'Lincoln' hamstrung by Connnecticut controversy

As “Argo” extends its domination of awards season, the moment is ripe for a backlash, but controversy about “Lincoln” is short-circuiting “Argo’s” potential undoing.

 

So how much suspense remains for the best picture award at next weekend’s Oscars?

 

“Argo” finished its sweep of the guilds Sunday with Chris Terrio’s victory at the Writers Guild Awards for adapted screenplay, an award that many once felt destined for Tony Kushner and “Lincoln.” That nod came after “Argo” had drawn honors from the Producers Guild, Screen Actors Guild and Directors Guild, not to mention the BAFTA and the American Cinema Editors.

 

Ballots in the various guild competitions were generally turned in soon 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 play in the voting we’ll never know, but I think the effect has been overestimated and that, ultimately, most people vote for the efforts they admire most, regardless of the personalities behind it.

 

Long before the directors branch of the Academy passed over Affleck (among others) in favor of the strong work by Michael Haneke, Ang Lee, David O. Russell, Steven Spielberg and Benh Zeitlin, “Argo” was shaping up as the least polarizing film contending for an Oscar — a 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 such a force in the Oscar race. 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 noms.

 

However, the voting period for the Oscars only began Feb. 8, with the conclusion not coming until the ballot deadline at 5 p.m. Tuesday. With the “Argo” victories piling up and its potential victory looming, the past 10 days have brought 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?

 

Some in the filmgoing community maintain that “Argo” isn’t thought-provoking or challenging enough when compared to films such as “Amour,” “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” “Django Unchained,” “Les Miserables,” “Life of Pi,” “Lincoln,” “Silver Linings Playbook” or “Zero Dark Thirty.” “Argo” is 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 microscope for its questionable depiction of how representatives from Connecticut voted on the 13th Amendment. The kerfuffle came to a head Saturday with a Maureen Dowd column in the New York Times that had an absolute nightmare headline for “Lincoln” fans: “The Oscar for Best Fabrication.”

 

“Argo” had its own brush with the fabrication police over its depiction of the film’s climactic rescue scenes. Dowd’s column even leads with that. Yet “Argo” was winning nevertheless. If “Lincoln” was having trouble leapfrogging “Argo” with a clean slate, how is the Spielberg film going to do it now?

 

With all that in mind, here are four scenarios for Oscar watchers hoping for an upset:

 

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, satisfying the craving for contemporary importance and challenge. Sunday’s WGA win by Mark Boal in original screenplay could be the smoke signal.

 

3) Kleenex-and-laughs caper “Silver Linings Playbook” fulfills the Weinstein mission and the hope of its nominations in director, screenplay and all four acting categories in a leapfrog triumph.

 

4) The “Argo” gut-check moment turns voters not to “Lincoln,” not to “Zero,” not to “Silver,” but to Lee’s “Life of Pi,” which has quietly been another crowdpleaser and also utterly free of controversy, other than some 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 indispensable to an Oscar win. “Pi” had broader Academy support than “Argo” on nominations day, having been tapped in four more categories. And if a sympathy vote is indicated, there’s that whole nagging issue of “Crash” beating Lee’s “Brokeback Mountain” seven years ago.

 

Essentially, “Pi,” which as it happens had a triumphant night Sunday 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 is an alternative to “Argo” — indeed, 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 the “Argo” fans should be most wary of.

 

Ballots for the 85th annual Academy Awards are due at the headquarters of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences at 5 p.m. Tuesday. Ballots received after the deadline will not be counted.

 

Jon Weisman blogs about awards season at weblogs.variety.com/thevote.

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