Years ago Variety editor Peter Bart shared with me a fascinating Oscar insight. In order to win Best Picture, he said, a movie must conjure up a person who academy members are rooting for. In other words, the film with the best face behind the title wins. Thus "The Departed" (2006) and "The Hurt Locker" (2009) won because voters wanted to give hugs to Marty Scorsese and Kathryn Bigelow. This year, according to that theory, "Argo" may be surging ahead because Hollywood is cheering on poor Oscar-snubbed Ben Affleck, who, after years in the industry's trenches, has finally emerged as a major filmmaker.
But what about "Lincoln"? Who comes immediately to mind when voters think about the movie that leads this derby with the most nominations? Maybe Daniel Day-Lewis? Maybe Steven Spielberg? The correct answer should really be Spielberg – it's his story and it's not properly reverberating across Oscarland. Think about what the dramatic success of "Lincoln" means: It represents the spectacular career comeback of a man who reigns as king of Hollywood filmmakers.
Imagine this poster plastering the billboards and bus stops along Sunset Blvd. (if only DreamWorks/Disney had the guts to post them): "Spielberg's baaaaack! 'Lincoln' = $170 million box office! 'Masterpiece' (NY Times) … Most Academy Award Nominations! Now … let's give Steven that overdue Best Picture Oscar."
While the King of Hollywood Filmmakers has won two Academy Awards for Best Director ("Schindler's List," "Saving Private Ryan"), he's only snagged Best Picture once ("Schindler's List"). That's criminal when you compare him to other directors whose movies have reaped Best Picture twice: Milos Forman ("Amadeus," "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest") and Clint Eastwood ("Million Dollar Baby," "Unforgiven").
Crucial to the Peter Bart Oscar Best Picture Theory is that the person behind the film title should be engaged in a compelling quest. Think Marty Scorsese being criminally overdue to win. Or Kathryn Bigelow representing the face of all womanhood being shockingly snubbed, too. In Bigelow's case, it helped that she even had a nifty second quest: revenge against her ego-mad ex-husband James Cameron, who competed against her little indie "The Hurt Locker" with his monster megahit "Avatar."
Spielberg has two quests too: his overdue second Best Picture award and a chunk of academy gold needed to hail his big career comeback, but these quests aren't being trumpeted across Hollywood by his studio because, frankly … they're embarrassing.
Take the comeback angle, for example. It's not like Spielberg is recovering from a big career crash. It's just that he hasn't had such spectacular critical/commercial/awards success as "Lincoln" since "Schindler's List" (1993). "War Horse" was a disappointment when compared to early expectations, but it still got nominated for Best Picture last year (Spielberg got snubbed in the directors' lineup). His previous "serious" film was "Munich" (2005) which got nommed for five Oscars, including Best Picture and Director (it lost to "Crash" and he lost the helmer's laurels to "Brokeback Mountain's" Ang Lee).
But, wait – maybe then the "Lincoln" story, the "Lincoln" quest, the person we should think of behind the title of that film isn't really Spielberg at all. Maybe it should really be his producing partner Kathleen Kennedy, who is holding a giant Oscar I.O.U. She's lost Best Picture seven times: "War Horse" (2011), "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" (2008), "Munich" (2005), "Seabiscuit" (2003), "The Sixth Sense" (1999), "The Color Purple" (1995), and "E.T." (1982).
Now THAT's a worthy quest – and one involving a deserving female no less. So maybe we should rip up those Spielberg posters dreamt up for Sunset Blvd. and reimagine them as Kennedy ones, saying, "Ask not what the Oscars can do for you .… Ask what you can do to get Kennedy her elusive Oscar!"