This year’s Academy Awards race for Best Picture is a lot like last year’s race for the Republican presidential nomination. Only the stakes are so much higher!
The early frontrunner, Argo may have peaked too early, kind of like Mitt Romney did. Next came Silver Linings Playbook (the cuckoo candidate, à la Michele Bachmann), Life of Pi (if only Rick Perry could roar like that tiger), Lincoln (as reserved as Ron Paul), and Zero Dark Thirty (as controversial as Rick Santorum). I hate to compare Les Misérables to Newt Gingrich, but they both polarized voters. And the much-anticipated The Great Gatsby pushed back its candidacy (like Chris Christie). As BuzzFeed’s Richard Rushfield observed last November, the Oscar race for Best Picture had never been so wide open.
A few weeks ago, it started to look one of the candidates had become the clear frontrunner. Even if Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln puts audiences to sleep like a C-SPAN marathon, Hollywood found parallels between the film and the second inauguration of a certain 44th president. Lincoln landed seven Golden Globe nominations and 12 Oscar nominations, more than any other film. The movie with the most nominations usually wins Best Picture at the Academy Awards.
But if there’s one thing the Academy loves, it’s a comeback story—and a funny thing happened on the red carpet. The early precursor awards that were supposed to go to Lincoln went to Argo instead. Ben Affleck’s film about how the CIA (and Hollywood!) heroically saved six diplomats during the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis swept top honors at the Golden Globes and the Critics’ Choice Awards in January. Over at Gold Derby, which tracks various Oscar races, 13 pundits still predict Lincoln will win Best Picture compared with 10 for Argo. If anything, though, with a month until the Feb. 24 Oscars ceremony, the momentum seems to be moving in Argo's direction, a movie that paints the showbiz industry as an international superpower.
“The indication that Lincoln may not be as strong as we thought is more than Argo's win at the Golden Globes,” says Tom O’Neil, who runs Gold Derby and forecasts an Argo victory. “It was also the Critics’ Choice Awards.” That voting group has predicted the Oscar Best Picture winner for 10 of the last 13 years.
Argo’s detractors use another statistic against it. In one of the most puzzling twists of the season, Ben Affleck was snubbed for a Best Director Oscar nod. The last time a movie won Best Picture without a Best Director nomination was 1989’s Driving Miss Daisy. But if that omission plays into the race at all, it will only boost Argo’s chances.
There’s so much talk about Affleck’s snub—Fox News hilariously asked “Did Affleck’s abdominals cost him an Oscar?”—that Hollywood might vote for Argo out of guilt. It’s not the entire Academy that overlooked Affleck. The Best Director nominees are selected by a mostly male body of 371 directors with art-house tastes that would prefer Amour to Argo. The rest of the 6,014 Academy voters love Affleck, who has been campaigning so hard for his movie, he might as well be running for the United States Senate. It helps that his running mate, a producer on the film, is George Clooney.
There’s another obscure rule to consider. Since 2010, when the Academy added more than five Best Picture nominees, it changed the way ballots in that category are tabulated. Voters don’t select a single film but rank them in order of preference. If a movie doesn’t receive a majority of votes, which is impossible in a year like this, the least popular movie’s votes are discarded and redistributed. The process is repeated until a movie has 51 percent of the vote. That means the winner for Best Picture doesn’t really need to be the best. It just needs to be most consistently liked—which benefits Argo more than Lincoln. (As an aside, both critics and audiences prefer Argo too. On Rotten Tomatoes, Argo has a 96 percent “Fresh” rating; Lincoln is at 91 percent. IMDb users give Argo an 8.1 rating to Lincoln’s 8.0.)
Academy Awards voting runs from Feb. 8 to Feb. 19, so there’s still time for the race to change again. And don’t count out another sleeper contender, Silver Linings Playbook. The first movie in 31 years to land Oscar nominations for all four of its actors, it has the campaigning muscle of Harvey Weinstein behind it. “Never discount that,” says an awards insider who sees Best Picture as a three-way competition. The remaining key events to look for are winners from the Producers Guild Awards (Jan. 26), Screen Actors Guild Awards (Jan. 27), and Directors Guild Awards (Feb. 2). If Ben Affleck picks up one or more of those, Mr. Lincoln is in trouble.