won the award – something Argo director Ben Affleck cannot do, since he wasn’t nominated. True, Affleck now officially ranks as one of the three biggest snubs in the Best Director race in history – alongside Steven Spielberg for The Color Purple and Ron Howard for Apollo 13 – as they are the only three men in history to win the DGA award, and not be nominated for Best Director (and unlike many guilds, this one dates back decades – to the late 1940s).
The precedent for a film winning without a director nominated is pretty much only one film – Driving Miss Daisy in 1989 (yes, I know Wings and Grand Hotel both did as well – but both were so early in Oscar history, where all sorts of wacky shit happened, you cannot really count them). But Driving Miss Daisy is a different animal than Argo. It was nominated for 3 acting awards – dragging the forgettable Dan Ackroyd along with Freeman and runaway winner Jessica Tandy. Argo has one, and if Arkin wins, I think even Argo fans will admit he shouldn’t have. The film was also based on a huge hit play that won a Pulitzer Prize, and had the playwright adapting his own work, and while it’s easy to snicker at the film now, 23 years later, it is equally easy to forget that in 1989, Driving Miss Daisy was a cultural phenomenon. Can you imagine a movie about old people making $106 million at the box office today, let alone if you counted in inflation? No, Bruce Beresford was not nominated for Best Director, but then again, Driving Miss Daisy was seen as more a triumph of acting and writing than directing. Had he been nominated, he still likely would have lost.
You cannot say the same thing for Argo. The acting in the movie is uniformly excellent, but this really isn’t an actor’s showcase like Driving Miss Daisy was. The screenplay by Chris Terrio is very good, but realistically, it shouldn’t really have a shot at winning the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar, and probably would not have had a shot had Affleck been nominated for Director. Argo is, first and foremost, a director’s showcase – as it’s Affleck who has to balance the thriller and comedic elements, and ratchet up the tension. This is why the editing is almost assured a win.
Driving Miss Daisy also won Four Oscars – Picture, Actress, Adapted Screenplay and Makeup, and was nominated for five others. Argo is nominated for seven total, and even if it wins Best Picture, will be lucky to get to four wins. Hell, it may not even get to three, and there is a very real chance that it will be the first film since Rebecca in 1940 to win the Best Picture Oscar without wining Director, an acting prize or a screenplay prize.
And then, and this is where I think people will really get confused, you have to look at the competition. Driving Miss Daisy beat an Oliver Stone Vietnam movie (Born on the Fourth of July), just three after an Oliver Stone Vietnam movie (Platoon) won the Best Picture Oscar, a sentimental baseball movie, Field of Dreams, also with no Director nominated, a teacher who inspires movie (Dead Poets Society) and a small, British movie about a handicapped artist (My Left Foot). Driving Miss Daisy makes the most sense as a Oscar winner out of those movies – Born on the Fourth of July might have been able to make a run had Platoon not just won, but inspiring teacher movies win Best Actor or Actress prizes, not Best Picture – and the same with small British films. Whereas a funny, feel good movie about racial harmony like Driving Miss Daisy fits right into their wheelhouse. It doesn’t confront the audience with their prejudice (like the best movie of 1989, Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing did), but rather comforts them into thinking everything is OK. This was outdated in 1989, but hell, the Academy didn’t find the message outdated in 2005 when they gave the Oscar to Crash.
What Driving Miss Daisy did not have to beat is a film like Lincoln, which I can almost guarantee most people will think actually won the Oscar, even if it doesn’t, if you ask them any time after about August 2013. It just makes so much more sense as an Oscar winner. It is an historical biopic (and by my count 12 of those have won the Best Picture Oscar), it was directed by the most popular, powerful director in Hollywood history, who hasn’t won an Oscar in 14 years, produced by one of the most respected producers in Hollywood (Kathleen Kennedy), who has been nominated 8 times without winning, has a large cast with three Oscar winners (Day-Lewis, Jones, Field) nominated, one of which is guaranteed a victory on Oscar night (Day-Lewis) and one may win (Jones), was an adaptation of a Pulitzer Prize winning book by a different Pulitzer Prize winner. It led all films with 12 nominations, and made more money than any of the other nominees ($170 million and counting). Even if Lincoln was a thudding bore of a film – like Gandhi – which it isn’t, it would still seem like the most likely winner of the group.
So just why is Argo going to win the Best Picture Oscar? It really is a multitude of factors. Before the nominations were announced, people assumed (or at least I did) that we had a genuine 3-way race between Zero Dark Thirty, Lincoln and Argo – with Life of Pi and Silver Linings Playbook as possible spoilers. And then the nominations were announced, and shot everything to hell. Bigelow and Affleck were left out of the Director field and although Life of Pi managed to get 11 nominations, for some reason, the film just never built any real buzz – the kind needed to actually win. Silver Linings not only got in for Best Director, but also managed to get nominated in all four acting races – the first time since 1981’s Reds that has happened. But again, the film still feels too slight to actually win – they’ll be happy if they can muscle Lawrence and DeNiro into acting Oscars – a very real possibility.
