Blowing past the distant Civil War history of “Lincoln” and the more controversial recent history of “Zero Dark Thirty,” director and star Ben Affleck’s rousing, reassuringly apolitical thriller “Argo” won Sunday’s Academy Award for best picture.
This was a rebuke to the very academy bestowing the prize: Affleck failed to receive a directing nomination for “Argo,” joining “Zero Dark Thirty” director Kathryn Bigelow as the evening’s most conspicuous snubs.
In their place, Ang Lee scored his second directing Oscar (following “Brokeback Mountain”) for the formidable technical achievement that was “Life of Pi,” which won four Oscars in all. Though “Pi” was widely considered an unfilmable novel, Lee’s supple handling of the story of a boy, a tiger, a lifeboat and a slew of digital visual wonders has led to a picture grossing nearly $600 million worldwide.
This has happened with Lee before. His “Brokeback Mountain” directing Oscar didn’t come attached to a best picture win for the same movie; the big prize that year went to “Crash” instead.
Sunday night’s “Life of Pi” win for Lee marked the second time the director went up against industry lion Steven Spielberg, nominated for “Lincoln,” and won.
Spielberg’s film won just two Oscars, for Daniel Day-Lewis’ towering lead performance and production design. It was instead the night of “Argo,” which won three Oscars, and “Life of Pi.”
A couple of months ago the best picture Oscar seemed like “Lincoln’s” to lose. But after receiving top prizes from the Golden Globes, the Directors Guild of America and the Producers Guild of America, as well as the Screen Actors Guild ensemble award, “Argo” officially became the front-runner. No movie has ever won the Globes, the DGA, the PGA and the SAG without eventually picking up the Oscar.
In the academy’s 85-year awards history, “Argo” is only the fourth to secure best picture without an accompanying directorial nomination. The other three: “Wings” (1927, the first best picture winner), “Grand Hotel” (1932) and “Driving Miss Daisy” (1989).
“Lincoln” seemed to lose its Oscar mojo the second the nominations were announced Jan. 10, even though Spielberg’s superb slice of historical fiction (scripted by the dramatist Tony Kushner, who lost the adapted screenwriting Oscar to “Argo’s” Chris Terrio) pulled down 12 nominations in all, the most of any film.
The best actress race was widely considered one of the evening’s tough calls. Emmanuelle Riva, at 86 the oldest-ever leading actress Oscar nominee (for “Amour”), made the trip all the way from Paris to attend the academy’s prom night Sunday. Quvenzhane Wallis, 9, was the youngest-ever best actress nominee, cited for “Beasts of the Southern Wild.”
But it went to Jennifer Lawrence, queen of several news cycles’ worth of magazine covers. This was her first Oscar (she was nominated previously for “Winter’s Bone”), recognizing her performance as a young widow dancing her way to a better place in “Silver Linings Playbook.”
When Affleck got squeezed out of a directing nomination (owing, perhaps, to the heartening inclusion of Michael Haneke for “Amour”) invisible waves of “not fair!” sympathy starting rolling Affleck’s way last month. People like “Argo”; it’s a good time, triumphantly rousing in its depiction of a CIA success story free of nagging elements such as waterboarding or other forms of enhanced interrogation techniques depicted in “Zero Dark Thirty.”
A vote for “Argo” was a vote for Hollywood, and for America. Inspired by a real-life CIA mission, “Argo” told a gripping story of Americans in hiding and their savior, CIA “exfiltration” expert Tony Mendez, posing as a Hollywood film crew scouting locations in Tehran for a “Star Wars”-type adventure movie, the “Argo” of the title.
Affleck, who plays Mendez in the picture, cast the beloved character actors Alan Arkin (nominated in the supporting actor category) and John Goodman as the mission’s Hollywood connections. Their deceptions help save the day. “Argo” is a bigger valentine to the film industry than even last year’s big Oscar winner, “The Artist.” People just plain like Affleck’s movie. Its confident, propulsive craftsmanship plays well no matter how little sleep you had the night before (can’t say the same about “Amour” or “Lincoln,” excellent films both). Oscar voters relished Affleck’s evocation of such 1970s thrillers as “Three Days of the Condor” or “All the President’s Men.”
The “In Memoriam” segment of Sunday’s Academy Awards paid tribute to film industry talents who died last year. We lost beloved character actors: Charles Durning, Jack Klugman, Ernest Borgnine. Even avant-garde filmmaker Chris Marker got his (fleeting) due, along with film critic Andrew Sarris. And Barbra Streisand sang “The Way We Were” in honor of that infernally durable song’s late composer, Marvin Hamlisch.
I always like the looking-back part of the Oscars best, but Sunday’s show looked back adoringly at the old days throughout. Like “Family Guy,” the animated snarkfest on which host Seth MacFarlane made his fortune, the Oscar bash worked on alternating currents of ethnic, misogynist and/ or “Star Trek” wisecracks and golden age movie and Broadway standards. Strange mixture. But “Family Guy” is still running.
The evening’s first surprise: Christoph Waltz. Over such contenders as Robert De Niro (for “Silver Linings Playbook”) and Tommy Lee Jones (for “Lincoln”), the droll character actor scored his second Oscar in four years, both times for bringing a voluble Quentin Tarantino character to life. First time, a Nazi, in “Inglourious Basterds”; this time, a dashing bounty hunter riding through Tarantino’s spaghetti-Western version of the Civil War era.
The evening’s least surprising win, next to Day-Lewis: Anne Hathaway, winning the supporting actress statuette for singing her dying guts out as Fantine in “Les Miserables.” Even those who detest “Les Miserables” and its overbearing attack on the audience’s tear ducts have to concede: Hathaway’s the best thing in it. As widely predicted, given her various wins in recent weeks leading up to the Oscars, Hathaway’s fervent portrayal scored the actress her first win Sunday. Her big number, “I Dream a Dream,” was filmed by director Tom Hooper in a single-take, full-bore close-up, thereby enshrining the performance and the performer for academy sanctification.
After which New York magazine’s Frank Rich tweeted: “God is dead.”