Argo’s rousing comeback in this most intriguing of awards seasons took everyone’s eyes off the best actress race. Until, that is, the SAG awards on Sunday  reminded us that while the best picture category remains the most closely watched contest, the best actress race is turning out to be great value for money too.
Jennifer Lawrence was the best actress frontrunner to a greater or lesser extent ever since Silver Linings Playbook brought the house down at Toronto, where it won the People’s Choice Award. The brew changed late last year when the first preview screenings of Zero Dark Thirty landed and immediately made it clear that Jessica Chastain was going to be a force.
She has remained so ever since Zero Dark Thirty began to earn heaps of critical adulation. The Chastain campaign has gained momentum in the latter stages of the season with a string of wins from critics groups and other bodies and of course that best dramatic actress Golden Globe win.
Lawrence has also curried favour with the voters and earned herself a tidy stack of honours plus the best musical or comedy actress Globe. Both she and Chastain were slap bang in the mix when the Oscar nominations came out on Jan 10 and each triumphed in her respective category at the Globes three days later.
By dint of being the dramatic actress winner Chastain edged into the lead in the Oscar race by the slightest of noses. It only lasted two weeks because Sunday’s SAG awards has switched the noses around. Actors comprise the largest voting block in the Academy so you have to say the pendulum has swung back towards Lawrence. It’s all on the Oscars now and it will be interesting to see how the two campaigns play out in this final month or so.
To return to Argo, what a story this is turning out to be. The film exploded out of the blocks at Telluride and rode into Toronto on a wave of glory. Argo and Silver Linings Playbook were the toast of the Canadian festival and the consensus last September seemed to be that the former was shaping up to be the heavyweight of the season.
Then Lincoln played at the New York Film Festival and seeped into the collective awards psyche. Before long it was winning awards left and right and would go on to become the most heavily nominated Globe and Academy Awards contender.
But look closely and you will see that thus far Lincoln has won only one best picture trophy in the US, at least that I can see – from the Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics Association. Most of the acclaim from critics and other voting groups has been aimed at the performances and Tony Kushner’s adapted screenplay.
Lincoln went into the Globes with seven nods and emerged blinking in the pre-dawn light with just one for the seemingly invincible Daniel Day-Lewis. It heads into the Oscars with more nominations than any other film – 12 – but I think there are going to be surprises on Feb 24.
Which brings us to Argo. The true-life hostage crisis drama has picked itself up and got back in the race, winning a handful of critics groups’ best picture awards and trumping Lincoln at the Globes to claim the best dramatic picture prize. What a shock that was. People are still staggering around Beverly Hills in a daze. Some have been unable to sign a deal memo in two weeks.
The HFPA vote followed much pulling of hair and gnashing of teeth in the Warner Bros camp after the Academy omitted Ben Affleck from its best director nominees, one of three alarming shut-outs in the category that also brought unwelcome news for Kathryn Bigelow and Tom Hooper.
History tells us that a film is unlikely to win the best picture Oscar if its director is not nominated. The last time this happened was in 1990 when Bruce Beresford failed to make the best director cut but Driving Miss Daisy chugged on regardless to take the top prize.
Argo comes off a tremendous weekend with victories for best picture at the PGA awards and best cast in a motion picture at SAG. Who’s to say it won’t win the ultimate prize at the Academy Awards? And can you imagine the confusion if Affleck takes the DGA’s top award next weekend? The polls stay open until Friday and the awards take place on Saturday, so voters still have plenty to think about.