Oscar nomination day did not unfold the way Ben Affleck hoped.
As he sat watching the pre-dawn announcement in his Pacific Palisades home, Affleck saw "Argo," which he directed, produced and starred in, collect seven nominations, including best picture. But when Oscar host Seth MacFarlane read the names for the director honor, Affleck's name was incongruously absent.
On a morning when other nominees publicly celebrated their Oscar glory, Affleck retreated in silence, co-signing a terse statement recognizing "Argo's" other nominations.
As painful as the experience might have been, it was possibly the very best thing that could have happened to Affleck and his film.
Ever since that snub on Jan. 10, Affleck and his CIA thriller have surged beyond anyone's expectations, including Affleck's, winning virtually every award for which it was even considered a long shot.
Now handicappers say "Argo" is the front-runner for best picture at the Feb. 24 Academy Awards. It's a startling reversal of fortune that took place in the last two weeks, a result observers say of Affleck's command of modern awards campaigning and a reaction to the Oscar's unexpected rebuke.
Over the weekend, "Argo" knocked off its main rivals "Lincoln" and "Silver Linings Playbook" in two of the season's most prominent awards ceremonies, winning the top honors from the Producers Guild of America on Saturday and the Screen Actors Guild on Sunday.
"I'm shocked," Affleck said after his film's SAG Awards victory. "Whatever amateur handicap I thought I had was completely false."
Two weeks ago, "Argo" won the Golden Globe for dramatic picture and director. Affleck is eligible for the top prize in Saturday's Directors Guild of America awards and many feel there's so much momentum for the film that Affleck could very well win.
If Oscar campaigns are in many ways similar to political ones, then Affleck's surge is reminiscent of George W. Bush's 2000 presidential campaign, when he famously lost New Hampshire by a nearly 20% margin to Sen. John McCain but nevertheless took the Republican nomination and the White House. But unlike Bush, who following his New Hampshire setback attacked McCain relentlessly, Affleck has risen to the top not through negative campaigning but by becoming even more self-deprecating, approachable and gracious.
The night he was snubbed for the directing Oscar, for example, Affleck and "Argo" won the directing and best picture prizes from the Broadcast Film Critics Assn., a group largely composed of online bloggers and obscure movie reviewers. No matter how marginal the organization, Affleck appeared genuinely appreciative of its attention.
"I would like to thank the academy," Affleck joked in accepting the Critics' Choice trophy. "I'm kidding, I'm kidding. This is the one that counts."
At the same time "Lincoln," which once looked like the heavy favorite not only for the top honors at the Golden Globes and DGA and SAG awards but also at the Oscars, has campaigned in a very different — and outside of multiple honors for star Daniel Day-Lewis, ineffective — manner.
Where Affleck has been willing to kiss as many Oscar voter babies as can be found, "Lincoln" director Steven Spielberg and his filmmaking team have preferred to let their movie speak for itself.
"'Lincoln' is all about defying odds, climbing uphill and overcoming challenges," DreamWorks Co-Chairman/CEO Stacey Snider said of the film that took 12 years to make and was passed over by several studios.
But in hewing to that script, the "Lincoln" effort has struck some as aloof and superior — especially when Spielberg's office recruited former President Bill Clinton to tout the film at the Golden Globes.
The disparity in the "Argo" and "Lincoln" tactics was on stark display at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, where Affleck and Day-Lewis were honored with separate tributes on consecutive evenings.
At Affleck's Friday night post-awards reception, the 40-year-old actor made the rounds of the Arlington Tavern, urging awards bloggers to keep "Argo" at the top of their lists while good-naturedly upbraiding those who noted that Oscar history isn't on his movie's side. (No film since 1989's "Driving Miss Daisy" has won the best picture without being nominated for a director award.)
In contrast Day-Lewis, costar Sally Field and other select well-wishers retreated to the second floor of upscale restaurant the Pan on Saturday evening, where access was barred to reporters.
"Energy is finite. There is only so much you can do," said DreamWorks' Snider. "These filmmakers gave it all to the film." Snider added that she is confident that Oscar voters ultimately judge films on their merits, not the quantity of gladhanding done by its makers.
"The voters take their jobs very seriously," she said
Though "Lincoln," which has a leading 12 nominations, scarcely has been eliminated from the best picture Oscar race, the chances look slimmer for several of the other serious contenders, including "Life of Pi," "Silver Linings Playbook," "Zero Dark Thirty" and "Les Misérables."
Affleck, who won the original screenplay Oscar in 1998 with Matt Damon for "Good Will Hunting," said he doesn't see all of his "Argo" promotions — countless screenings for awards voters, personal appearances, interviews — as work. At many stops he has been accompanied and counseled by George Clooney, one of Hollywood's savviest political minds, who produced "Argo" along with Grant Heslov.
"It's not about campaigning. It's about the movie," Affleck said in an interview prior to nominations. Warner Bros. and the "Argo" filmmakers declined to comment on this story but a studio spokesperson said they didn't make any strategy changes after the Oscar nomination snub.
Unlike promotions surrounding a film's release — "When you're trying to say in 30 seconds why people should see your film," Affleck said — the director said awards season publicity gave him a chance to discuss "Argo" in meaningful detail.
"I've done movies where I run out of things to say in the first 15 seconds of an interview," Affleck said. "Having question-and-answers about this movie is kind of fun for me. To me, it's about getting people to see the movie. I don't have any self-conscious awards ideas."
The latter statement may be a reach, but Affleck said there are limits to how many interviews he will grant. Said the director: "I haven't done the Recycler yet."
Times staff writer Glenn Whipp contributed to this report.
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