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Eyes On The Prize

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After months of obsession and analysis, it took only minutes for the Oscar race to turn upside down. As one veteran campaigner said after the predawn announcement by Emma Stone and telecast host Seth MacFarlane at Academy headquarters on Jan. 10, ”Walking out of that room, everyone just kept saying, ‘What the hell just happened?”’

There were no surprises on the nine-movie Best Picture list. Predictably, Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln led the field with 12 nominations. And Ang Lee’s Life of Pi followed with 11 (despite the fact that the film had no acting nods, an indication of vast support across the technical branches of the Academy). In the acting categories, Daniel Day-Lewis and Anne Hathaway continued their march to the podium with nominations for their turns as the brilliant conscience of a nation in Lincoln and the tragic Fantine in Les Misérables.

It was the omissions in the directing category that created meltdowns through Hollywood. Spielberg and Lee made the cut, but Argo‘s Ben Affleck, Les Misérables‘ Tom Hooper, and Zero Dark Thirty‘s Kathryn Bigelow did not, which seemed even more shocking since all three had received Directors Guild award nominations just days before. As with those films, Django Unchained, which had been somewhere in the middle of most predictions for the Best Picture race, also got a nomination for the top honor while failing to land a nod for director Quentin Tarantino.

”I wish [voters] knew that none of this would have existed without Tom Hooper, who did an unbelievable job in conceiving how a stage musical should become a movie,” says Les Miz producer Eric Fellner. ”Because Bigelow and Affleck didn’t [get nominations] either, I can’t work it out at all. I’m really surprised. For only two of the DGA nominees to have been translated over, that’s really weird.”

That lack of support from the Academy’s directing branch exposed serious vulnerability for three films once thought to be among the strongest contenders heading into the Feb. 24 ceremony. Historically speaking, it’s nearly impossible to win Best Picture without a directing nomination. The last film to do so was Driving Miss Daisy in 1990, and the previous victors were Wings, at the first ceremony in 1929, and Grand Hotel in 1932.

Filling the Affleck-Bigelow-Hooper void is a trio of directors many assumed would be also-rans: David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook), Michael Haneke (Amour), and first-time director Benh Zeitlin (Beasts of the Southern Wild). Each of their films secured Best Picture mentions, and their long-shot director nods suddenly vaulted the movies into serious contention. Silver Linings is in an especially good position, since it earned nominations in each of the acting categories — Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence for lead roles, and Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver for supporting — the first film to do so since 1981’s Reds. Because the acting branch is the biggest voting bloc in the Academy, it can often push a film to victory.

There’s one more statistic to consider: Every Best Picture winner since 1981’s Chariots of Fire has also received a nomination for Best Film Editing. Amour and Beasts weren’t acknowledged in that category. So if both the directing and editing traditions hold, the Best Picture race comes down to Lincoln, Life of Pi, and Silver Linings Playbook.

But in a year that has defied conventional wisdom, those old patterns may mean little. Argo scored Best Picture and Best Director at the Broadcast Film Critics Awards and again at the Jan. 13 Golden Globes. Suddenly it seemed like an Oscar snub was the coolest red-carpet accessory. Even though those groups’ voters don’t overlap with the Academy’s, Argo‘s victories may become a rallying point for those who feel that the film, about the daring 1980 rescue of embassy workers in Iran, had been robbed. Some insiders think that Argo could win Best Picture, with voters trying to make up for Affleck’s snub. (Les Miz and Zero Dark Thirty haven’t generated the same sympathetic outrage.)

”Part of the reason there’s such admiration for Ben at this stage is because he was in actor jail,” Argo producer George Clooney said backstage at the Golden Globes, referring to Affleck’s rebound as a filmmaker after a series of flops dating back to Gigli. ”I did Batman & Robin — trust me, I know. It’s how you handle yourself when things aren’t going particularly well. He directed his way out of this. I can’t tell you how proud we are to have worked with him — and how much I hate him.”

