What Really Happened at the Oscars (Analysis)
THR's awards analyst on Sunday night's show and the six months that led up to it.
For prognosticators like me, the 85th Annual Academy Awards was a scary affair. The outcomes of so many of the major categories were up in the air. I was literally on the edge of my seat -- on the far right side of the first mezzanine at the Dolby Theatre -- as each category was announced.
Yes, we all knew Argo was going to win best picture, Daniel Day-Lewis was going to win best actor for Lincoln, Les Miserables' Anne Hathaway was going to win best supporting actress, Austria's Amour would be named best foreign-language film, Searching for Sugar Man was destined to take home best documentary feature and Life of Pi was a shoo-in to pick up the trophy for best visual effects.
But anyone who tells you they were certain about the other big ones is lying: There were no guarantees that Ang Lee would beat Steven Spielberg to win best director, Jennifer Lawrence would beat Emmanuelle Riva to win best actress, Christoph Waltz would beat Robert De Niro and Tommy Lee Jones to win best supporting actor, Argo's Chris Terrio would beat Lincoln's Tony Kushner and Silver Linings Playbook's David O. Russell to win best adapted screenplay, Django Unchained's Quentin Tarantino would beat Amour's Michael Haneke and Zero Dark Thirty's Mark Boal to win best original screenplay or that Brave would beat Wreck-It Ralph to win best animated feature. None was a sure thing.
In the end, I'm gratified to say, I ended up correctly predicting 21 of the 24 winners, tying my all-time best score from seven years ago. And so another Oscar season -- the 12th that I've covered -- is now in the books. But before we all put it on the shelf, it's worth taking a moment to consider what really happened.
Argo didn't win for the reasons many others have cited. It wasn't because Ben Affleck was screwed out of a best director Oscar nomination (though he certainly was). It wasn't because DreamWorks bungled the Lincoln campaign (it got the film as far as anyone could have). It wasn't because Zero Dark Thirty was unfairly smeared (although even far-left U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich acknowledged that it had been given a raw deal when I spoke to him at the Oscars). And it wasn't because Harvey Weinstein and associates couldn't make a convincing argument that Silver Linings was socially significant (though they gave it their best shot). No, Argo won because it was the most crowd-pleasing and least objectionable drama among this year's nine best picture nominees, just like recent winners Slumdog Millionaire (2008), The King's Speech (2010) and The Artist (2011). Period. (Well, semi-colon: like The Artist, it certainly wasn't hurt by the fact that it featured Hollywood in a starring role -- everyone likes to be portrayed flatteringly!)
In a sense -- and this might sound counterintuitive given Hollywood is basically a politically liberal town -- this year's Oscar race could be compared to the 2012 Republican primary. Argo was Mitt Romney, out front from the very beginning; just go back and read my reporting and that of other journalists who caught its first screening at Telluride in September. People looked hard for viable alternatives -- a Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, Herman Cain or Michele Bachmann, if you will -- and there were major spikes of excitement at the first screenings of Silver Linings at the Toronto International Film Festival, Pi and Lincoln at the New York Film Festival and Les Mis and Zero Dark Thirty over Thanksgiving weekend. But in the end, Academy voters kept coming back to the movie that was less abstract than Pi, had more vitality and a more polished resolution than Lincoln, seemed less frivolous than Les Mis and was less divisive than Zero Dark Thirty. And while it might not be one of the greatest best picture Oscar winners of all time, it is, for me, a worthy one.
As for the director's race, Lee joined Spielberg in the elite club of directors who have won two Oscars because he stretched himself further than Spielberg did. Lincoln is Spielberg's best film in years -- in my view, a masterpiece -- but structurally and thematically it's not all that unlike his other (great) work. Pi, on the other hand, is unlike anything Lee has ever done before. He's a guy who specializes in intimate dramas but decided he wanted to venture into the new world of 3D and made a groundbreaking epic. He already had the affection of the Academy's acting branch, but with Pi he won the enthusiastic support of the tech branches, and I believe that made the difference and propelled the film to a greater accumulation of Oscars than any other film Sunday night. (I want to acknowledge that I was openly skeptical about Pi's prospects after seeing it at the New York Film fest in October -- but I don't think that I was wrong, as some have suggested, because Lee subsequently returned to the editing room for several weeks. The finished film was considerably better than what I originally saw.)
