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'Argo' Is The Best Picture Frontrunner, But Why?

John Goodman, Alan Arkin and actor-director Ben Affleck in <em>Argo</em>.
John Goodman, Alan Arkin and actor-director Ben Affleck in <em>Argo</em>.

Programming Note: Sunday night, we'll be live-blogging the Academy Awards here at NPR.org, and the Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me! team will be covering the red-carpet fashions, so be sure to join us to share your thoughts and see whether Affleck, Argo, and Daniel Day-Lewis have the big nights predicted for them.

If you saw a list of predictions for this year's Best Picture contenders that correctly identified four out of the nine eventual nominees, you'd probably think it wasn't a very good list.

If I pointed out to you, however, that it was made in December 2011, you might think it was a little more impressive. That's the case over at a blog called Never Too Early Movie Predictions, which correctly predicted in a post dated December 30, 2011 that Lincoln, Django Unchained, Les Miserables and Life Of Pi would all be nominated for Best Picture in this weekend's ceremony.

At The Atlantic, all the way back in February 2012 – exactly one year ago as this post is written, in fact – they gave themselves 16 slots to work with and therefore a major advantage, but they correctly called six of them: Lincoln, Django, Les Mis, Argo, Beasts Of The Southern Wild, and what they then could only call "Kathryn Bigelow's bin Laden movie," which would become Zero Dark Thirty.

All this before anyone had seen most of these films (though The Atlantic had the advantage of making its list after Sundance, which is when Beasts made its big splash). Just how early was it? Another possible contender The Atlantic suggested was Clint Eastwood's The Trouble With The Curve. So it was very early.

So what have we learned? Out of the hundreds of movies that come out every year, you can guess maybe half of the Best Picture nominees without regard to how good they actually are, relying only on how good they sound like they're going to be and how much they sound like Best Picture nominees.

When NPR's own Bob Mondello and I got together to run down the contenders, we talked about the fact that online betting sites have thrown their weight behind Argo, even though reports say at least one site had Lincoln as the favorite as recently as mid-January. Beasts Of The Southern Wild and Amour are longshots, perhaps expectedly, but so are Django and Zero Dark Thirty.

How does this happen? Well, gambling sites set odds based on what people are betting, so like the stock market, they reflect what people now expect to happen. Gamblers now expect Argo to win; thus, its odds change and more people expect it to win. It's all about momentum. So that prompts the further curious question: What drives awards expectations anyway? What makes a frontrunner?

To understand how slippery predictions are, you have to grasp how slippery voting is. The Hollywood Reporter ran a fascinating feature this week in which an anonymous director invited a journalist over to listen to him deliberate over his ballot. Some of his thinking is about what you'd expect: he chooses a sound mixing winner based on his perceptions of merit (and a little guessing about what was done on the day and what was done in post-production), for instance. But listen to his thinking about production design, once he's determined he's not overly excited about any of the nominees: "I'm not gonna vote for Lincoln for best picture, but I have a lot of personal respect for Steven Spielberg and Kathleen Kennedy and I want to help the film, so when I can throw it a vote, like here, I will."


Or how about the decision not to vote for Jennifer Lawrence because of something she did on Saturday Night Live? (Presumably the monologue.) Or for Tommy Lee Jones, because he scowled at the Golden Globes? Directors must gnash their teeth in earnest over things like this bracketed description of an actual Oscar voter's approach to Best Animated Short: "[Had not seen any of the films, but had heard good things about Paperman so he voted for it.]"

While the discussion is obviously cheeky on purpose, what you get from it is a sense of the complex stew that is Oscar voting: throw in a little of who you like and don't like, who's won before, what movies just bother you, who you think is hogging a nomination in the wrong category, and yes, to some degree, who did the best work. Stir it all up, think it over, go with your gut in the end anyway.

But remember: All that mess, all that squishy thinking, and you can still guess about half the nominees before the movies even come out. That's both because there's a perception of who generally does good work (Steven Spielberg, Daniel Day-Lewis and Tony Kushner, for instance) and of what kinds of movies tend to be nominated for Oscars (important historical biopics starring previous Oscar winners, for instance).

Once the films come out, there's a different sort of jostling. Argo looked at first like a terrible candidate for frontrunner, even after the nominations, because Ben Affleck wasn't nominated for Best Director. The last movie to win Best Picture with a non-nominated director, prognosticators muttered, was Driving Miss Daisy. Besides, when was the last time an often wisecracking action movie ending in a chase sequence won Best Picture?

But as the surprise over Affleck's non-nomination swelled, the film started to win other awards: from the Directors Guild, from the Producers Guild, from the Screen Actors Guild, from the Writers Guild, at the Golden Globes – it won and won and won, often beating the same films it will face for Best Picture. It became the strangest of beasts: a totally dominant underdog. If Affleck had been nominated, this would look like the most lopsided race in history, and people might just have started to look for an upstart – Silver Linings Playbook, maybe, or back to Lincoln, which would now not be the Most Obvious Choice Possible. But he wasn't, either for directing or for his performance, so the film didn't seem like a strutting purebred; it got to keep a touch of the ugly mutt. And Hollywood doesn't love an ugly mutt by any means, but boy, it likes to think it does.

Claims that any one award is a good predictor of the Oscars is very dicey stuff, but a cumulative effect of Argo's haul is more persuasive: if the actors are voting for it, and the producers, and the directors, and the writers, then it stands to reason that when all those people get together and vote at the Oscars, it should have a good shot.

On the other hand, as numerous folks have pointed out, Apollo 13 won with the directors, producers and actors in 1995, and it still lost Best Picture to Braveheart. It's the truest of clichés: you just never know.

It's a funny thing about Ben Affleck: I've had several conversations with different people over the years, especially back in the dark Jennifer Lopez days, in which something like the following was expressed: "I read a lot about him and I decide I don't like him and I don't like very many of his movies, but then I see him on a talk show or something and I cannot help it; I really, really like him." Indeed, for years, the thing working against Affleck was his work. He seemed to be staying in the game through the sheer force of affability. When he started directing – first Gone Baby Gone and then The Town – he became a guy who can still charm the pants off a talk-show audience, only now he also directs really good movies. When Tommy Lee Jones can be disqualified on a ballot for scowling, that means something. Maybe not everything, but something.

Argo didn't appear as very many critics' top film of 2012. But while it's certainly been criticized for a lack of historical accuracy and has some very stern detractors, it hasn't become as deeply divisive as, say, Zero Dark Thirty, and it's not as obvious as Lincoln feels. Those aren't very good reasons to vote for something, but neither is doing the wrong thing on Saturday Night Live, and neither is "heard good things."

Best Picture is rarely a big surprise by the time it happens, because expectations adjust and readjust as people cast votes and talk to each other about the votes they cast, and the real smart money is on not taking any of it particularly to heart. There's still a difference between frontrunner and winner, though, and until Sunday night, those gambling sites won't know whether Affleck and Argo can bridge that distance.

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