By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood February 25, 2013 at 1:30PM
A month ago, Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln," the highest-grossing film of the Oscar nominees ($178 million and counting) with the most nominations (12), was the frontrunner in the Oscar race. But dynamics can change. When Ben Affleck did not earn an Oscar nomination for directing "Argo," he became the underdog and that turned the tide.
That and the charming actor's undeniable appeal as a campaigner fueled his win (see Clint Eastwood, Kevin Costner, Robert Redford, Warren Beatty and Mel Gibson), but as "Argo" producer George Clooney told me at the Governor's Ball Sunday, "Argo" had already won the Critics Choice and the Golden Globes before the directors' "snub." In other words, it was a strong competitor going in.
There were other factors pushing "Argo"'s best-picture win Sunday night, the first time since "Driving Miss Daisy" in 1989 that a movie won the top prize without a directing nom. After playing to enthusiastic crowds at Telluride and Toronto, "Argo" rocked its L.A. premiere at the Academy. I saw the way the Hollywood crowd responded to this hugely satisfying movie about American heroes. It was a thrilling true story and when ex-CIA agent Tony Mendez stood, the crowd went wild. They could cheer for America for once. And for Hollywood. That uplift was an unbeatable combination. "15 years ago I had no idea what I was doing," said Affleck onstage of his first Oscar win for cowriting "Good Will Hunting." "I never thought I'd be back here. So many people helped me...It doesn’t matter how you get knocked down in life. All that matters is that you get up.”
So what happened to "Lincoln"? The older Academy usually goes for its level of quality, heart, and period seriousness. Why did this widely admired Spielberg movie run out of gas so fast? Part of it was the frontrunner syndrome--a precarious place to be. It was seen as the stuffy honorable history lesson, and that negative meme had teeth. Widely repeated everywhere: "Lincoln" was "boring." Far from the truth, but in the absence of eager campaigners --Spielberg, Tommy Lee Jones and eventual winner Daniel Day-Lewis had to be pushed into doing the minimum public appearances-- producer Kathleen Kennedy, writer Tony Kushner and actress Sally Field couldn't carry the day.
Finally, wins for Day-Lewis --winning an unprecedented third Oscar for a lead actor-- and production designer Rick Carter had to suffice for "Lincoln." When Affleck won the predictive Directors' Guild, "Argo" became the frontrunner and Spielberg was competing in the Oscar director race with "Life of Pi" veteran Ang Lee, who was simply more popular with Academy voters who recognized that film's extraordinary degree of difficulty. Lee is well-respected, even beloved for his enormous range and depth (with one Oscar win to Spielberg's two). Another uplifting film, "Pi" scored four Oscars, including directing, visual effects (from a house on the verge of bankruptcy), cinematography, and score. It's the second time Lee has won directing without best picture (in 2006"Crash" beat "Brokeback Mountain").
In such a competitive year, the awards were spread out among eight of the nine best picture contenders (only "Beasts of the Southern Wild" went home empty-handed). In fact the six top awards went to six different movies, for the first time since the "Crash" year of 2006, also the last time a best picture winner won only three Oscars. Working Title had a good night as "Les Miserables" nabbed three awards, for supporting actress Anne Hathaway (who won for her single shot song), sound mixing and hair and makeup, and "Anna Karenina" earned a well-deserved costume design statuette. And that rousing neck-chilling "Les Mis" number--featuring the key cast and some 60 total people on the Dolby Stage--didn't hurt to boost DVD sales around the world. (Hugh Jackman agreed to do it first and wrangled Russell Crowe into participating.)
While some were shocked by the win for Ang Lee, the biggest surprise of the evening was the two wins for Weinstein Co.'s "Django Unchained." At the start of the night, Christoph Waltz won best supporting actor--in this case, demonstrating that a BAFTA win can be more predictive than SAG (which was won by wily "Lincoln" scene-stealer Tommy Lee Jones). At the Governor's ball, Waltz told me that while he's lost awards in Austria, he wins when he works with Quentin Tarantino. Let them both continue!
