It was supposed to be Lincoln vs. Zero Dark Thirty, Spielberg vs. Bigelow, the Great Emancipator vs. the CIA girl who hunted down bin Laden.
But then, on Jan. 10, they actually announced the Oscar nominations. Kathryn Bigelow's name, shockingly, wasn't on the best-director list, and senators and Pentagon-ers had raised flags about the film's depiction of "enhanced interrogation techniques."
Zero Dark Thirty lost its momentum. So Lincoln and Steven Spielberg had it in the bag, right?
Wrong. There's this other picture about a CIA operation, called Argo.
After wins at the Golden Globes (best picture, best director), the Producers Guild, the Screen Actors Guild, the Writers Guild, and BAFTA (the British equivalent of the Academy Awards), the Ben Affleck-directed account of the audacious rescue of six U.S. Embassy workers during the Iranian hostage crisis has emerged as the odds-on favorite to win the best-picture prize at the 85th Academy Awards, which begins with the red-carpet hoopla at 7 p.m. Sunday, on 6ABC. (Actual awards: 8:30 p.m.)
Argo's Big Mo moment comes in spite of the fact (but maybe because of it, too) that Affleck isn't among the five best-director Oscar nominees. If Argo indeed wins, it will be the first time since Driving Miss Daisy in 1990 that a film takes the best-picture trophy without its director's being nominated. And there have been only two other instances in all of academy history: Wings in 1929, and Grand Hotel in 1932.
So why has Argo moved to the front of the pack of nine best-picture contenders? Easy: It's a movie about Hollywood, and Hollywood loves movies about Hollywood. Sure, the setting is Tehran in 1979-80. But the true-life story, based on declassified files, is that a CIA "extraction" expert, played by Affleck, dreams up an elaborate plan involving a fake movie and a fake movie director, who comes to Iran to scout locations. His "crew" consists of the six Americans who have been hiding out at the Canadian Embassy. Back in Los Angeles, Alan Arkin and John Goodman play the Tinseltown veterans behind the mock production.
In other words, it's the movie biz that saves the trapped diplomats. How can the members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences not love that? And how can they not be miffed - and show it on their ballots - that Affleck wasn't recognized for directing this smart, funny, suspenseful thriller?
One thing Argo does have in common with its fellow best-picture nominees is that it has been received extremely well not just by critics and industry types, but at the box office, too. This is not going to be a year when millions of people click on the Oscar telecast, hosted by Seth MacFarlane, and wonder what on earth the presenters are talking about when they read off the nominations. (Milk? Babel? In the Bedroom?)
Six of the nine best-picture titles have topped $100 million at the box office: Argo, Django Unchained, Les Misérables, Life of Pi, Lincoln, and Silver Linings Playbook. And Zero Dark Thirty, the intense, doc-style terrorist thriller, will be close to $100 million before its theatrical run winds down. Even the two art-house entries in the field, the French-language Amour and the American indie Beasts of the Southern Wild, have attracted larger audiences than such fare typically draws.
"They're all doing really well," says William Goldenberg, the film editor who is competing against himself in this year's Oscars - he's nominated for his work on both Argo and Zero Dark Thirty. The cumulative box office of the nine 2013 best-picture competitors is $924 million, and closing in on $1 billion.
"In terms of the health of the movie business," Goldenberg says, "that's a phenomenally good thing."
It's also something of a phenomenon that this year's best-picture list is, indeed, rife with best pictures. There are no duds or dubious choices here, no Airport or The Towering Inferno (yes, both were Oscar nominees).
And then there's Silver Linings Playbook, which - if somehow Argo doesn't win - stands a more-than-decent shot at best picture. Its director, David O. Russell, is up for two nominations (directing and adapted screenplay, working from the novel by South Jersey's own Matthew Quick). And while local boy Bradley Cooper, a best-actor nominee, can just stay in his seat and watch as Daniel Day-Lewis jaunts to the stage to nab his golden figurine for Lincoln, Cooper's leading lady, Jennifer Lawrence, is the pundits' and oddsmakers' favorite to win best actress.
If only there was an Oscar for best picture made in Philadelphia . . . .
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Silver Linings Playbook
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Robert De Niro
For Sunday night Oscar results and more coverage, go to philly.com.