The moment is ripe for an "Argo" backlash, except controversy about "Lincoln" is shortcircuiting its potential undoing.
So is there even the slightest suspense remaining for the best picture award at next weekend's Oscars? Read on and find out …
"Argo" finished its sweep of the guilds tonight with a victory for Chris Terrio in adapted screenplay at the Writers Guild Awards, an award that many once felt was destined for Tony Kushner and "Lincoln." That was the final wall of the awards-season house of brick "Argo" has built, joining up with three sides of honors from the Producers Guild, Screen Actors Guild and Directors Guild, not to mention such add-ons as BAFTA and the American Cinema Editors.
Ballots in the various guild competitions were generally turned in not long after Ben Affleck failed to receive an Oscar nomination for directing. (The WGA vote, for example, wrapped Jan. 25, the ACE Eddies Feb. 8.) How much sympathy for Affleck came into the voting, we'll never knowm but I tend to think the effect has been overestimated and that ultimately, most people vote for the efforts they think the most of, regardless of the personalities behind it.
Long before the directors branch of the Academy passed over Affleck in favor of the strong work by Michael Haneke, Ang Lee, David O. Russell, Steven Spielberg and Benh Zetilin, "Argo" had made its case as the least polarizing film contending for an Oscar – an absolutely critical element in a vote using the preferential ballot that requires participants to rank films instead of choosing one single winner.
At any rate, when these various guild votes for "Argo" were taking place, it wasn't clear that the film would become the force in the Oscar race it is now. A vote for "Argo" could still have been considered a vote for an underdog, or a vote to slow down or stymie another potential winner such as "Lincoln," which left Oscar nominations morning as the favorite with an Academy-high 12 nods.
However, the voting period for the Oscars themselves only began Feb. 8 and still doesn't conclude until Tuesday at 5 p.m. With the victories by "Argo" piling up and the reality of its potential victory settling in, in the past 10 days there has arisen what you might call a gut-check moment for the Academy. Is "Argo," voters had to ask themselves one more time, the film they truly want to put forth as the best picture of the year?
The counterargument being offered in the filmgoing community is that against such films as "Amour," "Beasts of the Southern Wild," "Django Unchained," "Les Miserables," "Life of Pi," "Lincoln," "Silver Linings Playbook" or "Zero Dark Thirty," a film such as "Argo" isn't thought-provoking or challenging enough. It's great entertainment, but that's all, goes the rebuttal.
Of the films poised to take advantage of an "Argo" backlash, perhaps none was better positioned than "Lincoln," thanks to all those Oscar noms. But at the worst possible moment, "Lincoln" has come under the crosshairs of truth that have beset so many other contenders this winter, for its questionable depiction of how representatives from Connecticut voted on the 13th Amendment. The kerfuffle metastasized Saturday with a Maureen Dowd column in the New York Times that had an absolute nightmare title for "Lincoln" fans: "The Oscar for Best Fabrication."
The last thing "Lincoln" needed in its attempt to swing guild votes back in its direction was anyone being given pause about pushing its button. And that's exactly what this tempest does, however big or small you consider the teapot.
It's not that "Argo" didn't have its own brush with the fabrication police, over its plotting of the film's climactic rescue scenes. Dowd's column even leads with that. It's that "Argo" was winning despite that knowledge. If "Lincoln" was having trouble leapfrogging "Argo" with a clean slate, how is the Spielberg film going to do it now?
So what's left for Oscar watchers hoping for an upset? Well, here are three scenarios:
1) "Lincoln." It was always going to be Spielberg and "Lincoln" this year with the Academy, this particular discrete block of 6,000 voters, and everything else – everything else – is just noise.
2) "Zero Dark Thirty," the critics' favorite before its Oscar hopes were completely sidetracked in a once-frenzied discussion of its depiction of torture, rides back to glory with that fireball having receded in the distance, satisfying the craving for contemporary importance and challenge. (Tonight's WGA win by Mark Boal in original screenplay could be the smoke signal.)
3) The "Argo" gut-check moment turns voters not to "Lincoln," not to "Zero," but to Lee's "Life of Pi," which has quietly been another crowd-pleaser and one that has been utterly free of controversy, unless you count critical discussion over the film's narrative framing device.
Remember, "Pi" not only has the most Oscar nominations (11) of any film except "Lincoln," it also has that nomination for director that "Argo" lacks and for the past 24 years has been indispensible to an Oscar win. "Pi" had broader Academy support than "Argo" on nominations day, having been tapped in four more categories. And if you're looking for a sympathy vote, there's that whole nagging issue of "Crash" beating Lee's "Brokeback Mountain" seven years ago.
Essentially, "Pi, which as I'm writing this is completing a triumphant night at the Motion Picture Sound Editor Awards, is the one movie left that could out-"Argo" "Argo," exploiting its genial, feel-good ways (mixed with a dash of deep thought and spectacular visuals) to grab key spots on the preferential ballots, never encountering the backlash that has plagued the other leading contenders.
Am I betting on this? No. Everything we're looking at now, we're looking at as an alternative to "Argo" – in a sense, there's likely to be a vote split among the "Argo" alternatives. But it's the last, best piece of intrigue I can find in this final week before the Oscars. "Life of Pi," especially if Lee wins the Academy's best director award, might just be the one "Argo" should be most wary of.