In a Crazy Awards Year, Is It Really Smooth Sailing for 'Argo'?

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In a Crazy Awards Year, Is It Really Smooth Sailing for 'Argo'?
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In a Crazy Awards Year, Is It Really Smooth Sailing for 'Argo'?

By most of the usual benchmarks treasured by awards-watchers this time of year, "Argo" is now the Academy Award frontrunner. It had a very good weekend at the Producers Guild and Screen Actors Guild awards, winning both to become the film most likely to take home the Best Picture Oscar on Feb. 24.

But is Ben Affleck's CIA-goes-to-Hollywood drama really a clear leader?

The PGA, to be sure, is one of the most reliable precursor awards. The SAG ensemble award is a sign of love from the actors who make up the largest Academy branch. And the film previously won the top prize at the Golden Globes and the Critics' Choice Movie Awards.

But minus a Best Director nomination for Affleck from the Academy, and in a year in which the usual timetable has been drastically altered, those typical benchmarks are harder to trust.

So far, after all, this awards season has been more rushed, more unsettled and harder to predict than most. Nobody thought that "Amour's" Michael Haneke and "Beasts of the Southern Wild's" Benh Zeitlin would get Best Director nominations and Affleck, "Zero Dark Thirty's" Kathryn Bigelow and "Les Miserables'" Tom Hooper wouldn't. And now, nobody really knows if Oscar voters with lots of time on their hands will follow the usual signs and do what they would have done in years past.

And even if the past is a reliable guide, the signs aren't unanimously positive for Affleck as we move into the final four weeks before Oscar winners are announced on the stage of the Dolby Theatre.

Since SAG began handing out ensemble awards in 1995, eight films have won that award and the Producers Guild's theatrical-feature award. Six of them -- "American Beauty," "Chicago," "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King," "No Country for Old Men," "Slumdog Millionaire" and "The King's Speech" -- have gone on to win the Oscar for Best Picture.

But the other two SAG-PGA winners, "Apollo 13" in 1995 and "Little Miss Sunshine" in 2006, didn't win the Oscar – and those are the only two that have something else in common with "Argo": Their directors weren't nominated by the Academy's Directors Branch.

So you could look at the weekend's precursor awards and say that 75 percent of the movies that win the SAG ensemble award and the PGA award go on to win Best Picture. And that's good for "Argo."

Or you could look at the same awards and say that 100 percent of the movies that win SAG ensemble and PGA but aren't nominated for Best Director don't win the top Oscar. And that's bad for "Argo."

True, the Academy now counts its Best Picture ballots using the preferential system, which it didn't use for final voting in the days of "Apollo 13" and "Little Miss Sunshine." That system, which is also used by the PGA, rewards films that are consensus favorites.

"Argo" proved that it was the consensus choice of the Producers Guild – and with SAG having nearly 100,000 eligible voters, by far the largest voting body of any guild award, it showed that it was the favorite of that huge body of actors as well.

That sounds as if it's a likely road to Oscar success under the current system.

Still, after a rush to get their nominating ballots in earlier than ever before, Academy voters can't even begin to vote until Feb. 8. That gives them plenty of time to catch up with films they haven't seen, time to forget about who's won what, and time change their minds.

It gives "Silver Linings Playbook" plenty of time to keep hammering on its phase-two message, which is all about how personal the movie is to David O. Russell and how he made it for his son.

It provides "Lincoln" with time to bring in more heavy hitters like Bill Clinton, who introduced the movie's film clip at the Golden Globes, or Lord Peter Mandleson, a former British cabinet minister, who began working on behalf of Steven Spielberg's historical drama this week.

It gives Ang Lee, who along with Spielberg and Russell does have a Best Director nomination, more opportunities to build support for the dazzling "Life of Pi."

And it provides a lots of time for the controversy over "Zero Dark Thirty" to continue fading in the wake of the laudatory Time magazine cover story on Kathryn Bigelow, defenses by liberals like Michael Moore to counter the attacks by liberals like Ed Asner, and a recent interview in which secretary of defense and former CIA director Leon Panetta called it "a great movie" that "did a good job in indicating how some of this was pieced together" and supported the film's version of how enhanced interrogation played a role in the hunt for Osama bin Laden.

In the end, could "ZDT" impress voters as being a tougher, thornier, less Hollywood-ized version of recent intelligence history than "Argo?" Could "Silver Linings Playbook" come across as more human? Could "Lincoln" seem more substantial? Could "Life of Pi" seem more imaginative?

It's all possible, and it's all unlikely – because by any conventional measure, "Argo" has the momentum. 

And yet that lack of a Best Director nomination looms over the conversation and suggests that despite all the signs, it's too early to tie this Oscar in a bow and mark it with an A for "Argo" and for Affleck.

At this point, there's one more chance for the winds to shift, one more opportunity for a film to make a statement. It comes Saturday night with the Directors Guild, which is typically a reliable indicator of what's going to win the Best Director Oscar, which is itself a reliable indicator of what's going to win the Best Picture Oscar.

If Affleck wins the DGA Award he'll have to leave out that middle step, since he can't win the directing Oscar. But if that guild goes for him, it'll really be all over, right?

Right … except that Ron Howard won the DGA Award for "Apollo 13," too, to go along with that film's PGA and SAG awards. And that didn't exactly work out for his film at the Oscars.

So yes, Affleck had better write a speech for Oscar night. But he might want to prep his happy-loser face, too – in this strange year for awards, nobody really knows which one he's going to need.

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