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Oscars: Argo charges to victory

The 85th Academy Awards lived up to its promise of sure-things, surprises and stumbles… and Screen US editor Jeremy Kay was at the Dolby Theater in Los Angeles to bear witness.

“And you join us live in Hollywood for the 8.45 best picture stakes and it’s a thriller as Argo comes up strong on the inside. He’s gaining fast on Lincoln… he’s going to pass him… Lincoln is showing signs of tiring… and yes it’s Argo who crosses the finish line to win it by a nose.”

The point of this hideously contrived homage to horse racing commentary is to illustrate one of the great misconceptions of the season that culminated on Sunday night [24] at the 85th Academy Awards. People viewed Argo as the plucky underdog of this crazy contest; the populist tale that shot out of the gate in Telluride and Toronto before slowing up mid-race only to reclaim pole position from Lincoln in the final furlong.

In fact, veteran Oscar strategists have told ScreenDaily, the opposite is true.

Argo’s pedigree and standing in the eyes of voters never flagged, which is why it won, becoming the first movie since Driving Miss Daisy in 1989 to claim the top prize without a nomination for its director.

Warner Bros ran a smart race, getting the movie’s talent out front and centre last autumn to make a splash, before the US release took over and planted the hostage drama firmly in the minds of everyone who saw it. And that was a lot of people, because Argo has amassed more than $128m in North America and more than $200m worldwide.

Lincoln came on strong after its world premiere at the New York Film Festival last October and from the get-go there was no doubt Daniel Day-Lewis would be the one to beat in the lead actor race, while Steven Spielberg was always going to be a frontrunner.

Day-Lewis won just about everything it was possible to win over the past several months – critics groups, SAG, the Golden Globe, you name it – and he capped it off with Oscar success on Sunday to become the first man to win three lead actor Academy Awards.

In one of only two upsets on the night (the other being Brave’s best animation triumph), Ang Lee claimed a second best director Oscar of his career and Life Of Pi’s fourth and final statuette.

With the exception of frontrunner Steven Spielberg, Lee faced a relatively easy field because for reasons best known to themselves Oscar voters had chosen not to nominate Ben Affleck, Kathryn Bigelow or Tom Hooper. But that is to take nothing away from Lee and his extraordinary achievement.

Lincoln itself was never really as strong a contender as the publicity machine would have us believe. It barely won any best film awards, whereas Argo picked up quite a few and of course Zero Dark Thirty emerged as the most recognised movie of the lot in this regard.

Zero Dark Thirty is an awesome piece of film-making and deserved so much more than one tied award for sound editing. The movie got bogged down in political controversy and this turned out to be anathema to its awards prospects.

Heading into 2013, the tide was with Argo.

The first big showdown between Argo and Lincoln came at the Golden Globes on Jan 13. Affleck had just been omitted from the Academy’s best director nominees list and Lincoln was the heavyweight contender with seven nods from the HFPA. But all that goodwill for Argo turned the night into an unexpected triumph as movie and director trumped their Lincoln rivals in the best dramatic movie and best director categories.

From there came the sequence of wins at the PGA, SAG, the WGA and the DGA – when Affleck became only the third person to win the Directors Guild’s top prize without an Oscar nomination.

The point to remember here is that while Argo’s late spurt of awards made it look like people were changing their minds at the last minute and voting for it, the truth is that by the time we got to that final flurry of shows the votes had been cast for all of them – Hollywood had already decided that it wanted to reward Argo.

It would take too long to go through the entire list of winners on the night – see John Hazelton’s report for that – but I want to salute best actress winner Jennifer Lawrence and of course tip the hat to perhaps the greatest film-maker to take the stage at the Dolby Theater on Sunday, Michael Haneke.

For my money, Amour is not quite as extraordinary as The White Ribbon, but we’re talking shades of excellence that few others could hope to attain. When he’s nominated, few can live with him.

The ultimate respect goes to Argo. This was a movie people loved from the moment they clapped eyes on it.

Director, producer and star Affleck and the cast never put a foot wrong during the promotional campaign and self-righteous Hollywood decided that the story-within-the-story, namely Affleck’s personal and professional comeback after a few well-publicised mis-steps in the past, deserved a big pat on the back.

Affleck acknowledged his former travails in a humble acceptance speech at the end of the night.

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