Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Why I Sort of Hope "Argo" Doesn't Win the Best Picture Oscar

Of all the Oscar predictions I've heard that ended up coming true, the most impressive one was probably the one my friend Mara (now Us Weekly's film critic) made in September of 2004, shortly after Vanity Fair flopped at the box office.

For those who don't remember (and there must be a lot of you out there), Vanity Fair was a period drama that lined up all the Oscar-bait elements: based on a beloved novel, overseen by a well-respected director (Mira Nair), and starring Reese Witherspoon, a popular actress who'd been cheated out of an Oscar nomination for her breakthrough performance five years earlier in Election. I was certain that 2004 would be her year.

Then the bomb dropped. "Don't worry," Mara assured me after Vanity Fair opened to lukewarm reviews and a mere $4.8 million in its first weekend. "She'll definitely get her Oscar next year for playing June Carter Cash." I wasn't 100 percent convinced, not until after Mara went to a pre-release screening of Walk the Line and afterwards declared, "Reese Witherspoon is June Carter Cash." Mara didn't call herself "The Oscar Queen" for nothing. A few months later, Witherspoon had a little naked gold man to call her own.

At the beginning of 2013, Ben Affleck seemed to be another one of those annual Oscar certainties, though not necessarily as much of one as Reese Witherspoon in 2005/2006, or Lincoln's Daniel Day-Lewis for Best Actor or Les Misérables' Anne Hathaway for Best Supporting Actress in 2012/2013. Still, pre-Oscar nominations, he was the closest thing we had to a Best Director shoo-in. Then, surprise! (Yes, Oscar is still capable of delivering them now and then.) He didn't even get nominated in the category.

I won't attempt to get into Oscar's head to try to determine why Affleck was overlooked because I wouldn't know where to begin. It can't be his relative youth (he's 40) and his newness to the director's chair (Argo is his third directorial enterprise). After all, Beasts of the Southern Wild director Benh Zeitlin, scored a nomination his first time out at age 30. And it's not as if Oscar doesn't have a history of honoring actors-turned-directors. And since Affleck won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for Good Will Hunting, it's not as if he and Oscar don't have history.

His continued dominance in the Best Director field in the precursors even after the snubbing (he just won the BAFTA for Best Director on February 10) makes his exclusion from the Oscar race even more puzzling. Well, not total exclusion, since as one of Argo's producers, he still stands to gain his second shared Oscar if (scratch that -- when) Argo wins Best Picture. But it won't be the same as a Best Director Oscar solely for the man whose creative vision made Argo possibly the most entertaining film of 2012, if not necessarily the best one.

Normally, I'm not as interested in the Best Director contest as I am in the acting races, but the Affleck snub hit me particularly hard. Perhaps it's because I still think of him as an actor first and foremost -- though he clearly excels more at his other job -- and thus feel more protective of him. Or maybe it's because I've been there nearly from the beginning, from his first blush of headlining success for Chasing Amy in 1997, to winning his first Oscar for Good Will Hunting in 1998, and the following year, a Best Actress (Shakespeare in Love's Gwyneth Paltrow, his first A-list Hollywood paramour) to go with it.

Or perhaps it's because I was a senior editor at Us Weekly during his Jennifer Lopez era, and I edited so many cover stories documenting their every public and private move as a couple. At the time, I sometimes felt like a third wheel in their turbulent, ostentatious romance. Or it could be that his resurgence as a respectable film director ticks all of the boxes of against-all-odds success stories that I love: the stunning comeback, the triumph of the underdog, the undeniable talent, the masterful reinvention. If he was previously Kelly Rowland to Matt Damon's Beyoncé in a two-man Destiny's Child, this is what it would be like if Miss Kelly suddenly pulled out in front of Queen B. If I could be anyone in Hollywood right now, it would be Affleck.

Since his Best Director Oscar snub, I've been viewing Affleck's future the way Mara saw Reese Witherspoon's after the Vanity Fair failure: At least now he's almost guaranteed to win the grand prize for his next film (reportedly the 1920s-set mobster drama Live By Night). But with Argo now on a sure path to the Best Picture Oscar, I'm starting to wonder about Oscar certainties -- and not just because I just remembered the example of Annette Bening circa the summer of 2010 release of The Kids Are All Right. She seemed all but certain to finally score her Oscar on her fourth try, after losing twice to Hillary Swank, until Natalie Portman rode in on her Black Swan.

Affleck's kryptonite might not be one of his peers but the very film for which he was snubbed. If the Academy ends up naming Argo as the Best Picture of 2012, maybe the members will feel as if they've done their duty and honored Affleck by honoring his film. No need to give him another Oscar so soon. Why not wait another 15 years? Even if he ends up in the Best Director mix for Live By Night, I can't imagine that the Academy would want to name another Affleck-directed film Best Picture so soon after Argo, which might kill Affleck's shot at Best Director.

Historically, when actors win Best Director, the film they win for gets Best Picture, too. Such was the case with Robert Redford and Ordinary People, Clint Eastwood and Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby, Kevin Costner and Dances with Wolves, Mel Gibson and Braveheart and Ron Howard and A Beautiful Mind (look how long Howard, who had been similarly snubbed for 1995's Apollo 13, had to wait for his Oscar). In the last 32 years, only Warren Beatty, who won Best Director for 1981's Reds, which lost Best Picture to Chariots of Fire, didn't triumph in both categories.

So if Affleck wants to get that Best Director Oscar sooner (as in for his next directorial effort) rather than later, it might behoove him for Argo not to win Best Picture on February 24. Surely, though, Affleck won't be thinking that far in advance on Oscar night. He'll certainly want to make a trip to the podium for Argo, even if it's to share Best Picture with fellow producers Grant Heslov and George Clooney. I just hope that Oscar still sees fit to eventually shower him -- sooner rather than later -- with the one-on-one love he's got coming.
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