'Argo': From dark horse to Oscar winner
05:00 AM, Feb 25, 2013
LOS ANGELES Ben Affleck can thank an Oscar snub for its biggest prize.
Though it was crowned the Academy Awards’ best picture Sunday night by Michelle Obama, no less Argo’s gauntlet run through the critics’ and guild awards began with bad news: Affleck’s exclusion for a best-director nomination on Jan. 10.
After that, though, Argo and Affleck took no prisoners, sweeping virtually every award leading to the Oscars. In turn, it has made Affleck one of the most in-demand directors in the industry.
In accepting the award, Affleck said twice that “you can’t hold grudges,” then added, “It doesn’t matter how you get knocked down in life because that’s going to happen. All that matters is that you gotta get up.”
Though Argo was building momentum before the Oscar nominations, the snub provided the final chapter to a story that would dominate the awards season: Affleck’s comeback.
“Ben was in movie jail,” says Jeremy Kay, U.S. editor of the London-based trade publication Screen International. “Him breaking out became the feel-good story of Hollywood.”
Like most Hollywood stories, though, this one is a little more complicated, analysts point out.
Although two of Argo’s biggest early victories The Critics Choice best-picture award Jan. 10 and the Golden Globe for best drama Jan. 13 came on or after the Oscar nominations announcement, voting already had closed before the snub. Argo, analysts say, would have been the early front-runner regardless.
But combined with Affleck’s exclusion from the academy’s final ballots, the weekend became a trifecta win for the Iran hostage drama.
Suddenly, the $45 million film was the little engine that might. Before Sunday, just three films in Oscar history took best-picture honors without a best-director nomination, the last being Bruce Beresford’s Driving Miss Daisy in 1990.
“When Ben Affleck’s name was left out of the best-director (nomination) Oscar morning, it brought more attention to Argo than I think it ever had up to that point,” says Katey Rich, executive editor of film site Cinemablend.com.
Rich says the film, which opened in October, “lost some of its luster” when big-budget competitors premiered in December, including Zero Dark Thirty and Django Unchained, both of which also were nominated for best picture.
But when no movie became the must-see film of the awards season, Rich says, “people started remembering they really liked Argo.”
The resurgence got a big boost from box office: The film has made more than $127 million. Aside from ticket sales and The Snub, as it has been coined by pundits, there were a few key moments in Argo’s run to the top:
Telluride Film Festival. When Affleck offered attendees a “sneak peek” over Labor Day in 2012, the movie had prognosticators in a lather. “Argo was the favorite the day it showed,” says David Poland of Moviecitynews.com. “It stopped being the front-runner when the other movies showed up. But people forget that ‘insiders’ were all talking about Argo after its runs at Telluride, then at the Toronto Film Festival (in early September). It just wasn’t the hot conversation piece when other movies started filtering in.”
Producers Guild Awards. The PGA is one of the industry’s most accurate barometers of best-picture Oscar winners, and Argo’s win Jan. 26 made analysts take notice. The PGAs demonstrated that “no film had come in and blown out of the water as a front-runner,” says Steve Pond, Oscar columnist for Thewrap.com. And in 40-year-old Affleck, “you had a charming, charismatic person in Hollywood as an underdog, and he played that very well.”
Senate anger at Zero. In a letter Dec. 19 to Sony chairman Michael Lynton,U.S. Sens. Dianne Feinstein, Carl Levin and John McCain upbraided Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow’s chronicle of the 10-year hunt for Osama bin Laden. The senators wrote that the film was “grossly inaccurate and misleading in its suggestion that torture resulted in the information that led to the location” of bin Laden. The film never recovered.
“I think that sent people into Argo’s corner,” Pond says. “That was a political movie you could feel good about, without the moral ambiguity of Zero Dark Thirty.”
Regardless of the awards handed out Sunday, analysts say, Affleck was going to be the evening’s big winner.
After his turns directing Gone Baby Gone and The Town, Affleck has “established himself as an up-and-coming director who can take middle-budget films and make them mainstream hits,” Rich says. “”There are very few directors who are doing that.”
Kay says Affleck’s box-office success comes with pressure. “Studios are going to expect big things from him. Clearly, he has an eye for a commercial movie.”
Stars, too, say the heat will be on Affleck to deliver again.
“He hasn’t made a bad movie,” says Bryan Cranston, Affleck’s co-star in Argo. “He’s got a great ear for story. So people are going to expect it to be better than most. Including me.”