So, everyone agreed Lincoln was going to win, right? Wrong. For some reason everyone started to feel sorry for Ben Affleck. Why no one felt sorry for Kathryn Bigelow is beyond me, but they didn’t. All of sudden, people started talking about how brave Affleck was for keeping his head up high after being so “cruelly” snubbed. It helped that the Golden Globes were just a few days after that snub, and that Argo won Picture and Director there. And since then, the film has gathered steam everywhere it goes. The PGA award, the SAG Ensemble award, and finally the DGA. For whatever reason no one has stopped to question just why exactly they feel so sorry for poor, poor Ben Affleck – and just keep on piling on the hardware.
Listen, I have nothing but respect for Ben Affleck. It is very true that a decade ago Affleck was in danger of becoming a joke, if he hadn’t already become one after a string of high profile flops, and a relationship with Jennifer Lopez that everyone was obsessed with for reasons that escape me. And the fact that in the past seven years, Affleck has become one of the best mainstream filmmakers in Hollywood – with Gone Baby Gone, The Town and Argo – deserves nothing but respect. But why exactly is Affleck brave for accepting awards after not being nominated for the Best Director Oscar? And why exactly should I feel sorry for a millionaire, with a great directing career, good acting career and who is married to Jennifer Garner?
But this is what happens in a race like this when momentum starts – it becomes impossible to stop. It’s like sports that way. I’m a huge L.A. Kings fan, who was over the moon last June when I finally watched my team win the Stanley Cup. Now, were the Kings really the best team in the NHL last year? No. They barely made the freaking playoffs. But they got hot at the right time, were brimming with confidence, got some breaks along the way and were able to steam roll over the competition before anyone really realized what the hell had happened. And that’s pretty much the story with Argo as well. It’s got hot at the right time, caught some breaks (as strange as it sounds, Argo may have had a harder time winning had Affleck actually been nominated), and is now steamrolling through the season with few people stopping to ask why.
Argo is a fine film. I view it as about equal to recent winners like The Artist The King’s Speech, Slumdog Millionaire and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King – a notch or two below The Hurt Locker, No Country for Old Men, The Departed and Million Dollar Baby, and several notches above Crash, Chicago, A Beautiful Mind and Gladiator. Among Oscar winners as a whole, I think Argo would rank somewhere in what I call the “Middle 40” ( I guess it more like 45 now) – not one of the 20 true masterworks that won the Best Picture Oscar, and not when the 20 embarrassments to win the prize. It will find its place among the films like Rain Man, Ordinary People, Rocky, American Beauty, Terms of Endearment, Kramer vs. Kramer, Marty, How Green Was My Valley, You Can’t Take it With You and yes, Driving Miss Daisy. All these films I find it impossible to call “bad” films – because they aren’t. They are all very, very good – some even near great. Some may even have ranked among my 10 best films of their respective years. But none are true masterpieces either.
For the record, I think if Lincoln wins, it would also rank among those “Middle 40” films – significantly higher among them, true, but still among them. If we truly must break into teams and all support a Best Picture nominee, I’d be on Team Amour (and then only because Team The Master didn’t make the “playoffs”). So I have no real vested interest in who actually wins the Oscar this year. My film has no shot at winning – and neither do my two “alternate” choices – Zero Dark Thirty or Django Unchained.
But I do think that if Argo wins, it will be a curious decision on the part of the Academy – the strangest I can recall. I get why The Artist and The King’s Speech won, even if, like Argo, I think there are several superior choices to either. An Argo win would mystify me. It just makes absolutely no sense when you look back at Oscar history. But perhaps that is a good thing. Perhaps it signals the Academy willing to embrace the types of films they hadn’t in the past. It wasn’t that long ago that many thought that embracing The Departed and No Country for Old Men in back-to-back years (and after a year of a more typical winner, Slumdog Millionaire, going with The Hurt Locker) signaled the Academy willing to embrace darker, more daring films. The last two years (three, including this one, no matter what of Argo or Lincoln wins) seems to suggest otherwise – but Argo would at least be an out of left field choice for the Academy based on their history. I just wish the choice seem more organic on the Academy’s part – less like they were lemmings following everyone else. And perhaps that’s the best reason to hope for Lincoln to win on Oscar night. As traditional an Oscar film as it is, if the Academy embraces it, it will be a choice they made all on their own.