Martin Grove’s Hollywood Report 01-21-13

“Zero Dark Thirty’s” Jessica Chastain

“Zero Dark Thirty’s” Jessica Chastain

Ben Affleck, Director of “Argo”

Ben Affleck, Director of “Argo”

“Les Misérables” – Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean

“Les Misérables” – Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean

Homestretch hopes: The sealed envelopes will be ripped open in about a month at the 85th annual Academy Awards, but for now the race is wide open heading into the homestretch.

With Warner Bros. and GK Films’ thriller “Argo’s” surprise double Golden Globes win for best picture-drama and director coming on the heels of its Critics Choice Awards wins in those same prime categories, there’s now unexpected uncertainty in the Oscar race.

Not long ago, Hollywood handicappers were putting their money on DreamWorks, Fox, Reliance Pictures, Participant Media and Disney’s biographical drama “Lincoln” and its Oscar winning director Steven Spielberg. Those who weren’t betting the farm on “Lincoln” saw victory ahead for Universal and Working Title Films’ musical “Les Miserables” and its Oscar winning director Tom Hooper.

And those who were thinking upset, were lining up for The Weinstein Company and Mirage Enterprises’ romantic comedy drama “Silver Linings Playbook” and its director David O. Russell or Columbia and Annapurna Pictures’ dramatic thriller “Zero Dark Thirty” and its Oscar winning director Kathryn Bigelow.

Suddenly it’s an entirely new ballgame. “Argo,” whose best picture prospects had faded since the big Oscar buzz that greeted its Oct. 12 opening, has just emerged as the hottest homestretch contender for best picture. Warner Bros. went wider last weekend with the film’s Academy run, grossing about $2.4 million for three days and bringing its domestic theatrical cume to nearly $115 million.

Unfortunately, Ben Affleck has no chance of winning the best directing Oscar. That’s because he’s not a nominee. Affleck would be a shoe-in to win if he hadn’t been snubbed in the nominations by the Academy’s directors branch, an old boys club clique of elderly feature directors who don’t appreciate young actors showing they can direct as good or even better than “real” directors can.

What’s really ironic here is that Affleck is one of the Directors Guild of America’s five nominees for best feature directing. But the DGA membership differs significantly from the Academy’s directors branch membership. The DGA’s approximately 15,000 members include TV directors as well as assistant film directors and they tend to be much younger than the roughly 360 branch members whose average age is reportedly 64.

Affleck, who’s 40, has directed three features and they’ve all been very well received critically – the 2007 crime drama “Gone Baby Gone,” starring Morgan Freeman, Ed Harris and Casey Affleck; the 2010 crime thriller “The Town,” starring Ben Affleck, Rebecca Hall and Jon Hamm; and the 2012 political thriller “Argo,” starring Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, John Goodman and Alan Arkin.

Not only is Affleck a well regarded director, he’s also an Oscar winner – for co-writing (with Matt Damon) the original screenplay for the 1997 drama “Good Will Hunting,” which starred Robin Williams, Damon and Affleck.

Traditionally, films with best picture Oscar nods that don’t also have best directing nominations are considered “orphans” with reduced prospects of winning. There have been exceptions – such as “Driving Miss Daisy” winning best picture in 1990 despite its director Bruce Beresford not having been nominated. In Beresford’s case, he’d had a previous Oscar nom for directing the 1983 drama “Tender Mercies” and an Oscar nom for co-writing the adapted screenplay for the 1980 drama “Breaker Morant.”

Beresford, by the way, wasn’t a DGA nominee for “Driving,” so we can’t compare him to Affleck in that way. Since Affleck’s a DGA nominee, he could win best director there while sitting out Oscar’s best directing race.

Affleck’s not alone in this unusual situation. There’s also Kathryn Bigelow, whose drama “Zero Dark Thirty” has a best picture Oscar nom. She’s also a DGA nominee and also isn’t in the Academy’s directing race.

Bigelow’s Oscar snub, however, reflects quite different issues than Affleck’s snub. In Bigelow’s case, there’s no question that she’s a “real” director. In fact, in 2010 she won both the best directing Oscar and the DGA Award for “The Hurt Locker,” which took home the best picture Oscar. Bigelow’s definitely not one of the “boys” and the memberships of both the Academy branch and the DGA are heavily male. On the other hand, they all voted her top honors before, so it’s hard to say the problem is sexism.

What appears to be the real issue is the media campaign waged against “Zero” by several U.S. Senators who claim Bigelow’s movie credits CIA use of torture with tracking down Osama Bin Laden. The Senators maintain that wasn’t how it actually happened. They argue that by presenting scenes in which CIA agents waterboard a terrorist Bigelow is condoning the use of torture by showing that it works.

Bigelow’s gone on record at length to refute those attacks, pointing out that, “Those of us who work in the arts know that depiction is not endorsement. If it was, no artist would be able to paint inhumane practices, no author could write about them, and no filmmaker could delve into the thorny subjects of our time.”

She’s also noted, “confusing depiction with endorsement is the first step toward chilling any American artist’s ability and right to shine a light on dark deeds…”

The controversy, however, isn’t hurting “Zero” at the boxoffice. Typically, controversy attracts audiences who want to see what the fuss is all about. Last weekend “Zero” placed second with about $17.6 million for three days, bringing its cume to about $56 million.

