The Oscars are now just four weeks away, and according to those who monitor such things, the race has a become a declaration of "Ar-Go celebrate yourself!" The story goes that following wins at the Screen Actors Guild and Producers Guild last weekend, Ben Affleck's jaunty Iran hostage thriller Argo is currently leading the Oscar race for best picture. Lincoln, says one headline, has faded like "a sepia photograph."
So how did this sudden Argo surge happen? Or did it? The Huffington Post's ballyhooed Oscar dashboard promises that you no longer need to rely on "bloviating pundits" but can count on its "scientific metric," based on crunching the stats for 30 years of Oscars. Amazingly, before last weekend, the Huff Post metric Lincoln had an overwhelming 89 per cent chance of winning the best picture Oscar. Now it's down to a 32 per cent as Argo zooms to a healthy lead with a 66-per-cent chance of winning.
What catastrophic thing happened to change the minds of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' voters? Did Lincoln star Daniel Day-Lewis get caught on TMZ huffing glue behind a dumpster? Did Steven Spielberg denounce the academy members as a bunch of freeloading fogies? In reality, there's not a shred of evidence that a single academy member has had a change of vote since the nominations were announced last Jan. 10. Sometimes, as they say, this isn't an exact science.
Yes, the PGA and SAG awards can be informative about what kind of films people in the movie business like. Both organizations share voters with AMPAS, so, in theory, their results could serve as a kind of polling sample of the academy. Of SAG's more than 100,000 voters, fewer than 1,200 – or around one per cent – are in the actors' branch of academy. That's a pretty small sample, though historically, SAG's best ensemble award agrees with Oscar's best picture choice about half the time.
The PGA offers a larger overlap. There are more than 4,750 TV and film producers in the guild; 450 – or almost 10 per cent – are also in the academy. The PGA has agreed with the Oscars 16 times in the past 23 years.
Historical patterns can be read either for or against Argo's chances. Films that win both the PGA and SAG awards take the Oscar about 75 per cent of the time. That's good. But two previous films that, like Argo, did not receive a best director nomination but won both the PGA and SAG – Apollo 13 in 1995 and Little Miss Sunshine in 2006 – didn't take the best picture Oscar those years. That's not so good.
These speculations, of course, must be taken with a large pinch of salt (preferably the lavender or fennel-pollen artisanal salts from L.A.'s Monsieur Marcel gourmet market). Back in September when the Oscar season narrative started, Silver Linings Playbook was the favourite. Then the pundits rallied behind Les Misérables, at least until the reviews came in. Next it was Zero Dark Thirty, touted as the grown-up Argo and the end-of-year critics' preferred choice.
After sinking in controversy, Zero Dark Thirty appears to be enjoying a redemption comeback campaign, including a Time magazine cover story. Kathryn Bigelow's Osama Bin Laden film also now has support from lefties like Michael Moore and Martin Sheen, who see it more as exposing rather than endorsing torture (somewhat unhelpfully, Dick Cheney's daughter, Liz tweeted: "Just saw Zero Dark Thirty. Excellent film about years of heroism, including in the enhanced interrogation program, that led to bin Laden"). The film's still in the running: Affleck, while casting himself as a self-deprecating Oscar underdog, slipped in a sly shot at the competition during a NPR interview, agreeing with Fresh Air host Terry Gross that movies shouldn't be judged as journalism "unless they say they're journalism."
The academy voters will begin casting their ballots on Feb. 8, and under the preferred voting system, the consensus (or least disliked) film will win. That might superficially favour a crowd-pleasing thriller like Argo. But the best picture nomination list indicates that the academy's tastes are all over the place this year: Nine films each got at least five per cent of the academy's support as best film of the year.
That should favour the respectable movie of the year rather than the fun one. Lincoln has a lock on best actor for Day-Lewis and looks as though it will win best director for Spielberg, best screenplay for Tony Kushner, best supporting actor for Tommy Lee Jones. In total, Lincoln is nominated in six categories where Argo isn't even in contention. So, Argo, don't get ahead of yourself.