'Argo,' 'Artist' both took best picture trophies

Hollywood has now given back-to-back best picture Oscars to movies about its favorite topic: moviemaking.

Both “Argo” and “The Artist” highlighted characters who overcome the odds not just wit and verve, but with a script, a crew and a production schedule. Though “Argo” was a fake movie set amid the nerve-wracking 1979-80 Iranian hostage crisis, the film’s sheer likability, Hollywood inside jokes and slick, fast-paced filmmaking helped it eclipse a formidable field.

And by Sunday, despite the fact that Ben Affleck was passed over for a director nom, “Argo’s” best picture win seemed inevitable, and screenplay and editing honors were no surprise. Ever since its Sept. 7 preem at the Toronto Film Festival, the Warner Bros. pic seemed like an Oscar contender, but it had a roller-coaster ride along the way.

Grumblings about “Argo” taking liberties with specifics of the actual events never appeared to gain much traction the way they did for “Zero Dark Thirty” and later “Lincoln.” And the film’s commercial success didn’t hurt, nor did its portrayal of Hollywood as a place where likable film execs helped extricate six Americans from a nightmarish scenario in Tehran.

“Argo” originated in a 2007 Wired magazine article and was optioned by George Clooney’s Smoke House productions, and Affleck began shooting his third directing gig (after “Gone Baby Gone” and “The Town”) in the late summer 2011. As Warner Bros. execs began screening the film, they saw “Argo” as classic populist entertainment and opted for an early awards-campaign start.

“Argo” may lack the gravitas of best picture winners like “The Godfather” and “The Deer Hunter,” but it clearly connected on a visceral level with moviegoers with worldwide grosses of over $200 million. Warner Bros. was willing to spend big on promoting “Argo” as an entertaining thriller — with a slew of strong notices — rather than a “set the record straight” piece of history.

Aside from the merits of the film, Warner’s campaign had a huge asset in Affleck, who was ready, willing and able to discuss his work as the director and never failed to credit everyone besides himself, from studio execs like Jeff Robinov and Sue Kroll to Tony Mendez, the real life spy who got the six embassy employees out of Iran.

Just as significant was how Affleck handled himself after two decades of ups and downs in the business. At a recent Film Independent event, Affleck remained self-deprecating. “I still don’t feel ready to be a director,” he admitted on Feb. 13 at the Directors Close-Up event at the Landmark at the Westside Pavilion. “I have this continuing churn of anxiety.”

On Sunday night at the Dolby, Affleck kept up that theme. He called Steven Spielberg “a genius,” asserted that he was a “kid who didn’t know anything” when he won the “Good Will Hunting” in 1998 and his voice cracked while he thanked his wife Jennifer Garner.

Affleck also said it was vital not to hold grudges and concluded by saying, “All that matters is you’ve got to get up.”

“Argo” also benefitted from two controversies during awards season. “Zero Dark Thirty” looked to be an early front-runner when it won the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Board of Review. But politicians on Capitol Hill and pundits began attacking the film for its depiction of torture; later, D.C. honchos and the press (including Variety) came to the pic’s defense, but its hot-button status by then was cemented.

When Oscar noms were announced Jan. 10, Affleck was left off the directing list, fortifying the pic’s underdog status. But wins at the Critics Circle, Golden Globes and its sweep of the four guild awards, including the DGA for Affleck — and ultimately, the best picture statue — made the lack of an Affleck Oscar nomination seem all the more like an odd fluke.

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