You can't always know how the future will treat each year's awards recipients. Will their strengths will come into sharper focus as time erodes the particulars of the movie culture and conversation they arrived into or will that erosion grind a movie or performers appeal down with it? What will we make in five year's time of this moment when Hollywood threw awards at Argo instead of, say, Lincoln? That's what happened again last night at the Producers Guild Awards when Ben Affleck's 1970s CIA rescue tale took the top prize.
We don't have to wait for hindsight clarity when it comes to Argo's sudden rise in the previous deadheat Oscar race. I'd say that three things are responsible, two of which no one could have predicted.
1. I'd been saying from the very start that Argo's narrative subtext, embedded into its truish story of a fake movie being used to rescue Americans from a hostile regime, that 'Movies Save the World!' feel would be irressistible to the back-patting awards season mentality in much the same way it was for the documentary The Cove some years ago.
The other two factors were not things anyone could have predicted though....
2. Zero Dark Thirty emerged to somewhat reductive "so much better than Argo!" laudatory soundbytes (they both involve CIA meddling in the Middle East so they must be compared incessantly!) and for about a week it looked like The Real Oscar Deal but what happened next with it was very kind to Argo. Zero became the media's most slobbered on and teared at rag doll with everyone tsk-tsking and fuming and eventually subtly equating the making of it with condoning torture. By extension voting for it felt unpleasant to some, too. Suddenly the "better than Argo" conversation died and was replaced with just "...Argo", a rebooting if you will of where the Oscar conversation had previously been. Sometimes opening early helps and it's more than helped Argo.
3. The last, and most shocking turn of events was Ben Affleck's omission from the Best Director lineup. I'd long been predicting him to win that statue even though I hadn't viewed Argo necessarily as the future Best Picture champ, suspecting that we were in for a split year. The best thing that ever happened to Argo in terms of its Best Picture prospects was Affleck's "snub". And conversely, that's the worse thing that happened to Lincoln. Whatever one makes of the quality of the Best Picture nominees (have you voted for your favorite here?), Lincoln previously had the strongest narrative arriving as it did in this historic year of President Obama's reelection and the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. Affleck's over-mourned "snub" (people keep conveniently forgetting how strong the Best Director lineup is without him!) handed Argo an underdog narrative in a season where the narratives -- those tricky hooks that make a person or movie so irresistible in the Story of the Year's Entertainments -- weren't all that strong even if the movies were.
Reason no. 3 is in some ways the most understandable now that it's happened and the most baffling. If you really step back for some perspective Ben Affleck is an enormous waste of a Sympathy Vote. He's already an Oscar winner. He's an Oscar nominee even when he's snubbed (he'll win the Oscar if Argo wins Best Picture since he produced) - fancy that. He has a happy Hollywood marriage. He rose to fame with his best friend who is still a huge power player in Hollywood, too. He's risen from the ashes of a weirdly shaky leading man career to become a respected director and a... uh... leading man again. He's super handsome and aging well. He's made only three films all of which received Oscar attention, the latter two of which were big big hits. If anything he's a true golden boy of showbiz with a hugely enviable career and awards run and yet, you'd think he were dying! To this Awards Season he's suddenly treated like the Fantine figure in Les Miz on her death bed; the one to cry over "if only life weren't so cruel!", the one to promise everything to in order to make amends.
And all because he missed out on an expected Best Director nomination?
Outstanding Producer, Film: Ben Affleck, Grant Henslov, George Clooney for Argo
Outstanding Producer, Documentary: Malik Bendjelloul, Simon Chinn for Searching for Sugar Man
Outstanding Producer, Animated: Clark Spencer for Wreck-it Ralph
Outstanding Producer, Longform TV: Gary Goetzman, Tom Hanks, Jay Roach, Amy Sayres, Steven Shareshian, Danny Strong for "Game Change"
Outstanding Producer, Episodic TV (Drama): Henry Bromell, Alexander Cary, Michael Cuesta, Alex Gansa, Howard Gordon, Chip Johannessen, Michael Klick, Meredith Stiehm for "Homeland"
Outstanding Producer, Episodic TV (Comedy): Cindy Chupack, Paul Corrigan, Abraham Higginbotham, Ben Karlin, Steven Levitan, Christopher Lloyd, Jeff Morton, Dan O’Shannon, Jeffrey Richman, Chris Smirnoff, Brad Walsh, Bill Wrubel, Danny Zuker for "Modern Family"
Outstanding Producer, NonFiction TV: Prudence Glass, Susan Lacy,Julie Sacks for "American Masters" PBS
Outstanding Producer, Live TV: Meredith Bennett, Stephen Colbert, Richard Dahm, Paul Dinello, Barry Julien, Matt Lappin, Emily Lazar, Tanya Michnevich Bracco, Tom Purcell,Jon Stewart for "The Colbert Report"
Outsanding Producer, Competition TV: Jerry Bruckheimer, Elise Doganieri, Jonathan Littman, Bertram van Munster, Mark Vertullo for "The Amazing Race"
Outstanding Sports Program: "Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel"
Outstanding Children's Program: "Sesame Street"
Outstanding Digital Series: "30 Rock: The Webisodes"