So “Argo” just pulled it off: It became the fourth film in Oscar history and the first since 1989’s “Driving Miss Daisy” to win the Oscar for Best Picture without a nomination for Best Director. This is not just another great case of a film prevailing in spite of its perceived weakness, but one that turned weakness into a strength.
On Oscar nomination morning it looked like “Argo” had been dealt a killer blow: no director nomination for the face of the film, Ben Affleck. It looked like “Lincoln” with its 12 bids may have put a stranglehold on the derby. However, later that day Affleck and the film won Best Director and Best Picture at the Critics Choice Awards and by the end of the weekend they snagged the top two Globes, too.
All of a sudden the campaign shifted. Instead of the Oscar snub for Best Director signalling doom for the film, it became a boon. The injustice gave Hollywood a reason to rally around “Argo.” The media and the “Argo” campaign did their part to make that the narrative of Oscar season.
Then the producers, screen actors, directors and writers guilds gave the film their top honors. This affirmed the narrative and prevented any other film from gaining momentum. Affleck, with his charm and strong presence at each awards was the campaign’s best advocate being able to rally support and keep Hollywood behind him. As I said in December, whichever film crafts the best narrative has the best shot at Oscar gold and really that is what “Argo” did.
Here are other examples of weakness becoming strength at Oscars past. Two years ago “The Hurt Locker” was the cream of the critic’s crop but many doubted that a film that grossed only $14 million could win Best Picture. No previous champ had been as big a bomb at the box office. However, the rise of $750 million “Avatar” as the pony to beat helped the cause. “The Hurt Locker” was able to position itself as the small great film competing against a behemoth. It’s pithy box-office became an endearing part of its story.
A few years earlier “The Departed” looked underprepared for the derby. Warner Brothers expected “Flags of Our Fathers,” “The Good German” or “Blood Diamond” to be its awards fare for the year. Even the official awards site for the film listed the actors without lead or supporting directives. However, this weakness became a strength. Martin Scorsese’s recent films “The Aviator” and “Gangs of New York” had hefty Oscar pushes and many pundits believed they would bring the director his long-overdue chunk of academy gold. Not having a big awards campaign made “The Departed” look like Marty of old and voters liked what they saw.