Oscars recap | Argo wins Best Picture, Life of Pi takes Best Director at the 85th Academy Awards
In a race that had belatedly acquired all the suspense of Argo's goosed runway climax, Ben Affleck's procedural drama took top honors at the Academy Awards last night, corroborating prognosticators' expectations but flying in the face of Oscar history, which suggests films whose directors aren't nominated rarely take the grand prize. (It's happened only three other times, with 1927's Wings, 1932's Grand Hotel and 1989's Driving Miss Daisy.)
Introduced by perennial Best Picture presenter Jack Nicholson, Michelle Obama announced the winner, confirming that this was a year of movies with an eye on political relevance. How awkward would it have been, a friend asked me via Twitter, if the award had gone to Zero Dark Thirty?
Argo won three Oscars, including statuettes for editing and—besting Lincoln's Tony Kushner—an adapted screenplay by Chris Terrio. Les Misérables also took three, but Life of Pi won four, including Ang Lee's second directing Oscar to go unaccompanied by Best Picture. With a win for Quentin Tarantino's original screenplay and an early upset that handed Christoph Waltz Best Supporting Actor (for what's really a co-lead role), Django Unchained garnered two awards, while its mirror image, Steven Spielberg's Lincoln, also took two, for Best Actor and Best Production Design. Widely viewed to be hurt by a debate over whether it suggests torture played a role in tracking down Osama bin Laden, Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty had to settle for just one Oscar—or, arguably, half. The first tie in 18 years found the movie sharing its award for Best Sound Editing with Skyfall, which also won for Adele's title song.
While ascribing collective motivation to a 6,000-member body is a fool's errand, the awards, taken as a whole, suggest a referendum on the state of fantasy and illusion in the movies. Given a slate of serious-minded films with faux-journalistic affectations (Zero Dark Thirty) and topical health-care allegory (Lincoln), the Academy favored a drama in which Hollywood bails out the CIA, a shipwrecked boy survives a trauma through the power of imagination, a freed slave gets violent revenge for history's wrongs, and the plight of a French prostitute, to paraphrase Supporting Actress winner Anne Hathaway, is the stuff of musicals.
Despite what the snark brigade says, Jennifer Lawrence entirely deserved her win as the brassy Pixie Dream Girl who dominates Silver Linings Playbook, while Emmanuelle Riva, who does more subtle and equally worthy work in Foreign Language winner Amour, gave a performance that didn't suit the general mood of uplift. Best Actor winner Daniel Day-Lewis used his acceptance speech to salute the power of delusion. "Since we got married 16 years ago, my wife, Rebecca, has lived with some very strange men," the famously Method Lincoln star said to an appreciative crowd. (One does feel for Spielberg, who turned in his most restrained work to date in a year when crowd-pleasing won the day.)
The Academy's anti-realist preference was as much aesthetic as content-based. Few moments of the telecast were more surreal than Life of Pi's Claudio Miranda collecting the Best Cinematography Oscar for what purists might argue is a post-photographic movie—only to be followed by the film's visual effects team, who negated his win by acknowledging that "most of what you see" is fake. In Best Documentary, confronted with four incendiary docs whose topics include sexual assault in the military, the founding of ACT UP, and the state of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, voters opted for Searching for Sugar Man, Malik Bendjelloul's manipulative doc about Detroit musician Rodriguez's unlikely following in South Africa. The second the filmmakers mentioned the singer wasn't there, the orchestra cued them off with the score from Jaws.
The evening otherwise dwelled too long on music, not just with numbers from Les Mis and Chicago but performances by Adele, Barbra Streisand, Jennifer Hudson, Norah Jones and Shirley Bassey. The latter's slightly off-key but rousing rendition of "Goldfinger" followed an apparently purposeless montage-tribute to the fact that Bond Films Make Money Forever.
On some level, it's tempting to give props to Seth MacFarlane for applying his manatee principle of free association to the Oscars, but most often his all-purpose offensiveness just wasn't funny. He set the evening's tone with a musical ode to screen nudity, "We Saw Your Boobs," that made at least one of the mentioned actresses, Naomi Watts, visibly uncomfortable; he later doubled down on the sexism with jokes about how Zero Dark Thirty is a movie about "every woman's innate ability to never ever let anything go." [UPDATE: There are reports that Watts's reaction was pre-recorded, and I originally had that quote slightly off.] Other bafflingly unfunny bits included a sock-puppet version of Flight, a bizarre encounter with Sally Field, speculation on nine-yar-old nominee Quvenzhané Wallis's appropriateness as a dating partner for George Clooney, and the host's talking-bear creation, Ted, cracking jokes about how Jews run Hollywood. Balls-out anarchy could work for this awards show, but MacFarlane's shtick needed more time in the writers' room.
On an unrelated note, while the question of who's included in the In Memoriam montage has taken on a morbid air of competition, it was gratifying to see the Academy acknowledge Andrew Sarris, one of the most influential of all film critics.