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Can ‘Argo’ steal the Oscar from ‘Lincoln’?

Text by Jon FROSCH

Latest update : 2013-02-24

Until recently, “Lincoln” was the favourite to take home the coveted Best Picture Academy Award. But “Argo”, once a dark horse, is now the frontrunner. A look at recent Oscar history provides clues as to why.

Until several weeks ago, “Lincoln” was the film to beat for the ever-coveted Best Picture Oscar.

A stirring historical drama anchored by the supremely prestigious triumvirate of director Steven Spielberg, screenwriter Tony Kushner, and actor Daniel Day Lewis, the movie also has a still-relevant subtext about political courage under fire. In other words: a natural fit for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which will distribute its golden statuettes at the annual ceremony in Los Angeles on Sunday, February 24.

Moreover, each of the other nominees seemed to come with baggage: “Amour” has subtitles and harrowing subject matter (disease and death); “Beasts of the Southern Wild” is a first film, and an eccentric one at that; “Django Unchained” features endless streams of blood and profanity; “Les Misérables” elicited as many cringes as it did cheers; “Life of Pi” is more admired than loved; “Silver Linings Playbook” is essentially a screwball comedy (not one of the Academy’s favourite genres); “Zero Dark Thirty” was plagued by allegations that it endorsed torture (a deal-breaker in liberal Hollywood).

And “Argo” was thought of as a bit of a lightweight: a sly, efficient thriller without the depth or ambition to propel it toward the top of the list.

Furthermore, the film’s director, Ben Affleck, failed to score a Best Director nomination, generally thought to be a pre-requisite for the Best Picture prize.

But then came the surge. As if rebelling against the Academy’s snub of Affleck, other groups showered “Argo” with honours; the film won Best Film and Best Director at the Golden Globes and BAFTAs (Britain’s Academy Awards), and proceeded to sweep the prizes handed out by the Screen Actors, Directors, and Producers guilds.

Now, having gone from dark horse to frontrunner, “Argo” is poised for Oscar glory.

Anyone wondering how a moderately engaging, workmanlike movie could beat out at least four vastly more challenging and impressive nominees need only look at recent Academy history.

Hollywood navel-gazing?

One trend that emerges is that Hollywood likes itself -- and “Argo” is essentially a movie about Hollywood heroism.

In the film, based on a true story, a CIA operative teams up with a movie producer and a make-up artist to rescue State Department employees in Tehran during the 1979 Iranian hostage taking. The elaborate strategy involves having the diplomats pose as a Canadian film crew shooting a science fiction movie, and – guess what? – it works; the magic of the silver screen and the dogged ingenuity of its professionals, in large part, defuse a major international crisis.

Of course the Academy loves “Argo”.

Last year, some marvelled at how a silent, French, black-and-white film, Michel Hazanavicius’s charming, but slight “The Artist”, was able to coast past contenders like Terrence Malick’s masterwork “The Tree of Life” or even Alexander Payne’s melancholic comedy “The Descendants” to win Best Picture. But “The Artist” is a loving ode to the Hollywood of yore – its studios, its performers, its slapstick and dance routines – and, surprise, Oscar voters were charmed into submission.

Even when the Academy takes a break from liking itself, Best Picture choices sometimes reflect Hollywood’s narcissistic streak. In 2006, Ang Lee’s groundbreaking same-sex romance “Brokeback Mountain” was expected to win Best Picture – until “Crash”, Paul Haggis’s ensemble drama about racial tensions in Los Angeles, pulled off an upset.

It was not entirely surprising that a movie about the City of Angels and its discontents proved more compelling for Academy voters -- most of whom live in Southern California -- than one about inarticulate gay cowboys falling in love in Wyoming.

But it was revealing that the Academy, often criticised for its overwhelmingly white membership and inconsistent record of recognising African-American talent, awarded a film that showed blacks, whites, and Latinos tearing into one another and then hugging it out. Its clashes may have been melodramatic, its connections contrived, and its filmmaking uneven, but the message of “Crash” was redemptive (unlike that of beautiful downer “Brokeback Mountain”). In giving the movie the top prize, Academy voters were also patting themselves on the back for recognising that racism – current, not historic – was a problem, albeit a highly resolvable one.

Voters choosing the path of least resistance

The victories of “Crash” and “The Artist” at the Oscars also illustrate a broader trend that presages a win for “Argo” Sunday night: the Academy’s tendency to opt for a relatively safe choice for Best Picture, rather than a darker, more complex, or provocative film.

There are some notable recent exceptions. Clint Eastwood’s “Million Dollar Baby” (2005), the Coen brothers’ “No Country for Old Men” (2008), and Kathryn Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker” (2010) are aesthetically accomplished works that grapple intelligently with difficult themes – and all of them took home the top Oscar.

But there have been many more instances of the Academy taking the path of least resistance in picking a winner.

The most glaring -- and commonly cited -- example is the selection of Robert Zemeckis’s “Forrest Gump” over Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction” in 1995.

Since then, Ron Howard’s “A Beautiful Mind” won against Robert Altman’s “Gosford Park” and Todd Fields’s “In the Bedroom” in 2001. Rob Marshall’s “Chicago” was picked over Roman Polanski’s “The Pianist” in 2002. Danny Boyle’s “Slumdog Millionaire” defeated Gus Van Sant’s “Milk” in 2009. And Tom Hooper’s “The King’s Speech” beat out Darren Aronofsky’s “Black Swan”, Lisa Cholodenko’s “The Kids are All Right”, David Fincher’s “The Social Network” and David O. Russell’s “The Fighter” in 2011.

Indeed, the Best Picture Oscar has more often than not been awarded to the “consensus” film: a movie that few dislike, even if it inspires little passion and proves, over time, to have even less staying power.

The pattern may very well repeat itself this year. Many feel that Spielberg has had his day, and the best film of the bunch, “Zero Dark Thirty”, has proven too thorny and unsettling for voters who like movies to wear their messages on their sleeves.

If “Argo” wins Best Picture on Sunday night, its rags-to-riches Oscar triumph will be the most predictable success story of the year.

Date created : 2013-02-22


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