Now that the dust has settled and cold reality has replaced airy speculation, it's clearer than ever that as far as the 2013 best picture Oscar was concerned, Hollywood's directors gave and took away.
Not content with being the powers on the set, the 300-some members of the director's branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences demonstrated power of another kind. By setting into motion what has come to be known as the Year of the Snub, they left two key directors off of their nominations list and sealed the fates of both pictures involved, elevating one and all but burying the other.
FOR THE RECORD:
Oscar for directing: An article about the Oscar for directing in the Feb. 25 special Oscars section referred to "The Hurt Locker" as a 2008 drama. That film was released in 2009. —
Interestingly enough, leaving "Argo's" Ben Affleck and "Zero Dark Thirty's" Kathryn Bigelow off their list had another, unanticipated effect on the final Oscar tally. By depressing the vote for "Zero Dark Thirty" and amplifying the sentiment for "Argo," the directors' decision, albeit unintentionally, leveled the playing field and made this one of the most balanced Academy Awards results in recent years.
Yes, "Argo" won best picture, but it took only two other awards, for film editing and adapted screenplay. In total numbers it was bested by "Life of Pi," which took four awards, most prominently directing for Ang Lee. "Les Misérables" equaled "Argo's" three Oscars, and right behind them with two apiece were the unlikely trifecta of "Lincoln," "Skyfall" and "Django Unchained." One could argue that this even distribution of awards reflected the strength of a year in which no picture stood out enough from its competitors to be worthy of a sweep.
It's possible, of course, that the expertly made "Argo" would have won best picture without the sympathy that accrued to Affleck. His is a finely crafted film, after all, with an instinct for storytelling, for always moving the action forward, and that might have been enough for academy voters even without the snub. We will never know.
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It's also possible that Ang Lee would have won director for "Life of Pi" even without the removal of two of his strongest competitors, including former Oscar winner Bigelow, who won for the 2008 drama "The Hurt Locker" and whose "Zero Dark Thirty" demonstrated a mastery of storytelling and heightened realism that, absent the intervention of a trio of U.S. senators, would have been hard to ignore. But as the academy is traditionally phobic about even the whiff of controversy, we will once again never know.
Lee, of course, is a worthy winner and someone who seems to seek out the widest variety of stories and storytelling styles for projects as various as "Life of Pi," "Brokeback Mountain" and "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon."
Seeing the film early on, my first reaction to it was that in some ways Lee wanted to direct this film precisely because people said making a motion picture out of Yann Martel's novel was frankly impossible. It was the challenge of taking on a project involving a boy, a tiger and the vast and unknowable ocean that drew him in as much as, if not more than, anything else.
There can be no doubt that Lee met the challenge, and in 3-D no less, magnificently. To make audiences believe that this unbelievable story was in fact unfolding in front of their eyes was a major feat of craftsmanship and skill. Computers can do many wondrous things — they can even frame by frame remove the outside-the-costume microphones that the singers in "Les Misérables" all wore — but to make us believe so fully in the reality of the situation was something extraordinary. That was what academy members saw, and that is what they rewarded.
That said, there was something missing for me in "Life of Pi," something missing that made me wish that one of the other films in that category had won for directing. I know I am in a small minority about "Pi," but not having previously read the novel I was not moved by the framing story, neither the opening prologue nor the closing coda. Though I cared about the boy when he was on the boat, I wanted to care more about everyone else. I wanted to have more of the kind of human connection that each of the other four films gave me.
I especially felt sad for "Lincoln," with only two victories for its 12 nominations. This was a different kind of film for Steven Spielberg, a film whose pleasures were restrained, interior and subtle, a film in which the director placed himself at the service of the script and the acting, not his own reputation. This is what Affleck recognized when he gave a special shout-out to Spielberg in his acceptance speech, calling him "a genius." It would have been nice if the rest of the academy had shared his sentiments.