Leaving aside who’s right or wrong in the Affleck and Bigelow cases, we’re left with trying to figure out what these directing snubs may do to the films’ best picture prospects.

In Affleck’s case, the snub seems to be a shot in the arm for “Argo.” Its Oscar heat had cooled as hotter new arrivals like “Les Miserables” came into the marketplace. Now “Argo’s” just won two key best picture and director awards and the only meaningful way Academy members can honor it is with a best picture vote.

“Argo” benefits from being about a heroic and now unclassified CIA mission to rescue six American Embassy workers during the 1979 hostage crisis in Iran. “Zero” suffers from being about a controversial and still classified CIA mission that’s making negative headlines right now.

Affleck has the advantage of being able to present former CIA operative Tony Mendez – who conceived of and directed the rescue mission and is played in the film by Affleck – as he just did onstage at the Globes. Bigelow’s hampered by the fact that torture is a hot button media issue now and the CIA agents who tracked down Bin Laden can’t come out of the shadows to promote or defend her movie.

Strictly speaking, Hollywood handicappers consider the strongest best picture nominees to be those that also have best directing and best film editing nods. Statistics show that in most cases they’re right. While “Argo” and “Zero” are both in Oscar’s best picture and film editing races, neither has a directing nom.

In fact, only three of this year’s nine best picture Oscar nominees actually scored picture, directing and film editing nods. Here’s a quick look at those nine nominees (alphabetically) with some pros and cons about each.

Sony Pictures Classics’ “Amour” has five Oscar nods, including best picture and directing (Michael Haneke), but isn’t a film editing nominee. It’s also competing as Austria’s official entry in Oscar’s Foreign Language Film category. That makes it easy to honor “Amour” in the foreign film race where it’s the front runner after winning the Globe and Critics Choice Award for best foreign language film.

That’s what happened in 1999 with “Life is Beautiful,” which had seven Oscar noms, including best picture and best foreign language film. “Life” wound up winning in the foreign race, but didn’t win for best picture.

Nonetheless, it’s encouraging for “Amour” that it’s shown strength in other important contests. Last weekend it won best picture, actress (Emmanuelle Riva) and screenplay (Michael Haneke) awards from the London Film Critics Circle. It previously swept the European Film Awards, winning best picture, director (Haneke), actress (Riva) and actor (Jean-Louis Trintignant).

“Amour’s” storyline about a couple in their 80s whose love is tested by the wife’s severe health crisis is one that could resonate with aging Academy members.

Warner Bros. and GK Films’ “Argo” has seven Oscar noms and is once again the frontrunner for best picture, driven by its Globes and Critics Choice best picture and best director wins. It’s a film editing nominee, but isn’t in Oscar’s directing race. It is, however, a best picture nominee in the Producers Guild Awards (PGA) and a best ensemble cast nominee in the Screen Actors Guild Awards (SAG), two key races that often point the way towards best picture wins. The PGA awards will be announced Jan. 26 and the SAG winners will be revealed Jan. 27.

Fox Searchlight Pictures’ “Beasts of the Southern Wild” has four Oscar nods, including best picture and director (Benh Zeitlin), but isn’t in the film editing race. Its very personable nine year old star Quevenzhane Wallis is a best actress nominee, who won the Critics Choice Award for best young actor/actress and made a terrific acceptance speech at the time. Unfortunately, Wallis faces big competition from two high profile front runners — “Zero’s” Jessica Chastain and “Silver Lining’s” Jennifer Lawrence, both of whom just won Globes and Critics Choice Awards in their films’ categories – best actress-drama for Chastain and best actress-comedy or musical for Lawrence. “Beasts” is one of 10 PGA best picture nominees.

The Weinstein Company and Columbia Pictures’ “Django Unchained” has five Oscar noms, including best picture, but not best directing (Quentin Tarantino) or film editing. Tarantino, who won the Globes’ best screenplay award and the Critics Choice Awards’ best original screenplay award, has a good shot in Oscar’s best original screenplay category.

Tarantino’s strongest competition is likely to be “Zero” screenwriter Mark Boal, who won the best original screenplay Oscar in 2010 for “Hurt Locker.” If Academy members want to honor “Zero” with something other than best picture, since there’s no directing nod for Bigelow the original screenplay category is a way to do it. So is voting for Chastain for best actress.

There could, however, be a sympathy vote for high profile writer-director Tarantino since he, too, was snubbed in Oscar’s best directing race and also by the DGA. The media controversy over Tarantino’s portrayal of slavery and his extensive use of the “N” word in “Django” could both attract and repel Oscar voters. “Django” has a best picture nom from the PGA.

Universal and Working Title Films’ “Les Miserables” has eight Oscar nods, including best picture, but not for best directing (Tom Hooper) or film editing. Hooper’s visual style of shooting much of the movie in close-ups drew negative comments from many critics and may have hurt him with the directors branch and DGA.

Anne Hathaway is Oscar’s supporting actress front runner having just won that prize in both the Globes and Critics Choice Awards.

