Even as tonight’s Governor’s Ball was winding down, Ben Affleck was still off in a corner of the room celebrating his Argo‘s most unlikely Best Picture victory in becoming only the second film in 80 years to win the top prize without even a nomination for its director. Affleck’s roller coaster ride has been remarkable this season and as he told me earlier this weekend, and tonight after the Best Pic triumph, it has been filled with hills and valleys, but it all came together at the Dolby Theatre when First Lady Michelle Obama (from the White House) opened the envelope and announced his film as the winner.
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When he was left off the list of Directing nominees on January 10th he said he was really depressed, but that same night he won the Critics Choice Movie Award as Director and Best Picture, then the Golden Globe three days later, then the PGA, SAG, DGA, WGA and BAFTA honors to name a few. Suddenly Argo was the one to beat and it never wavered. Affleck’s emotional acceptance was heartfelt and perfectly described the personal journey of this actor turned first-rate director. And his acknowledgement of Steven Spielberg from the stage was a nice touch. He won, with Matt Damon, for Best Original Screenplay in 1997 for Good Will Hunting, but this was different as Affleck told me and he was going to savor this moment as long as he could before moving on into the night. It was the same for Argo’s winning screenwriter Chris Terrio who also was hanging late at the Govs Ball even though he had to catch a flight back to his New York home where he is currently writing a new script based on the Greengrass story. As he was just exiting the Ball at the Hollywood and Highland Grand Ballroom, he told me someone gave him advice that he should just try to enjoy this moment first. He seemed to have a hard time soaking it in, but he was going to give it at least this one night before getting back to work.
Argo, after vitually a clean sweep of awards season since the directing snub (which in retrospect could not have hurt), won a respectable three Oscars (also for Editing and Adapted Screenplay), tying Les Misérables for that number of Oscars. But the big winner of the night (if you can call it that) was 20th’s risky box office success Life Of Pi which nabbed four statuettes including a biggie, Best Director for Ang Lee. Had Affleck been nominated, he likely would have won since Best Picture and Director usually go hand in hand, but for whatever reason in a year with an embarrassment of riches it somehow seems totally appropiate that there was a split and Lee was given this award. If anything, Life Of Pi was a directorial achievement like no other and this Oscar was acknowledgement of that. In fact, right after Affleck was snubbed, I predicted Lee would take it, and in the last couple of weeks it was apparent a tide was building for him among Academy voters. It became one of the easiest calls of the night despite the fact that many pundits were calling it for Lincoln‘s Steven Spielberg. At the Govs Ball, Lee, who has won two previous Oscars (for Best Foreign Language Film for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Director for Brokeback Mountain), told me this one means as much or probably more because of the extreme challenges Pi provided. He was clearly thrilled with it and I told him he becomes the first director since George Stevens in the 50s with A Place In The Sun (1951) and Giant (1956) to win two Best Director Oscars for two films that did not win Best Picture, a rare occurence.
But there were no sweeps. The Academy seemed smartly determined to spread the wealth this year and spread they did with at least one Oscar going to eight of nine Best Picture nominees (only Beasts Of The Southern Wild was blanked). To me that statistic just reinforces what a great year it was for film. “The Academy did what I hoped they would do and really voted for what they thought was simply the best individual achievement in each category. They really did their homework this year,” Academy President Hawk Koch told me at the Ball. He also seemed really proud about pulling off the Obama coup and gave me a detailed account of how (with the help of Harvey Weinstein) they were able to do it. If the Globes got a former President to present in Bill Clinton, the Oscars staged a history-making move with having the First Lady rip open the envelope to announce Best Picture. Koch also told me he thought the Oscar show itself was the “best one ever” although I found others in the room, including one very prominent Board member, who might not quite share that level of enthusiasm.
Among some I talked to, host Seth MacFarlane‘s material just wasn’t strong enough. His self-deprecating, on-the-edge-of-good-taste humor grew on me although he doesn’t have the natural rhythm of a great stand-up. You almost wished the Academy said “screw it” and just let this guy rip with the kind of edgy comedy for which he is known and beloved. It was a little neutered on the Oscar stage but MacFarlane managed to grab some moments.
One former Governor said once she was able to get past the first half hour she thoroughly enjoyed the show. Nearly everyone seemed to like the musical numbers, particularly Adele, Barbra Streisand and a killer performance of Goldfinger from an ageless Shirley Bassey as well as the tribute to Musicals. Another very prominent current Governor said the show was “okay” but had problems with the way some of the presenter segments came off. Indeed it looked like Paul Rudd and Melissa McCarthy, as well as Kristen Stewart, might not have shown up for rehearsals. Universal President Ron Meyer on the other hand told me he thought it was a terrific show. Certainly producers Neil Meron and Craig Zadan seemed to be basking in praise at the Ball as they spent a lot of time at the table where Adele, Streisand and John Travolta were sharing.
There were so many standing ovations for the show I lost count, but I have never witnessed any Oscar audience stand up so many times during one show. Whether it was because they needed the exercise I don’t know, but they seemed to really be responding to the performance aspects of the show. From where I was sitting in the First Mezzanine, MacFarlane’s comic bits at the top of the show really seemed to work although it may have played differently on television. When I got wind Saturday night that he and Kristin Chenoweth were going to do a closing song as a tribute to the “losers” I thought this was really risky business, but it sort of worked over those end credits – even though Neil Patrick Harris has a similar bit done to perfection after every Tony show he’s hosted. Overall from my viewpoint, the decision to do so many musical numbers was a good one as the speeches from the winners this year were by and large uninspired with some notable exceptions. Daniel Day-Lewis‘ was a highlight, Ang Lee was charming, and writing winners Terrio and Quentin Tarantino had some strong remarks that made an impression, but most of the acceptances were rather bloodless this year. Why read off a list of thank yous?
And there were no real stunning surprises to make this an especially memorable Oscar show other than its variety aspects. But as a moment in time for the well-liked and sincere Affleck it will certainly be one he will never forget. With the interminably long Oscar season now officially at its end, it is interesting to note that I stood in that very same Governors Ball exactly a year ago and casually asked Warner Bros. marketing topper Sue Kroll if she had any hot Best Picture Oscar prospects for 2012. Off the record at the time, she said they had some but singled out a film in production called Argo. Good prediction. Just look what happened.