And Tarantino accepted the win for best original screenplay, beating Michael Haneke, who took home just one Oscar for "Amour," for best foreign language film. Tarantino is well-liked by the Academy, who adored his movie. He dedicated his win to his fellow writers and the actors who brought his words to life. "It's the writers year at the Oscars," he declared.
"Zero Dark Thirty" had to settle for a tie with "Skyfall" in the sound editing race, a rare occurrence that has happened only five other times in Academy history, and accounted for the show going five minutes over its planned three and a half hour running time, said producer Craig Zadan at the governor's ball.
While "Amour" star and the oldest best actress nominee ever Emmanuelle Riva made the trek to Los Angeles to celebrate her 86th birthday after her back-to-back BAFTA and Cesar wins, she lost to 22-year-old ingenue Jennifer Lawrence, who represented the one win for "Silver Linings Playbook," which had scored four acting nominations for the first time since "Reds." Lawrence is now a major movie star who can now bank on both a franchise ("Hunger Games") and an Oscar win. "Beasts of the Southern Wild"'s youngest best actress nominee ever, Quvenzhane Wallis, also emerged from the Oscar season a star, set to topline musical "Annie."
Finally, all the talking in the world about the movie being about mental illness could not change the fact that "Silver Linings" was a delightful romantic comedy. Serious drama trumps comedy at the Oscars, almost all the time. "Silver Linings" lucked out by riding Harvey Weinstein's conservative long-slow distribution plan all the way to bank. What started as shallow pockets wound up looking like genius. With "Silver Linings" and "Django Unchained," the Weinsteins are finally out of the red and making profits again.
And Weinstein contributed more to the Oscar telecast: he made the connection between the Oscar producers and First Lady Michelle Obama, who agreed to present the best picture award live from the White House. Like Bill Clinton's introduction of "Lincoln" at the Golden Globes, some people looked askance at this intrusion of Washington into show business. But Obama was a winning presence on Oscar night. She pulled it off.
Finally, being set in the past was a boon for "Argo," which won its three awards (picture, adapted screenplay, and editing) without courting commentary from Washington--the filmmakers did quickly change a title card to placate the Canadians and give them more credit. Ripped from the headlines, contemporary Middle East CIA drama "Zero Dark Thirty," on the other hand, was hit hard by Washington's politically motivated anti-campaign. Three prominent Senators dive-bombed the film right out of the starting gate--while boosting its box-office fortunes. But finally, "Zero Dark Thirty" was too smart and unconventional for the Oscar arena. Director Kathryn Bigelow, writer-producer Mark Boal and gifted lead Jessica Chastain delivered a memorably tough real-world feminist hero. But the steakeaters in the Academy weren't quite ready to go there.
In the animated feature category, the fierce battle between two Disney releases, Pixar's "Brave" (which won the VES, Editing, Sound Mixing and BAFTA awards) and box-office juggernaut "Wreck-It-Ralph" (which won the PGA, Critics Choice and five Annie awards) yielded a win for "Brave" directors Brenda Chapman and Mark Andrews. They wisely went on the campaign circuit as a friendly team, even though John Lasseter put Andrews in--in usual ruthless Pixar style--to take the film created by Chapman to the finish line. In the end the Academy went for "Brave" as the classier, more beautiful film, compared to scruffy video game-themed "Wreck-It-Ralph."
Sony Pictures Classics had a great night, not only winning "Amour" but best documentary for Sundance hit and multiple award-winner "Searching for Sugar Man," which had the advantage of the entire Academy voting in that category, having been sent screeners. Whether everyone who voted in this category saw all five movies is another question. And one considering in the foreign category, which may need reform-- but the right reform.
To the extent that the show performed well Sunday, it was less to do with host Seth MacFarlane, who was both crude and flat as an entertainer, than the mainstream popularity of the films in contention, six of which have passed the $100 million domestic mark. Full list of winners is below.