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Hours before last night's Academy Awards ceremony, I was called up by a UK news network that required a last-minute talking head to discuss the evening ahead. In the cab on the way to the studio, the channel's researcher briefed me on the ground we'd cover, before asking, "So what's the big story of the night going to be?"
I reeled off something about "Argo" being the probable Best Picture winner, with a side order of The Vindication of Ben Affleck, but inside I was slightly thrown by the question. What was the big story going to be at the end of a long, circuitous race in which no one film has had everything its own way -- but one which looked ready to test any number of rare precedents, and perhaps create one or two of its own?
The question was no easier to answer as a lengthy, sluggish, tonally conflicted ceremony drew to a close with host Seth MacFarlane and pocket-sized pep factory Kristin Chenoweth smarming out the last and least welcome of the show's many -- most would agree too many -- musical numbers. What narrative had we been left with? Was there more than one? Or was there not one at all, beyond the Academy telling us, "Here are some films we liked, and here are some prizes we've given them?" I'm not sure.
"Argo," to the surprise of absolutely no one who had been paying even tangential attention to this race for the past two months, did indeed win Best Picture, along with the writing and editing prizes that seemed inevitably bound to it when it became the inarguable frontrunner. (Remember the number of pundits tying themselves in knots over the always-faint possibility of the film winning nothing but The Big One? Seems a long time ago.)
And yes, one could say Ben Affleck was vindicated, though that would imply he had been roundly turned away by Hollywood at any point in the season -- which, as demonstrated by the swift and sincere show of industry affection for him from the very day a branch of just 369 Academy voters collectively announced they slightly preferred the work of five fine filmmakers to his, was hardly the case. (You could reach further back, claiming that this amounted to an official pardon for Affleck's odd, undeserved career slide in the early 2000s, back when he carried a different Jennifer on his arm, but even that's surely water under the bridge: "Hollywoodland" and, more auspiciously, "Gone Baby Gone" both earned him industry favor over half a decade ago, even if Oscar was slower to come around.)
Rather than a pointed rejection of Affleck himself, or the product of a conspiracy against handsome, talented actors-turned-directors by some sinister cabal of gnomic auteurs, Affleck's Best Director omission was simply One Of Those Things That Sometimes Happens -- not an especially clear or compelling narrative, as they go, but it's the one we got.
The Academy -- which, despite the cause-and-effect theories dreamed up by more excitable pundits, was looking likely to reward "Argo" well before the nominations were announced -- responded by making the best of an unusual, not necessarily embarrassing, situation. Voters unable to pick their favorite film for Best Director were given the opportunity to hand a major prize to another film they admire -- a conundrum, one would think, only to those who follow the widespread internet logic that any Oscar race comprises a) your favorite, and b) four other unworthy nominees WHO MUST LOSE AT ALL COSTS. (It's an approach that leaves you perilously unlikely to enjoy the ceremony, particularly if, like me, you'd only personally have voted for the eventual winner in two-and-a-half of 24 categories. I don't advise it.)
As it turned out, the film that gained the most from this curious turn of events wasn't Steven Spielberg's nomination leader "Lincoln" but Ang Lee's "Life of Pi," which numerically led all comers with four awards at the evening's close -- the first time since 2004 that the Best Picture winner hasn't at least tied for most wins of the night. It's a result that, to judge from the response I observed on Twitter and at the industry party I attended last night, surprised more onlookers than it did pundits, many of whom had some time ago sensed that Spielberg's stately, ever-so-slightly chilly presidential biopic was more respected within the Academy than it was fiercely loved.
"Life of Pi," by contrast, turns out to have been arguably the most interesting stealth contender of the season, one that has exceeded awards expectations at many a turn -- and for no other reason than the fact that a lot of people do love it, and are in equal measure moved and awed by its rare fusion of spirituality and spectacle. (Not for nothing is comfortably the highest-grossing Best Picture nominee internationally, a strangely underplayed advantage throughout the season.) That emotional kick, combined with universal, near-childlike "how did he do that" wonder at Lee's luminous craftsmanship, is surely what edged it ahead of "Lincoln" in a Best Director showdown that, for all its exciting uncertainty, could hardly have been more gentlemanly in tenor.
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