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How to Fix Oscar's Baffling Snub of Ben Affleck (Analysis)

A write-in vote -- not used since the 1930s -- could add a mind-boggling twist to the most unpredictable Oscar race in memory.

Ben Affleck Oscars Snub - H 2012

This story first appeared in the Jan. 25 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

What the hell is the Academy thinking?

Following Ben Affleck’s double victory at the Critics’ Choice Awards and the Golden Globes (as both the director and a producer of Argo), insiders were scratching their heads about his mystifying absence from the list of Oscar’s directing nominees.

The filmmaker was one of several notables whose exclusion drew gasps, including Kathryn Bigelow (Zero Dark Thirty), Tom Hooper (Les Miserables) and Quentin Tarantino (Django Unchained), all of whose films were among the Academy’s nine best picture picks. Instead, the organization opted for Michael Haneke (Amour), Ang Lee (Life of Pi), David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook), Steven Spielberg (Lincoln) and newcomer Benh Zeitlin (Beasts of the Southern Wild).

Conspiracy theories abound.

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One has it that the Academy doesn’t like actors who turn to directing, especially good-looking ones. But that theory would seem to be negated by other actor-directors who have gone on to win -- think Robert Redford (Ordinary People), Kevin Costner (Dances With Wolves) and Mel Gibson (Braveheart).

A second theory argues that Affleck just doesn’t have the body of work that would give him credibility. Think again: The director had two acclaimed films before Argo, with Gone Baby Gone and The Town (not to mention the bonus of a screenplay Oscar as co-writer of Good Will Hunting) -- that’s two more features than Redford and Costner had helmed when they won their directing Oscars.

Perhaps it is more reasonable to look at who actually gets to vote. Unlike the best picture nominees, which are chosen by the Academy’s 6,014 active members, director nominees are selected by 371 people who belong to the directing branch -- a mere six percent of the total, including several of the candidates who failed to get nominated, such as Bigelow and Hooper.

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The directors' branch uses the same system the Academy employs for best picture: Each voter gets to rank his choices, so that when a voter’s first choice doesn’t get enough support, his vote passes to choice No. 2. What this means is that not only did Affleck fail to get sufficient first-place votes, he also lacked enough second-place votes to propel him past the finish-line. In other words, there’s no way to explain away the fact that those 371 voters just didn’t think he should win -- except, perhaps, the most obvious: The directors who were nominated are a fine bunch in their own right.

Given that, it’s possible to flip the argument and ask why the Hollywood Foreign Press Association gave its Golden Globe prize to Affleck. Historically, the Globes have been considered one of the better litmus tests for the Oscars. But during the past few years, the gap between the institutions has grown, with the 84 members of the HFPA who give out the Globes -- all journalists writing for foreign-based publications -- increasingly taking a divergent path.

In the past 10 years, only five winners of the directing Globe have gone on to win the Oscar, and only four of the Globes’ two best picture winners (the HFPA presents separate awards for best drama and best comedy/musical) have triumphed at the Oscars. Both Globe best picture winners this time around (Argo and Les Miserables) are in the Academy’s final nine -- but their directors aren’t making the gap between the Globes and the Oscars even more yawning.

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Either it’s time to dismiss the Globes as any kind of legitimate prognosticator or time for the Academy to recognize it has made a mistake and do the right thing: reintroduce a write-in vote.

There is a precedent: When Bette Davis failed to land a nomination as best actress for Of Human Bondage (1934), the outcry led to a write-in. (In the final tally, at a time when the Academy made the votes public, she finished third.) The following year, cinematographer Hal Mohr became the first and only person to win an Oscar via write-ins when he was honored for A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935).

Write-in voting has been banned almost ever since; it would require not only a signoff by the Academy’s board of governors, but also a major revamping of the already troubled online voting system that the Academy is encouraging members to use.

Which could add a mind-boggling twist to the most unpredictable Oscar race in memory.