Academy Awards behind-the-scenes chatter: Will ‘Argo’ or ‘Lincoln’ win?

The talk in Hollywood has gone beyond the single efforts of ‘Argo’ and ‘Lincoln’ to an evaluation of the careers of their directors, Ben Affleck and Steven Spielberg.

Lucas Jackson/REUTERS
A worker adjusts the positioning of an Oscar statue on the red carpet during preparations for the 85th Academy Awards in Hollywood, California.

During the countdown to the Oscars, the behind-the-scenes narratives arising about the nominees and earlier winners in the awards season are watched closely. And sometimes, they have as much impact on who takes home statuettes as the films themselves.

Nearly every year, there are “the snubbed,” the “comeback kids,” the “dark horses,” and sentimental favorites, among other familiar archetypes.

“This is an industry of storytellers,” points out Matt McDaniel, the Los Angeles-based managing editor of Yahoo! Movies. Spinning stories “is what everyone here does.”

This year, much of the talk has centered on the “Lincoln”-“Argo” face-off – which most critics think are the top two contenders for Best Picture. As is often the case, the discussions have gone beyond the single efforts to an evaluation of entire careers.

2013’s most passionately pitied “snub” – in case you have been reading about Oscar Pistorius in South Africa instead of the Oscars – is “Argo” director Ben Affleck. After he collected Golden Globes for both director and best film, the town issued a collective gasp when he was passed over for directing in the Academy Award nominations.

Everyone assumed Mr. Affleck would be a shoo-in for Best Director, says Stephen Brown, a marketing professional in Atlanta. “He made an outstanding movie, plus he overcame a challenging decade of paparazzi and bad-movie-fueled malaise,” he says via e-mail. Hollywood generally loves to reward talent it discovered when young, he says, pointing to Affleck’s 1998 Oscar for “Good Will Hunting.”

The industry particularly likes the comeback story, Mr. Brown says, adding that in this case, because of the shoo-in assumption and the subsequent snub, many academy voters are seeing a Best Picture Oscar for “Argo.”

But voters do not like to be told what to do, says University of Nebraska film professor Wheeler Winston Dixon, who has many former students in Hollywood. Efforts to sway votes have become particularly aggressive – a phenomenon that seriously ratcheted up in 1999 when producer Harvey Weinstein reportedly shelled out more than $15 million in support of “Shakespeare in Love.”

The academy has since cracked down on splashy spending, banning swanky screening soirees for the roughly 5,800 academy members who vote.

Voting for this year’s Oscars closed Tuesday night. Steven Spielberg, director of “Lincoln,” was reported to have sent handwritten notes to voters, while a commemorative DVD of “Argo” was delivered to academy members.

Although he leans toward “Argo” winning Best Picture, Professor Dixon says “Lincoln” has a good chance, “because of this pushback” against influence peddling.

Mr. Spielberg himself has been in Affleck’s position, notes Dixon, pointing to the “Jaws” Best Picture nod in 1976, when the director was not nominated. “A lot of people said, who do they think directed the film, the shark?” Dixon quips.

Spielberg’s own narrative can work for and against him, points out Lester Friedman, film professor and chair of the media and society department at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, N.Y. His work redefined filmmaking. After “Jaws,” studios began to focus on the “blockbuster,” films costing $100 million and more. This has significantly reduced the money left for smaller, more-independent projects, Professor Friedman notes.

Yet Spielberg has also made a career of serious, historical pictures such as “Schindler’s List” and “Saving Private Ryan.” He received Oscars for both films.

While some may feel that “Lincoln” belongs in that pantheon, Friedman suggests that the tale of the 16th president’s struggle to pass the 13th Amendment “should be remembered as one of his good, but not great films.”

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