'Argo' Arrives in Hollywood, Cements Status as Oscar Contender (Analysis)

Ben Affleck Directing Argo - H 2012
Warner Bros. Pictures

Ben Affleck Directing Argo - H 2012

Warner Bros.' Argo, the Ben Affleck-directed and George Clooney-produced drama about a recently declassified aspect of the 1979-81 Iran hostage crisis that features Hollywood in a heroic role, had its Los Angeles premiere Thursday night at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences followed by a poolside afterparty at the Beverly Hills Hotel. The film, which premiered at Telluride and also played last month at Toronto, was as well received as at either of those fests, leading many to call it a sure-fire best picture Oscar nominee. But the majority of Academy members are located in and around Hollywood, so, in terms of gauging the film's real awards prospects, their reaction mattered considerably more.

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It's a mixed blessing to be widely regarded as the front-runner this early in the awards season: On the one hand, everyone makes the time to see your film; but on the other, there are still five months of magazine columns and blog posts that need to be filled with content, and writers and readers tend to grow tired of the same storyline after awhile. Nevertheless, for better or worse, a wide cross section of the industry Thursday night seemed to agree that, of the films that have been publicly screened thus far -- as in, virtually everything except Django Unchained, Flight, Hitchcock, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Les Miserables, Lincoln, Promised Land and Zero Dark Thirty, some of which will inevitably drop off the map -- Argo is the one to beat.

Another hint that this is a major awards contender: Virtually everyone associated with it managed to be in attendance at the premiere and party, from its A-list stars to its screenwriter (New York-based Chris Terrio, who joked to me that he feared he'd lose his street cred as a struggling writer by being seen at such a star-studded Hollywood celebration) to its casting director to its bit players to the real person at the center of the film, former CIA spy Tony Mendez. At the party, Affleck and Clooney held court by the poolside cabanas, while the film's incomparable trio of supporting actors -- Alan Arkin, Bryan Cranston, and John Goodman -- mixed with people outside of them.

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I visited for a while with Clooney, who I saw a lot of just one year ago, when he was at the center of another film that opened the Telluride Film Festival and quickly became the Oscar front-runner, The Descendants. Clooney, accompanied by his beautiful girlfriend Stacy Keibler, reiterated how much he enjoyed the experience of launching a film at Telluride -- "a great spot" -- but acknowledged that it does make for a very long awards season. (The Descendants wound up with five major Oscar nominations, including best actor for Clooney, but won only for best adapted screenplay.)

As some of the Argo cast members stopped by to introduce their relatives, snap a pic, and/or thank Clooney for the opportunity to be a part of such a special film, he confessed that when he and his Smokehouse Pictures producing partner Grant Heslov commissioned Terrio to write the script, he had his sights set on playing the leading role himself. But when it was passed along to Affleck with an offer to direct, and Affleck asked to star in it as well, he gave it up -- and, he says, Affleck "killed it."

The best supporting actor Oscar category is relatively thin this year, which leads me to believe that two or perhaps even three of Argo's hopefuls might crack the category if the film is able to maintain its momentum. Arkin, who won in the category for Little Miss Sunshine six years ago, looks like the safest bet for his straight-faced Hollywood hustler. Goodman, who also is eligible in the category for Flight and Trouble With the Curve, would need voters to coalesce behind his performance in Argo in the same way they picked The Help as the best vehicle of several options for which to nominate Jessica Chastain last year. And Cranston, who is coming off a shocking loss at the Emmys, remains one of the most well-liked people in the acting profession but would need people to embrace him as a big-screen actor for the first time.

Knowing that Clooney is a fellow huge film-history buff, I asked him if he remembered the last time three performances from the same movie were nominated for the best supporting actor Oscar. Credit must be given where it's due -- he nailed it: 1974's The Godfather Part II, with Robert De Niro, Michael V. Gazzo and Lee Strasberg all vying for the trophy. De Niro wound up winning, and the film also won for best picture, director and adapted screenplay, among other categories.

Thirty-eight years later, that doesn't feel like an impossible bar for Argo to meet.