Lawrence won -- becoming the second-youngest best actress winner in history -- for several reasons: She was great (like all of her fellow nominees), she campaigned (as hard as any of them), and she's the young, fun, sexy "It" girl of the moment. She's kooky but lovable and reminds me of Diane Keaton, who won the best actress Oscar 35 years ago for Annie Hall. And while there's absolutely nothing wrong with turning out like Diane Keaton, just keep in mind that Lawrence's fellow nominee Jessica Chastain might well turn out to be Meryl Streep and that if Riva spoke English, was based in the U.S. and cared a little more about winning, she might have been the one who prevailed. But Lawrence won, and congratulations must be given to her -- and to her ID-PR publicists Liz Mahoney and Bryna Rifkin; Rifkin has now helped to guide four clients to acting Oscar wins in the past six years, with Lawrence's following those of Marion Cotillard (La vie en rose), Natalie Portman (Black Swan) and Jean Dujardin (The Artist). Quite a remarkable feat.
In the case of best supporting actor, not even The Weinstein Co., which distributed both Django Unchained and Silver Linings, believed that Waltz had a better shot than De Niro (or that Django would end up with more Oscars than Silver Linings). De Niro hasn't won in 32 years and was being championed for his return to serious acting, but I predicted Waltz's win for several reasons. He gave the biggest performance, in terms of screen time, of the nominees; in fact, he originally was going to be pushed for best actor, the category in which he truly belonged. He is likable enough (whereas De Niro and Jones can be prickly). Most people really enjoyed his movie (unlike Philip Seymour Hoffman's The Master, which was just a bit too weird for many), even if they were embarrassed to admit it. And he was the clear standout in his film's ensemble (whereas Alan Arkin's castmates Bryan Cranston and John Goodman were just as good). Waltz has won two Oscars in four years, something that can be said for only 11 other actors or actresses in film history, an impressive group that consists of Walter Brennan, Bette Davis, Olivia De Havilland, Jodie Foster, Tom Hanks, Katharine Hepburn, Glenda Jackson, Luise Rainer, Jason Robards, Meryl Streep and Spencer Tracy. Amazing.
Moving on to adapted screenplay, Terrio was the victor because Argo -- which was adapted from a magazine article about CIA operative Tony Mendez's remarkable caper in Iran, as well as Mendez's memoir -- told the most engaging story of the nominated films. Terrio took the heart of that true story and turned it into a genre-blending/geography-jumping thriller that made audiences laugh and cry and sit on the edges of their seats even though they already knew the ending. It was no small compliment to award him the Oscar over Kushner and Russell, two of the greatest writers of dialogue working today. Tarantino, meanwhile, prevailed over Boal for several reasons. He previously won 18 years ago for Pulp Fiction, whereas Boal won just four years ago, for The Hurt Locker. Tarantino is a more affable guy. And Zero Dark Thirty was fatally wounded after its historical facts and agenda were first called into question (and would have ended up Oscar-less but for the best sound editing tie), whereas Django, for all the criticism it received, was never about historical facts (the KKK that it depicts didn't even exist until after the Civil War), and it had no agenda except to entertain.
As for the Oscars show itself? It was a great thrill to be in the room for the second time. And ...
I thought that Seth MacFarlane was OK. The opening bit ran too long. The jokes didn't provoke belly laughs. The closing musical number about "losers" was in poor taste. But he sang, he danced, he made voices, he kept the audience engaged and amused, and I have no doubt that he brought in many younger viewers without losing many older viewers, which is precisely what the Academy hired him to do. Sure, some of his cracks were tasteless, but I'd rather watch a host live on the edge than play it right down the middle. In my opinion, he deserves a return invite. (If he doesn't get one, though, they should consider Seth Rogen and/or Andy Samberg, both of whom I had my doubts about until they absolutely killed it at the Independent Spirit Awards last year and on Saturday, respectively.)
There were a lot of cool moments, but the one that I might remember longest is watching the greatest living actress, Meryl Streep, present the greatest living actor, Day-Lewis, with an Oscar -- and, in so doing, make him the first man to ever accumulate three best actor Oscars. (Oddly enough, he's also the first man or woman to be recognized with an Oscar for a performance in a Spielberg film.) At the Governors Ball after the show, Day-Lewis, clutching his statuette, smiled and told me, "I know that you believed in me, but I make a point of never assuming anything." I think it's safe to assume that the great thesp, who is only 55, might yet extend his record.
