The Academy Awards promise surprises for surprising reasons.
Movies win Oscars based on box office success, critical response, and the precursor awards. (Though this year, the other award shows and their respective guilds apparently hold less influence as the Academy moved up its voting deadline to preempt them.)
But there are harder-to-measure forces at work.
Emotional accessibility can be the difference-maker that propels the populist “The King’s Speech” over the cynical “The Social Network.”
Or feelings of inevitability may set in around a film that seems to rise up to the events of the time. For example, while “Avatar” had imagination and carnage to spare, it couldn’t match “The Hurt Locker,” which mirrored a country’s collective anxiety about our soldiers abroad and at home.
Finally, the optics of how the nominees campaign for recognition cannot be underestimated: Go too hard and you appear pushy, stand pat and you look ungrateful, make an emotional appeal on the interview circuit and you might edge the competition. The Oscars award those whose performances are just as compelling off screen as on.
Pundits continue to make predictions citing precedents as proof and exceptions as anomalies: Only three films have ever won Best Picture while missing out on a Best Director nomination, therefore “Argo” is doomed to fail or primed to form a quartet. None of these harbingers seems predictive this year.
Here’s a look at the most contested battles:
“Argo” will win for an only-in-Hollywood reason. When Ben Affleck didn’t collect a nomination for Best Director, it set off a firestorm of controversy. Suddenly he won every director’s prize in sight, as backlash to his omission became the story instead of the slight. Academy voters will want to make it up to Affleck, and “Argo” will be the lucky beneficiary.
When Affleck claimed the Best Director prize at the Critics’ Choice Awards, he wisecracked, “I’d like to thank the Academy.” It seemed precisely the kind of sour grapes approach that might freeze him out of the unforgiving Academy’s good graces. But because Affleck is all charm, the words didn’t carry negativity. Instead, the Academy heard his other words at the Golden Globes, praising a director who didn’t get a nomination, Paul Thomas Anderson, whom Affleck said is “like Orson Welles.” Because Affleck is considered one of the most approachable stars in Hollywood, the Comeback Kid who once starred in “Gigli” and now directs important pictures, the positive impressions prevailed.
“Lincoln” will probably fall short, but if it wins, look to the inevitability narrative as the rationale. What other film could bring Republicans and Democrats together, entice President Bill Clinton to make an introduction at the Golden Globes, and coincide with Presidents’ Day and Lincoln’s birthday?
“Silver Linings Playbook,” a film I called wrong the first time around, barreled over my complaints upon second viewing, and is the only great film in the Best Picture category. “Argo” may be likable and “Lincoln” admirable, but only “Silver Linings” makes you feel good about life. It’s bravely, sublimely the antidote to all things ironic.
But modern romantic comedies don’t win Best Picture races unless there’s a gimmick (“The Artist” had silence, “Shakespeare in Love” had Shakespeare), so it’s a shame that “Silver Linings” falls into a genre so often dismissed. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, in a night of glitz and excess, prefers to hang its hat on prestige pictures that will redeem the show of its superficiality.
Prediction: Ang Lee
In this wildly capricious category, Steven Spielberg is the favorite to prevail simply as consolation for coming up short in the race for Best Picture. Appreciation among voters runs deep for the director’s 13-year mission to get Lincoln’s story onto celluloid. The trouble is that “Lincoln” is very much a filmed play, with dense writing from playwright Tony Kushner and meaty acting. Cinematic it is not.
Ang Lee’s spectacle “Life of Pi,” Michael Haneke’s controlled “Amour,” Benh Zeitlin’s lyrical “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” and David O. Russell’s rhythm-jagged “Silver Linings Playbook” all feel more intrinsically visionary. Russell, though, stands out with his discordantly wheeling camera, always on the move but never anything but wryly, sweetly alive to his characters’ needs. Russell’s history of on-set tantrums, tempered by the more sympathetic, media-hot story of his difficulties raising a bipolar son, make him the sentimental choice.
But with murmurings that the Academy is going with an anyone-but-Spielberg mindset, Ang Lee will siphon the votes he needs for bringing the supposedly unfilmable novel successfully to life. When “Life of Pi” nabbed 11 nominations but none in the acting category, it suggested the film’s accomplishments were largely technical. “Life of Pi” is a heart-over-head film orchestrated with great beauty by technician wizard Lee, a combo made for victory.
Prediction: Jennifer Lawrence
Jennifer Lawrence should barely fight off Jessica Chastain. Yes, Chastain has the task of playing a character in “Zero Dark Thirty” who is more machine than human, but she has a trickier time selling hard-edged profanities than quieter moments. Lawrence, on the other hand, needs to be lovable and profane — she is — while competing against the romantic comedy genre’s standard-bearers Katharine Hepburn and Claudette Colbert. And she does so successfully. Nostalgia for great past screen star and enthusiasm for Lawrence’s future will carry the day.
Best Supporting Actor
Prediction: Robert De Niro
While Christoph Waltz has considerable momentum building for his work in “Django Unchained,” Tommy Lee Jones of “Lincoln” still appears to be the favorite. Yet while Jones failed to appear for the Screen Actors Guild awards and showed up at the Globes glowering, press-leery De Niro cried on Katie Couric’s show and hit the campaign trail hard. One actor seems grateful to finally have a good role, and the other (Jones) doesn’t seem happy about anything. De Niro’s gratitude and the Academy’s reciprocal feelings will vault him to the top.
The Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress slots, Daniel Day-Lewis’s and Anne Hathaway’s respectively to lose, don’t contain the mystery of the other races. But on a night on which emotions run high, the behind-the-scenes drama of why voters follow their sentiments to select the deserving and undeserving alike, will provide the show’s true sizzle.