While Hugh Jackman won the Globe for best actor in a comedy or musical, he’s also competing with actors in dramas in the Oscars – meaning he’s up against Daniel Day-Lewis, who is the Globes and Critics Choice Awards best actor winner for “Lincoln” and is widely regarded as the best actor front runner. “Les Mis” is a PGA and SAG nominee.

20th Century Fox and Haishang Films’ “Life of Pi” has 11 Oscar noms, including best picture, director (Ang Lee) and film editing. The only film with more noms this year is Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” which has 12. Over the years, the film with the most noms has won best picture about two-thirds of the time since the more noms there are the more branches and, therefore, the more voters who like something about that contender.

What “Pi” doesn’t have to help drive it are acting noms since its star, India’s Suraj Sharma, is not well known in the U.S. despite being popular abroad. On the other hand, Lee won the best directing Oscar in 2006 for “Brokeback Mountain” and was Oscar nominated in 2001 for directing “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” which was a best picture nominee. While “Pi” isn’t a SAG nominee, it does have a PGA best picture nomination.

Lee is a DGA nominee as well as an Oscar best directing nominee, showing support across the board with his fellow directors. In a year where several films are tarnished by controversy, “Pi” could benefit from being above the fray.

DreamWorks, Fox, Reliance Pictures, Participant Media and Disney’s “Lincoln” has 12 Oscar noms, including best picture, best directing (Steven Spielberg) and best film editing. Throughout the early awards season “Lincoln” was a strong front runner and Spielberg was considered the director to beat in both the Oscar and DGA races.

The recent strength shown by “Argo” and Affleck in the Globes and Critics Choice Awards has sent some Hollywood handicappers back to their drawing boards and in some cases they’re now less optimistic about “Lincoln” getting elected for either best picture or director.

In the directing category without high profile players like Affleck, Bigelow, Hooper or Tarantino in the race, Spielberg has an advantage. But Spielberg still faces some serious opposition from Michael Haneke for “Amour,” Benh Zeitlin for “Beasts,” Ang Lee for “Pi” and David O. Russell for “Silver Linings Playbook.”

Lee, who’s also a DGA nominee, is a strong well regarded alternative possibility to Spielberg. Russell, who isn’t in the DGA race, could benefit from Oscar voters liking “Silver” but not being willing to give best picture to a romantic comedy drama. A best directing vote for Russell could make them feel better about holding back on best picture.

In the best actor race, however, Daniel Day-Lewis, remains the front runner after having won the Globe for best actor-drama and the Critics Choice Award for best actor. “Lincoln” is a PGA and SAG nominee.

The Weinstein Company and Mirage Enterprises’ “Silver Linings Playbook” has eight Oscar noms, including best picture, directing (David O. Russell) and film editing. “Silver” has the golden trifecta of noms that Oscarologists look for when they think about likely winners. On the other hand, it’s a romantic comedy drama and the Academy has been notoriously ungenerous to films that aren’t serious dramas.

Russell isn’t a DGA nominee, but could still benefit in the directing race from the strong likeability “Silver’s” generated throughout the awards season. It’s a nominee in both the PGA and SAG races and won best comedy in the Critics Choice Awards.

“Silver’s” a strong contender in Oscar’s best actress race with Jennifer Lawrence, who won best actress-comedy in both the Globes and Critics Choice Awards, but is now up against actresses who starred in dramas. Her biggest rival for best actress is “Zero’s” Jessica Chastain, who could benefit if Academy voters want to honor “Zero” without giving it best picture and can’t vote for Bigelow for directing since she’s not a nominee.

What “Silver” also has going for it, by the way, is Harvey Weinstein, co-chairman of The Weinstein Company and widely regarded for writing the playbook of how to win Oscar gold. Harvey’s achieved many Oscar victories over the years, including the best picture wins for “The Artist” in 2012 and “The King’s Speech” in 2011.

Perhaps Harvey’s greatest best picture victory came in 1999 when he was heading Miramax Films, whose romantic comedy drama “Shakespeare in Love” was in a tight race for best picture with DreamWorks’ Steven Spielberg directed World War II drama “Saving Private Ryan.” Although “Ryan,” the serious film, was expected to win, when the best picture envelope was opened it was the lighter weight entertainment “Shakespeare” that triumphed. This year’s Oscar race once again pits Harvey with a romantic comedy drama against Spielberg with a heavy Civil War period biographical drama. Anything could happen!

Columbia and Annapurna Pictures’ “Zero Dark Thirty” has five Oscar noms, including best picture and film editing. With director Kathryn Bigelow not in the best directing race (although she is a DGA nominee), “Zero” faces an uphill battle, but not necessarily one that can’t be won.

The media controversy created by attacks on “Zero” by several U.S. Senators could backfire if Oscar voters decide the directors branch was wrong in not nominating Bigelow and show their disapproval by voting “Zero” best picture.

“Zero” is a PGA nominee, but doesn’t have a SAG ensemble cast nom (although Jessica Chastain is a SAG nominee for lead actress).

Bottom line: Oscar’s best picture race remains wide open and everybody’s got high hopes heading into the homestretch.