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Oscars: Why Ben Affleck's Snub Leaves a Two-Man Race for Best Director

While everyone else in the race has a strike against them, Steven Spielberg and Ang Lee seem to be drawing the most voter support.

Oscars Best Director Illustration - P 2013
Illustration by: R. Kikuo Johnson

This story first appeared in the Feb. 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

"I don't worry too much about who got what," Ben Affleck insisted at the Academy's Nominees Luncheon on Feb. 4.

As a producer of front-runner Argo, the filmmaker can afford to be charitable when it comes to his conspicuous omission from the list of directing nominees at the 85th Academy Awards.

Veterans including Steven Spielberg and Ang Lee have almost become background extras as Affleck has gone about collecting directing honors at the Golden Globes, the DGA Awards and, most recently, the BAFTAs. But the spotlight will shift back to them at the Feb. 24 Oscars when they are two of five nominees in a race that is baffling even the most hardened pundits.

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One clue to the eventual winner came at the DGAs -- not when the prize went to Affleck, but earlier in the evening. During the Feb. 2 ceremony, each nominee was called onstage to accept a medallion for himself and his crew. Among the nominees (Affleck, Lee for Life of Pi, Spielberg for Lincoln, Kathryn Bigelow for Zero Dark Thirty and Tom Hooper for Les Miserables), it was Spielberg who received the one standing ovation -- by far the most heartfelt response of the evening.

That could mean Spielberg is the front-runner in the Oscar competition, especially given that the DGA always has been the best predictor of Oscar success. But it might simply be a sign of affection and respect for the most successful filmmaker in history.

If not Spielberg, then whom?

Three of the Oscar-nominated directors -- David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook), Benh Zeitlin (Beasts of the Southern Wild) and Michael Haneke (Amour) -- have a major strike against them: Each also is nominated for script, Haneke for best original screenplay and the others in the adapted category. That gives the Academy (whose entire membership will vote for the winners now that each branch has selected its nominees) the option of rewarding them with writing awards instead of directing honors.

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Russell's BAFTA for his Silver screenplay, which he received Feb. 10, might hurt him as director, prompting the Academy to vote for the writer-director's script rather than his helming.

Haneke could be damaged even more than Russell because he is the favorite in the best foreign-language picture category for Amour. (Technically, the foreign-language Oscar goes to the country that has submitted the movie, but the helmer keeps the trophy.)

And even if Amour doesn't win for foreign-language film, Haneke still would be a long shot because no film nominated as best foreign-language picture has ever won the director Oscar. In the past decade, there have been some notable foreign-language films whose directors have earned nominations -- including Julian Schnabel's The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's Babel and Fernando Meirelles' City of God -- but none has won for director. (The Artist, of course, was a silent film, and The Weinstein Co. went to lengths to establish its Hollywood credentials.)

If Haneke's chances seem slim, Zeitlin's are even slimmer. The 30-year-old, first-time feature filmmaker and wunderkind failed to be nominated by other major awards groups such as the Hollywood Foreign Press Association and the DGA, and while the Academy has veered toward "specialty" films in recent years (though not this time), it never has awarded the Oscar to the maker of a shoestring-budget movie like the $1.8 million Beasts.

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This leaves Lee, who was relatively absent from the awards circuit until the past couple of weeks, leading many insiders to suspect he was out of the game. In fact, his absence might have helped, making his re-emergence a refreshing change in the media-saturated awards race.

Recently, he has been everywhere from the Visual Effects Society Awards (where he was presented the Visionary Award on Feb. 5) to interviews with KPCC's Larry Mantle. His surge in visibility adds to Pi's heft, with its 11 nominations and $564 million global box office.

But Lee has the disadvantage of having directed a film with no acting nominations, meaning the Academy's 1,178 active actor members could lean against him.

If Spielberg or Lee wins for best director but sees his film lose in the best picture race, it will be deja vu all over again. Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan (1998) and Lee's Brokeback Mountain (2005) were the favorites for best picture -- then lost to Shakespeare in Love and Crash, respectively.

Back then, the duo's directing Oscars seemed like something of a consolation prize. This year, with Argo eyeing the big bauble, a directing Oscar will be a major victory in itself.