Analysis: ‘Argo’ looks strong for Oscars, but don’t count ‘Lincoln’ out

Pics with fewer Academy noms have been less likely to win

The swing of the awards season pendulum that now favors “Argo” is dramatic — but don’t rule out the possibility of another switcheroo come the Oscars.

With Producers Guild feature film and Screen Actors Guild ensemble awards Saturday and Sunday, the Ben Affleck-helmed pic has thoroughly recovered from its seemingly fatal omission from the Oscar directing race. Tack on its Golden Globes drama win earlier this month, and “Argo” is clearly the awards pic of the moment.

Neither victory over the weekend offers any guarantee of Oscar glory, however.

It’s true that the PGA nominees replicated eight of the nine Oscar picture finalists: “Argo,” “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” “Django Unchained,” “Les Miserables,” “Life of Pi,” “Lincoln,” “Silver Linings Playbook” and “Zero Dark Thirty,” while also including “Moonrise Kingdom” and “Skyfall” and excluding “Amour.” The guild also uses the preferential balloting system employed by the Academy Awards.

However, while the PGA honor has presaged the past five winners of Oscar’s grand prize, that was preceded by a three-year streak in which the PGA picked Oscar bridesmaids “The Aviator,” “Brokeback Mountain” and “Little Miss Sunshine.”

And while the crossover among voters in the PGA and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences is not to be dismissed, it still reflects less than 10% of the AMPAS voting body — a point underscored when “Argo” director Ben Affleck himself quipped in his PGA acceptance speech that he wasn’t even a member of the guild.

“Argo” became the fifth PGA feature winner to head into the Academy Awards without an Oscar nomination for director, following in the footsteps of “Little Miss Sunshine,” “Moulin Rouge,” “Apollo 13” and the last one to win best picture without that director nom, 1989’s “Driving Miss Daisy.”

In fact, “Apollo 13” and “Little Miss Sunshine” won both PGA and SAG ensemble honors before losing Oscar best picture.

The SAGs have become a reliable precursor for the Oscar lead and supporting acting races — boding well for Sunday winners Daniel Day-Lewis, Jennifer Lawrence, Tommy Lee Jones and Anne Hathaway — but the ensemble award doesn’t necessarily translate into a best picture Oscar win. Again, actors are a significant voting body in the film academy, but hardly a majority.

Three of last year’s four SAG individual winners won acting Oscars (the exception was when Meryl Streep supplanted Viola Davis), as did all four the year before. By contrast, SAG ensemble winners have taken best picture only six of the past 10 years, with last year’s honoree “The Help” becoming the latest Oscar bridesmaid.

Although “Argo” has always had the feeling of a consensus favorite — loved by some, liked by many, hated by almost no one — the larger question remains whether the overall number of Oscar nominations for “Lincoln” still puts it in better position than any other film.

Lately, leading in total noms hasn’t meant as much as you’d expect. Three of the past eight best picture winners have led the Oscars in overall nominations: “The King’s Speech” (2010), “The Hurt Locker” (2009, tied with “Avatar”) and “No Country for Old Men” (2007, tied with “There Will Be Blood”).

But that has reversed a trend. From 1972 through 2003, 27 out of 32 Oscar best picture winners at least tied for the most nominations in their winning year, and a film in fifth place (where “Argo” rests) hasn’t won at all, unless “Annie Hall” is counted, which was tied with “The Goodbye Girl” for fourth place among 1977 films.

With its seven nominations, “Argo” would have the fewest overall noms for an Oscar winner for best picture since “The Departed” (2006) and would become the eighth film since 1972 to win with no more than seven. As much as other voting bodies might reward “Argo,” it’s still possible the Academy just thinks differently about it.

Two more milestones will come before the Feb. 24 Oscars: the Directors Guild Awards on Feb. 2 and the Writers Guild kudos Feb. 17. While significant on their own merits, neither figures to shed any more light on the outcome of the Oscar picture race.

The Oscar balloting period doesn’t begin until Feb. 8, running through Feb. 19. If you believe AMPAS voters haven’t made up their minds, that the feel-good story of one week becomes a tired story the next, there’s plenty of time for the fortunes of the finalists to rise and fall.

On the other hand, it’s possible that the writing’s on the wall for “Argo,” and that Affleck’s Oscar director omission will become nothing more than a fondly remembered aberration.

TV surprise

At the last minute, the SAG awards in television managed a surprise. Reigning Emmy champ “Modern Family” won the SAG comedy cast honor for the third year in a row (once again without taking any individual awards), while worthy underdog “Downton Abbey” earned the drama ensemble kudo over Emmy titlist “Homeland.”

Moreover, with two TV comedy acting trophies, the SAGs offered a valedictory for a series bidding farewell on Thursday, “30 Rock,” and in particular its heartbeat, Tina Fey. Fey, who largely stayed at the “Weekend Update” desk while serving as head writer at “Saturday Night Live,” emerged as the leading comedienne of her era, especially if you incorporate writing and producing.

As much as one might like to see Fey’s longtime pal Amy Poehler (“I’ve known her ever since she was pregnant with Lena Dunham,” Fey joked) get the kudos she deserves, Fey was clearly underappreciated by American smallscreen viewers, who turned out for “30 Rock” in whatever the opposite of droves are.

Though her focus is on film acting this year, Fey and Robert Carlock do have an overall deal with NBC, thus teasing us with the possibility of a new show in the not-too-distant future. As a writer-performer, Fey has been an indispensable cog in the TV machine for so long now that it’s going to be weird for us to continue for any amount of time without her.

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