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Oscars 2012: Why the Academy Voted for the Films and People That It Did (Analysis)

THR awards analyst Scott Feinberg performs a postmortem on the major categories to try to understand why the Academy made the choices it did.

Octavia Spencer, Meryl Streep

On Sunday night, the 84th Academy Awards ceremony answered, once and for all, all of the questions that we have been pondering on this blog since September. Here's a category-by-category look at why things turned out the way they did.

BEST PICTURE
The Artist

The Artist's victory wasn't unexpected -- after all, it won virtually all of the major precursor awards, including the PGA and DGA awards -- but it was historic: it becomes the first movie about movies, the first silent film since Wings (1927), the first black-and-white film since Schindler's List (1993), and only the 12th non-American film (and first of those 12 that isn't British) to ever win the top Oscar. It made its way into the winner's circle -- beating competitors that boasted things that it did not, such as cutting-edge technology (Hugo) and an important social message (The Help) -- in part by charming voters (it's a love letter to the movies and the town most famous for making them, and was the only of this year's nine best picture nominees that was filmed in Hollywood) and in part by making them want to root for an underdog (kudos to The Weinstein Co., which has now distributed two best picture winners in a row and this year ran one of the cleaner races to the top in recent memory).

PHOTOS: Oscars 2012 Best (and Worst) Moments Gallery 

BEST DIRECTOR
Michel Hazanavicius (The Artist)

For the second year in a row, this category has been won by a foreigner who few Americans had ever heard of just months before the Oscars. (Tom Hooper won for The King's Speech last year.) The bottom line is that Academy members are very reluctant to split their best picture and best director votes (they've done so only 21 times in 84 years), and, because The Artist was the Academy's clear favorite this season, one had to bet on its director, as well -- even in the face of bigger-name competition in Martin Scorsese (Hugo), Woody Allen (Midnight in Paris), Terrence Malick (The Tree of Life), and Alexander Payne (The Descendants). Hazanavicius' Oscar win was all but guaranteed after he won the DGA Award, which remains the most accurate Oscar predictor of all: In the last 64 years, it has correctly called the best director race 58 times and the best picture race 51 times. He becomes just the second French-born winner of this prize, after Roman Polanski (2002's The Pianist).

BEST ACTOR
Jean Dujardin (The Artist)

In the end, the Academy, like SAG (which has now predicted this category eight times in a row), opted for "the Clooney of France" over Clooney himself, making Dujardin its first French winner ever (Maurice Chevalier, Charles Boyer, and Gerard Depardieu were nominated) and only the fourth person to win best actor at both the Cannes Film Festival and the Oscars (the others were Ray Milland for The Lost Weekend [1945], Jon Voight for Coming Home [1978], and William Hurt for Kiss of the Spider Woman [1985]). I suspect that Clooney came very close (he's now 0-for-3 in the category in the past five years) but that voters ultimately concluded that he will have other chances whereas Dujardin might not (he plans to remain in France), and therefore opted to seize this opportunity -- like when they voted for Roberto Benigni for Life Is Beautiful (1998) -- to acknowledge him. Significant credit for this win must be given not only to TWC but also to Dujardin's publicist Bryna Rifkin of ID-PR, who has now guided two French natives with broken English to acting Oscars within the past five years, the other being Marion Cotillard for La Vie en Rose (2007).

BEST ACTRESS
Meryl Streep (The Iron Lady)

It's hard to think of Streep, whom most regard as the greatest actress alive, as an "upset winner," but that she was Sunday night, besting SAG and Critics' Choice award winner Viola Davis (The Help), who had never before won an Oscar (unlike Streep, who already had once in lead and once in supporting) and was up for a film that the Academy liked a lot more than Streep's (The Help was nominated for best picture and many other Oscars that The Iron Lady was not). Davis' relative lack of screen time might have deterred some from voting for her, but ultimately, Davis didn't lose this race; Steep won it, checking off boxes of a lot of things that the Academy has always gravitated toward: She played a real and famous person, who ages on screen, in a period piece, distributed by the Weinsteins. Members concluded that, for both this performance and for her consistently great work since she last won an Oscar 29 years ago (only Helen Hayes and Katharine Hepburn have waited longer between acting wins at 39 and 34 years, respectively), she has more than earned a third. At 62, she becomes the fourth-oldest person to win in this category (behind Jessica Tandy, 80; Hepburn, 74; and Marie Dressler, 63) and joins Jack Nicholson, Ingrid Bergman and Walter Brennan as the only three-time acting winners. Hepburn's the only thespian with more: four. 