The tie for best sound editing also was pretty thrilling. There have been five other ties in Oscar history, but none during the years that I've been watching the Oscars, so to be there to witness one was awesome. To be honest, I initially thought Mark Wahlberg -- whom I'd run into before the show at Ralphs -- was joking when he first revealed the situation, since the odds of one happening when roughly 6,000 ballots are cast are obviously long.
And to be there in the audience for the return of my favorite actor, longtime Oscars staple Jack Nicholson, who has been away from the show for a few years, was very special.
I'm a huge fan of President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama, but I'm not sure why the first lady was asked to present best picture, especially if she couldn't do so in person; it felt a little weird. Maybe just because there were a lot of nominees about American history and society this year, such as Argo, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Lincoln and Zero Dark Thirty? If so, that connection never was established. Still, it was cool to witness history -- only once before had the White House directly addressed an Oscars ceremony, and that was in 1941, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave a six-minute address over the radio.
I give major props to Channing Tatum and Charlize Theron for not only nailing their Astaire/Rogers-style dance number but for agreeing to do it in the first place. They are big stars who didn't need to expose themselves to criticism or ridicule but did so anyway. Daniel Radcliffe and Joseph Gordon-Levitt were quite good as well with their less complicated number.
The celebration of movie musicals from the past decade turned out to be terrific, and proved, as the Grammys do year after year, that people love watching live performances during awards shows, both in the house and on TV. Catherine Zeta-Jones was as sexy and nimble as ever in re-creating her decade-old "All That Jazz" number from Chicago. Jennifer Hudson rocked the place with her rendition of "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going," the song that single-handedly won her the best supporting actress Oscar for 2006's Dreamgirls, and she received a thunderous standing ovation that seemed to catch even her by surprise. And the Les Mis team did a great job with their medley -- even Russell Crowe got a big ovation.
The other performances were a mixed bag. Barbra Streisand did a nice job with her "The Way We Were" tribute to the late composer Marvin Hamlisch, though it focused a disproportionate spotlight on Hamlisch and kept several worthy members of the community from being included in the "In Memoriam" segment (among them Harry Carey Jr., Andy Griffith, Larry Hagman, Lupe Ontiveros and Ann Rutherford). Norah Jones did a nice job with best original song nominee "Everybody Needs a Best Friend" from Ted. But the most anticipated performance of the night for many, Adele's rendition of the title song from Skyfall (for which she would end up winning the best original song Oscar to go with her Grammy and Golden Globe wins from the past month), proved fairly disappointing. She seemed to be holding back her voice for some reason, and she did not receive a standing ovation.
A lot of attention was paid during the show to 9-year-old Quvenzhane Wallis, the youngest best actress Oscar nominee in history, and rightly so. But, when you think about it, there were also a lot of oldies but goodies who popped up during the show who deserve shout-outs, too: 66-year-old Sally Field and 75-year-old Jane Fonda looked fabulous; 76-year-old Dame Shirley Bassey and 70-year-old Streisand sounded great; and Riva was there, on her 86th birthday, as an Oscar nominee and received a "happy birthday" greeting from Lawrence, the actress 64 years her junior who beat her, during Lawrence's acceptance speech. That was nice. (But where was the dude who has always escorted winners up the stairs to the stage? Thank God it was young Lawrence who fell -- and bounced right back up -- and not Riva!)
It's a shame that the Academy wasn't able to reunite all of the actors who have played James Bond -- all six are still alive. I've heard that they tried but that Sean Connery and Pierce Brosnan were holdouts, denying all of the rest of us what would have been the moment of the night.
Anyway, before the theme of Jaws comes on to play me off, l'd like to extend my tremendous gratitude to the many people whose interest and/or support make it possible for me to do what I do: my family, friends and THR colleagues (especially Janice Min, Lynne Segall, Gregg Kilday, Chris Krewson, Matt Belloni, Owen Phillips, Jennifer Laski, Raphael Laski, Victor Klaus, David Simpson and everyone on the copy and photo teams); the talent who I cover and publicists who facilitate that coverage (which this season included 9 film festivals, 15 award shows and 75 interviews and Q&As); and especially you, who read my work. I couldn't do what I do without you, so thank you -- and see you again soon.