Argo: The Monkey in Oscar’s Wrench

Remember a couple weeks back, when a few key snubs in the Academy Award nominations led everybody (and by “everybody” I mean “me”) to assume the year’s Oscar race was over because Lincoln had a lock on the Best Picture trophy? Turns out, not so much.


The fly in the ointment is Argo, which went from sure-loss to top contender1 thanks to three major wins: the Golden Globes, the Producer Guild Awards, and, tonight, the Screen Actors Guild Awards. While the latter is technically “Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture” and not “Best Picture,” insiders treat the two as synonymous; SAG isn’t rewarding a great ensemble so much as they are declaring their favorite film of the year. (I have a major gripe about this point of view – a movie can have the best ensemble work of its year and not necessarily be the year’s best movie overall, and to equate the two is to lazily overlook everything else that goes into filmmaking – but that complaint doesn’t really matter here, since this post is all about perceived frontrunner status and not whether or not Argo’s cast is or isn’t better than Lincoln’s.)

In an ordinary year, Argo’s sweep of these precursor awards would make it the film to beat come Oscar night. But the Academy’s failure to nominate Ben Affleck for Best Director creates a fascinating hiccup. Just what does the Affleck Absence mean?

First, however, a quick recap of the process involved in shortlisting Argo for Best Picture while snubbing Affleck: The Best Director nominees are, like most other categories, chosen by the directors’ branch alone, which means its picks represent the preferences of a small (yet knowledgeable) subset of Academy members. Best Picture nominees, meanwhile, are selected by the entire membership instead of a single branch – but here’s where it gets tricky. Voters submit a ranked list of their finalist choices; the Academy then uses a weighted ballot process designed to favor titles loved by a few over titled merely liked by a lot. (In other words, under the old system, if enough people put a movie in their number ten spot, it might, by quirk of counting, earn enough overall points to become a finalist even when nobody picked it as their favorite of the year; under the new system, such quirks are sidestepped, and only movies that actually earn a certain percentage of number one rankings are eligible for a Best Picture nomination.)

Since the Academy refuses to reveal which movies got how many votes, it’s rather difficult to gauge just how much the Academy as a whole loves Argo (or any Best Picture nominee, for that matter). All we can say for certain is that more directors in the Academy liked Haneke, Lee, Russell, Spielberg, and Zeitlin more than they did Affleck, and that enough members throughout the Academy picked Argo as their favorite film of the year to push it past the threshold and land it a Best Picture nod. How the rest of the Academy feels about Affleck’s skills as a director and how the majority of the Academy feels about Argo compared to the eight other Best Picture nominees will remain a mystery until Oscar night.

Or will it? Here’s where we get back to those three major precursor awards. Pundits are calling tonight’s SAG Award win a sign of Argo’s current unstoppability, and if any of the precursors were to be the final signal, this would be the one. The acting branch is the Academy’s largest group, and the overlap between SAG and Academy members is rather large. Strong support from the acting community could be enough to push Argo to an Oscar win. On the other hand, the SAG Awards make a lousy predictor of Oscar gold: prior to this year, only eight of the eighteen films to win the top prize also won a Best Picture Oscar. Last year, the top winner was The Help.

The Producers Guild of America Award for Best Theatrical Motion Picture (as it’s officially known) has a better track record, going 16-for-23 (again, that’s prior to this year) and, more tellingly, has matched Oscar for the past five years straight. That’s impressive – but producers are a small group in the Academy, so even a majority in the PGA doesn’t necessarily equal a majority on Oscar night.

The Golden Globes are an odd duck, strangely identified as a major stop in any Oscar race despite being given by precisely zero Academy members. And so I move on.

While the three awards separately may not be perfect indicators of an Oscar favorite, the three seen together may reveal a significant amount of buzz. Only four films have ever swept all three2: Slumdog Millionaire, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Chicago, and American Beauty. And all four also won the Best Picture Oscar.

And Argo will make it five, right? Maybe not. Here’s where Oscar history factors in: only three movies have ever won Best Picture without earning a Best Director nomination. Two of them (Wings and Grand Hotel) are oddities from the early days of the awards, when the kinks were still getting ironed out. That leaves Driving Miss Daisy as the film everyone points to when discussing Argo’s current chances. For while Academy voters typically ignore Best Picture nominees whose directors got snubbed, they also like to buck tradition every now and then. The love for Daisy was loud enough and strong enough to overcome its obstacle. Will the same happen for Argo? Or will the Academy figure the guild awards were enough, a nice way of showing love to Argo without having to give it an Oscar?

Frankly, I have no idea. And thanks to that, Oscar night is suddenly unpredictable again.

Side note: There’s just one other pre-Oscar guild award left: the Directors Guild of America Award, to be announced February 2. The DGA Award is worth mentioning because only twice have they awarded it to a filmmaker not nominated for a corresponding Oscar (Steven Spielberg for The Color Purple and Ron Howard for Apollo 13). Both times, there was a feel of protest behind the decision, and I wonder if they’ll do the same again this time around. Interestingly, neither of those films won the Best Picture Oscar.

1Hey, remember when I said Silver Linings Playbook would be Lincoln’s main competition? This is why you shouldn’t listen to me about anything.

2Let’s not forget, though, that the Globes have two Best Picture prizes, making a match a little easier.

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