PHOTOS: Oscars 2012 Red Carpet Arrivals

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Christopher Plummer (Beginners)

Plummer, 82, completed his sweep of all of the major awards this season by becoming the oldest person to ever win an acting Oscar (surpassing the record held for the past 36 years by George Burns, who was 80 when he won for The Sunshine Boys [1975]), besting fellow Oscar-less octogenarian Max von Sydow (Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close) along the way. The reality is that this recognition was less for a single performance than for a career that had yet to be properly recognized. That's not to say that it's an unworthy performance for which to win; it's just not his best. Nevertheless, he becomes only the fifth person to win this category as the sole nominee for his film (the others being Walter Brennan for Kentucky [1938], Van Heflin for Johnny Eager [1942], Peter Ustinov for Topkapi [1961] and Jack Palance for City Slickers [1991]).

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Octavia Spencer (The Help)

Spencer, who met and became dear friends with The Help screenwriter-director Tate Taylor when both were production assistants on A Time to Kill (1996), struggled for the past 15 years to find any work -- let alone work worthy of her talents -- but was not to be denied for her performance as the feisty maid Minny in this hit film. It was a character that the novel's author, Kathryn Stockett, based largely on her, and a performance for which she was recognized at virtu ally every awards show this season. Her film's sole Oscar winner, she becomes only the fifth black woman to win best supporting actress (after Hattie McDaniel for Gone With the Wind [1939], Whoopi Goldberg for Ghost [1990], Jennifer Hudson for Dreamgirls [2006], and Mo'Nique for Precious [2009]). She also makes this the second year in a row in which one co-star has beaten another in this category, topping Jessica Chastain (just as The Fighter's Melissa Leo beat her co-star Amy Adams last year).

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon & Jim Rash (The Descendants)

Voters wanted to take care of this film somewhere, and nowhere made more sense than in this category. Payne also won this same Oscar seven years ago for Sideways (2004).

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
Woody Allen (Midnight in Paris)

Ditto. Even the popularity of The Artist couldn't keep many voters from thinking that a silent movie doesn't require as excellent a screenplay as a talkie -- or from wanting to acknowledge Allen (in absentia, of course) with his record third Oscar in this category (and first in 25 years).

BEST ANIMATED FEATURE
Rango

For only the third year since the inception of this category 10 years ago (the other two being 2002 and 2005), a Pixar film was not among the nominees, which forced Academy members to think a bit more "outside the box." They arrived at the same conclusion as the vast majority of other awards-dispensing organizations this season, including the Annies: namely, that Gore Verbinski's 2D film based on original material (in an era of animation dominated by 3D sequels), an homage to the movies that has grossed nearly $250 million, was clearly the best.

BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE
Undefeated

The Academy has never been especially friendly to sports-related films (it had been 15 years since one last won best doc feature), but, in a year in which this category lacked a clear favorite, voters proved unable to resist this better-than-fiction look at one of the most unlikely and moving coach/team pairings one could ever imagine. It also didn't hurt that its distributor was TWC, which screened it everywhere and secured for it many celebrity endorsements, both of which immensely helped to raise its profile.

BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM
A Separation

I have no doubt that those who were eligible to vote in this category were tempted by the Holocaust drama in the category (In Darkness), but, at the end of the day, they avoided yet another mishap by seconding the choice of virtually every other film critic and awards group this season: Asghar Farhadi's domestic drama set in Tehran, which becomes the first Iranian film to ever win this category. (Children of Heaven [1998] is the only other one that was ever even nominated.) The Farsi-language film won the Berlin Film Festival last February and was also nominated by the Academy's writers branch for best original screenplay.