Reactions to the nominations were as scrambled as the picks. Beasts director Zeitlin says his highest Oscar hopes had been for 9-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis, who was 6 when she starred in his low-budget fable about a bayou girl facing the end of the world. (She got the nod, joining 85-year-old nominee Emmanuelle Riva of Amour as both the youngest and oldest Best Actress contenders in history.) ”When they said [Amour director Michael] Haneke’s name,” he says, ”I just sort of tuned out, and then I just heard my name out of the back of my head.” His reaction? ”I went into a blackout.”

Landing a nomination proved bittersweet for some. ”The main concern outside of the initial joy was wishing that Ben had been given a nod,” says Alan Arkin, who picked up a Best Supporting Actor nomination for Argo. ”It’s an absolutely perfect film in every way, and he’s responsible for it.” Megan Ellison, who produced Zero Dark Thirty, sent out a combative tweet: ”Kathryn Bigelow was robbed. So f—ed up. #recount.” The film’s Best Actress nominee, Jessica Chastain, is also up in arms: ”Every frame of this movie is because of her, so it does feel really shocking that she has not gotten a nomination.”

Even Hollywood’s savviest insiders are scratching their heads over the omissions. ”Could it be sexism? That directors’ branch is an old boys’ club,” says one studio exec who isn’t affiliated with Bigelow or Zero Dark Thirty. ”But then, she just won for The Hurt Locker.” Did the debate over the film’s depiction of torture hurt it? Maybe, awards veterans agree, but that complaint mostly came from Washington pundits, not filmmakers — who tend to hate when outsiders politicize films. Some tried blaming the Academy’s new early deadlines, which resulted in nine fewer days of voting. But Argo has been screening since the Toronto Film Festival four months ago. Plus, Zero Dark Thirty and Les Miz were so hyped that few voters could have missed them. Others cited the Academy’s new online voting initiative, which suffered a few first-year glitches that made voting difficult for some members, especially older ones. But did young voters deliver all that support to Amour, the story of two eightysomethings?

One possible explanation is what’s known as the Home Alone theory: The directing category was full of so many sure things that many assumed others had cast ballots for them. So three filmmakers were accidentally left behind as members in that branch gave their top votes to underdogs. Since the tallies are kept secret, there’s no way to know how close the also-rans were. ”It’s a frustrating issue that has more to do with the math than anything else,” says Lincoln producer Kathleen Kennedy. ”If you’re going to have more than five Best Picture nominees, then somebody significant is going to end up being left out if there are only five nominated directors.”

The uproar may trigger a re-evaluation of the process by Academy leadership, who introduced the expanded Best Picture list after complaints that populist hits such as The Dark Knight were failing to make the cut. ”I don’t think anybody is trying to come up with a system that is exclusionary, but then there are these unintended consequences,” Kennedy says.

On the afternoon of nomination day, even the guy who had fared the best said he empathized with those left out. Spielberg had been there before quite a few times, actually. ”With The Color Purple, we got 11 nominations — but not 12, because I wasn’t included in the roster,” says the director, who was also passed over when both Jaws and War Horse snagged Best Picture nods. ”I just remember going to the Academy Awards that year and sitting with the [Color Purple] cast, and feeling really proud of everybody around me.”

Standing in the Golden Globe pressroom with his directing trophy, Affleck acknowledged that it was frustrating not to get an Oscar nod when many felt he deserved one. But he’s keeping a sense of humor. ”I mean, I also didn’t get the acting nomination,” he pointed out. ”And no one’s saying I got snubbed there!”

Best Picture Nominee

Then There Were Nine
For the second straight year, nine films emerged with enough first-place votes from Academy members to claim a Best Picture nod. And once again, the nominees range from little-seen art-house darlings (Amour) to more mainstream box office hits (Argo, Django Unchained).

Amour
5 nominations
Box office to date: $0.6 million
Argo
7 nominations
$111.7 million
Beasts of the Southern Wild
4 nominations
$11.3 million
Django Unchained
5 nominations
$125.4 million
Les Miséables
8 nominations
$118.7 million
Life of Pi
11 nominations
$94.8 million
Lincoln
12 nominations
$152.6 million
Silver Linings Playbooks
8 nominations
$41.3 million
Zero Dark Thirty
5 nominations
$29.9 million

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