PGA Award Victory Cements 'Argo' As New Frontrunner for Best Picture Oscar (Analysis)

Ben Affleck PGA - H 2013

Are rules really made to be broken? It looks like the old cliché may be true.

One of the most reliable "rules" throughout awards history has been that a film cannot win the best picture Oscar if it hasn't even been nominated for the best director Oscar. The logic of this rule has long gone unquestioned because, well, there hasn't been a reason to question it: only three films ever -- and only one in the last 80 years, Driving Miss Daisy (1989) -- have defied it.

But when one pauses to consider that the best director Oscar nominees are determined by only six percent of the Academy's entire membership (the directors branch), whereas the winner of the best picture Oscar is determined by not only that six percent but the other 94 percent, as well, one realizes that there may, in fact, be reason to question the solidity of the rule in the first place.

Awards pundits like me have been given plenty of reason to pause and consider this rule, of late, because the Warner Bros. film Argo, a best picture nominee directed by a man who was not nominated for best director, Ben Affleck, has plowed through an awards season that many expected would be dominated by the more traditional Academy film in the race, DreamWorks' Lincoln, the director of which (Steven Spielberg) did receive an Oscar nomination.

Earlier this month, on the night of Jan. 10 (Affleck's Oscar snub was revealed that morning), the Broadcast Film Critics Association -- of which, full disclosure, I am a voting member -- awarded its best picture and best director Critics' Choice prizes to Argo and Affleck, respectively. This was the first sign that some members of the greater Hollywood community felt very differently about the film than the Academy's directors branch.

Less than a week later, on Jan. 13, another, even higher-profile body of entertainment journalists, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, followed suit, presenting its Golden Globe awards for best picture (drama) to Argo and best director to Affleck. However, due to the group's long-documented history of kowtowing to A-list movie stars far more than the Academy -- particularly when they try their hand at directing -- these results were, understandably, downplayed by many, myself among them.

People seeking real insight into the mindset of the Academy were urged by many, including me, to wait until Jan. 26, when the Producers Guild of America would become the first of the many guilds to present its awards. This is because journalists are not represented in the Academy, making their preferences largely irrelevant, but people who make or have made films, like the members of those guilds, are, making their tastes far more predictive.

We were reminded of this in two of the last three awards seasons. Three years ago, Avatar beat The Hurt Locker to win the best picture (drama) and best director Golden Globe awards, but the PGA Award went to The Hurt Locker over Avatar, several other guilds followed, and so did the best picture Oscar. And two years ago, The Social Network beat The King's Speech to win the best picture and best director Critics' Choice awards and the best picture (drama) and best director Golden Globe awards, but the PGA Award went to The King's Speech over The Social Network, several other guilds followed, and so did the best picture Oscar. (Last year, virtually every constituency backed The Artist.)

Therefore, the fact that Argo continued its improbable winning streak at last night's PGA Awards is -- as Vice Pres. Joe Biden described the passage of ObamaCare -- "a big f*cking deal." It makes it virtually impossible to argue any longer that a film other than Argo -- say, Les Miserables, Life of Pi, Lincoln, Silver Linings Playbook, Zero Dark Thirty -- is currently in the best picture Oscar's pole position, because they haven't won anything yet.

If one of these other contenders wins best ensemble at tomorrow night's SAG Awards, that will give them a little bit of cause for hope (even though that prize fails to predict the best picture Oscar winner almost as much as it gets it right). But if Argo manages to win that, too, then that would suggest a large and probably insurmountable industry consensus.

At the moment, I still believe that Lincoln is a very strong best picture Oscar contender. Indeed, it received more Oscar nominations than any other film this year (12), has grossed more domestically than any of this year's other best picture Oscar nominee ($164+ million), is populated by Oscar royalty (director Steven Spielberg and actors Daniel Day-Lewis and Sally Field are all two-time winners), and has the gravitas and social relevance that most best picture Oscar winners have.

But, in terms of perception, it -- along with the seven other best picture Oscar nominees not named Argo -- is being rapidly overrun by goodwill felt toward a more emotionally-engaging film with a more emotionally-engaging backstory.

It's a tad premature to declare the best picture Oscar race over and that old best picture/best director stat completely irrelevant, since final Oscar voting won't even begin until Feb. 8 and will extend all the way through Feb. 19, but it is not premature at all to conclude that the Academy directors branch's snub of Affleck is the best thing that ever happened to the best picture Oscar prospects of Argo. It's an entertaining film that would have been a serious and worthy contender under any circumstances, but many who liked it and feel sorry about what happened to Affleck have been incited to express those sentiments where they can.

Consequently, a best picture Oscar field that only recently seemed wide-open field now has a clear frontrunner -- and, as hard as it is to fathom, that frontrunner not have an accompanying best director nomination.