And Now, The Inevitable Argo Backlash

It started happening within minutes after the show ended last night: online chatter, small in places, large in others, all of it pretty much like this: “Argo won Best Picture to apologize for Ben Affleck’s snub.”

Argo

There’s backlash every year, sometimes before a frontrunner wins, sometimes after it’s made official. The Artist was too much a lightweight comedy, not serious enough; The King’s Speech wasn’t edgy enough, was too Oscar-y. When Argo became the frontrunner a few weeks back, backlash came in the form of grumbles that it’s too much of a crowd-pleaser, that it’s too shallow in its approach of the subject matter, that it’s only going to win because it paints Hollywood in a positive light, and Academy voters are suckers for that sort of thing.

What’s curious about that backlash isn’t its accuracy or lack thereof (while I think there’s a pinch of truth to the “Hollywood loves movies about Hollywood” angle, I also find Argo a crackerjack film and am happy to finally see a good ol’ fashioned thriller win Best Picture again), it’s that none of these complaints were mentioned last night after Affleck, Clooney, and Heslov left the stage holding their trophies. The backlash took a weird, sudden left turn as the discussion became instead about a Best Picture win as consolation prize.

But let’s be honest here. The correct answer to the consolation question is a simple no. For starters, when the Academy wants to give someone a consolation prize, they either wind up with a win in a smaller category (usually Screenplay) or, when it comes to performers, a big win the following year or two (why hello, James Stewart). Best Picture isn’t given as a “thanks for playing” aside. That category is designed by vote counting rules to be different, special, better. They don’t throw that one away on a lark.

How can we be so certain? I suppose if Argo hadn’t swept all of the precursor award shows – the Globes, the BAFTAs, the countless guild awards – you could argue its Oscar win was unearned. But those early victories reveal an unstoppable wave of support for the film, support which started before Affleck’s snub. Argo was going to win whether Affleck was nominated or not; had he been, he likely would’ve won handily.

What the snub meant, then (aside from displaying an instance of the directors’ branch – they alone determine the Best Director nominees – being out of step with Academy membership at large), is a rare opportunity for the Academy to reward a second filmmaker. Typically, when there’s a split between the films winning for Best Picture and Best Director, it’s because support for neither film is strong enough to carry it to the usual sweep of both categories. This year, however, when support for Argo suggested no such weakness, voters were forced to look elsewhere for a director to praise, and that gave them the chance to celebrate two films instead of the usual one. This means Ang Lee’s win as Best Director for Life of Pi wasn’t a consolation either, but a genuine thank you from his admirers. (The boisterous applause heard when he took the stage is proof this was no middling also-ran prize.) It’s the rarity of such an opportunity that left some folks scratching their heads. But neither Argo nor Lee won by anything but honest appreciation.

Some unrelated random thoughts on last night’s show:

– Ang Lee becomes the third person to win two Best Director Oscars without having any of his films win Best Picture. It’ll be interesting to see if this achievement stands or, as some predict, the momentum from his latest win will lead to an eventual Best Picture win for him in the coming years.

Argo is the first Best Picture winner since Crash to win only three Oscars total (and, of course, the first to not also win Best Director).

– It’s also the first since Million Dollar Baby to not take home the most Oscars of its year (Pi won four). This was a “spread the love” year, where no film took home a bulk of the awards; Les Misérables also won three, while Lincoln, Django Unchained, and Skyfall took two and Amour, Silver Linings Playbook, Zero Dark Thirty, and Anna Karenina won one apiece.

– The tie in the Best Sound Editing category (between Skyfall and Zero Dark Thirty) was a genuine shock, as it’s only the sixth in Oscar history – fifth if you don’t count the infamous Fredric March/Wallace Beery tie at the 1931-32 ceremony (the rules back then stated if you got within three votes of the winner, you technically tied; ever since, the rules require an exact tie). The most famous tie was between Katharine Hepburn and Barbra Streisand for 1968’s Best Actress. Other ties were for Documentary Short (1949), Documentary Feature (1986), and Live Action Short Film (1994).

– Wins for Christoph Waltz and Quentin Tarantino were genuine surprises; I expected neither and thrilled to both. Turns out love for Django was greater than expected.

Paperman winning Best Animated Short was also a delight, but Brave winning Best Animated Feature? Not so much. Even Pixar’s more vocal supporters admitted this was an odd win for a weak film.

– Jennifer Lawrence joins the ranks of great performers who win Best Actress for a mediocre role in a crummy movie. (See also: Sandra Bullock, Kate Winslet.) She deserves better films than the miserable Silver Linings Playbook.

– Speaking of miserable, Seth MacFarlane!

– The best thing about loving the Oscars is, no matter how awful a show’s opening (last night’s ran an unholy nineteen minutes, four longer than the dreaded Snow White/Rob Lowe number) or closing (MacFarlane and Kristin Chenoweth singing “Here’s to the Losers” as credits roll will remain one of the most groaned about moments for years), the winners themselves are what you ultimately remember. We had wonderful speeches from just about everybody, coupled with enough surprises to keep the evening from becoming predictable. And for all its questionable musical tributes, we got a show where Adele, Jennifer Hudson, Shirley Bassey, and, yes, even Barbra Streisand all blew the roof off. It turned out to be one fine evening.

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