Cover Story

Eyes On The Prize

This Oscar race has been full of bombshells. Will Ben Affleck's snub in the directing category boost ''Argo'''s chances against ''Lincoln''?

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.''

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