Leave it to those pesky actors to turn the Oscar race on its head, again. What was already the most topsy-turvy campaign in history just took one (probably) final lurch Sunday night when the Screen Actors Guild did the completely unexpected and gave its biggest prize, Outstanding Cast in a Motion Picture, to Ben Affleck's Argo, confirming the movie's status as the new Oscar front-runner.
The night was supposed to be Silver Linings Playbook's chance to shine, and perhaps, to finally get its turn to break out of the race. In this long, long haul to Oscar night, every other film has enjoyed its moment as front-runner. First there was Argo, which was said to peak too soon; then Life of Pi, until it failed to ignite; then Zero Dark Thirty, until an ugly counter-movement smeared it as being pro-torture. Les Miserables was disliked by too many. That left Lincoln as the stalwart consensus choice, and Silver Linings as the upstart challenger.
What this scenario left out was the possibility that Argo — written off as roadkill after helmer Ben Affleck failed to win the Academy's Best Directing nomination — might actually have a little life left in it. The Argo surge began two weeks ago at the Golden Globes, when it upset predictions by winning the Best Dramatic Picture award from that group. The surge continued on Saturday night when the film defied its obituaries once again by taking the Producers Guild trophy.
Despite this boom, predictions held that the wave would crest at SAG's red carpet. However enjoyed Argo may be, it is not a traditional actors' film. Much closer to a thriller than a traditional drama, the film has little opportunity for the kind of scenery-chewing, full-throated emoting found in Silver Linings, Lincoln, or Les Miserables. Indeed, all those films received individual awards on Sunday night for Jennifer Lawrence, Tommy Lee Jones, and Anne Hathaway, respectively. Nonetheless, despite passing over its individual actors, SAG gave its big prize (known as "The Actor") to a film populated with enjoyable but one-dimensional performances.
As actors comprise the biggest branch of the Academy, of all the many predictors, their prize is closely watched by Oscar pundits. Even though a mere eight of the last eighteen winners of the outstanding cast prize have won the Oscars' Best Picture, the strength of the acting branch upon the larger Academy is such that the prize is seen effectively as a tiebreaker in a close race, canceling out the previously all-important predictor: the fact that only three films in Oscar history have won the Best Picture prize without their helmers being nominated for Best Director (the last was Driving Miss Daisy in 1989).
But even more important than touching this or that base on the established road of Oscar precedents, what had some observers throwing up their hands tonight and proclaiming the race over was the fact that SAG confirmed the one undeniably upstoppable force in Oscardom: the law of momentum. After SAG, the Producers, and the Globes, Argo rides into the final stretch on a head of steam it would seem nearly impossible to derail.
Oscar voters do not go for out-of-left-field, idiosyncratic personal choices. The Academy Awards are not the Slamdance Festival jury prizes, searching for some neglected underdog. The Academy is the entertainment industry's booster organization, putting the best face on Hollywood for a worldwide audience on its biggest night. It is about celebrating the most appealing consensus choice of Hollywood filmmaking. Thus, each year, the critical consensus of what is going to win almost always does win, as Oscar dutifully endorses the conventional wisdom. Those who — like Harvey Weinstein — are legendarily skilled at corralling a sense of buzz and stirring up some movement toward a film are generally rewarded for their dark arts.
But not this year: No film has been able to sweep and hold the field for any length of time, all the Oscar whispering powers the titans hold seem to be failing them, and so chaos has ensued.
So why did the actors defy the stalwart and the upstart — both of which by any measure are far more actors' films than Argo — and reward the left-for-dead thriller?
The answer may lie close to home, in the story of Argo's director. Mr. Ben Affleck, was after all, a member of SAG before he was a director, a fact undoubtedly not lost on the Guild members. But beyond their ranks, Hollywood loves stars. More than any other element, Hollywood is built on their luster. People may come to Hollywood to be agents or studio chiefs, but it is the stars for whom they go gaga. Even stars are obsessed with other stars. And there is nothing Hollywood loves more than when a star shows he's capable of doing something bigger than just smiling for the camera without embarrassing everybody. When a star can demonstrate some larger gifts and intelligence, it's as though all our mooning over this person and and his or her ilk is suddenly justified and we can feel good about ourselves again. This is why rewarding actors-turned-directors is Oscar's No. 1 favorite hobby. (Some recent examples: Clint Eastwood for Million Dollar Baby, Ron Howard for A Beautiful Mind, Mel Gibson for Braveheart, Kevin Costner for Dances with Wolves, and Robert Redford for Ordinary People).
On the Oscar trail this year, Ben Affleck has played the "small hometown boy just trying to make something of himself" schtick to perfection. He has appeared everywhere and been unfailingingly gracious, charming, and grateful just to be here. His story is one of redemption; the fabulously successful acting career brought low by the cruel winds of fate, coming back to do something he really, really cares about. And even better, the redemption tale continued into the Oscar race as those mean directors slammed the door in his face, denying him their little club's nomination. Tonight's award could well be seen as the actors' revenge against all the directors at whose hands they have suffered. And if Argo wins, it could in part be the first ever pity Oscar.
So the race is over? Not quite so fast. All of these precedents and talk of momentum are merely speculation. There are 6,000 members of the Academy, and no pundit has spoken with more than a fraction of them. The reason this year's race has been so unpredictable is that there are such an unusual number of films in it that people genuinely like. Except for a few sour apples at the margins, just about all of the nominated films this year are widely enjoyed and well regarded. Although all signs point to Argo's momentum, there are at least four other films in the race that, if the winds blow a bit to the south or the east, could easily sweep in at the last moment and steal the prize.