Thanks to its success at the PGA and SAG Awards last weekend, Argo is suddenly a favorite to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards this month. Never mind that there is no logical relation between a top SAG Award honor of Best Ensemble and the top prize at the Oscars. And never mind that even though Best Picture is an award for producers, it needn’t necessarily align with the Producers Guild of America’s choice since the category is voted on by the entire Academy. Still, a lot of that Academy appears to be into the hostage-rescue drama.
But Argo will be an oddity if it wins Best Picture, because 73% of the time the Best Picture and Best Director winners match up. And it’s even rarer for a movie to win Best Picture when its director isn’t nominated for Best Director. This has happened only three times, in 1929, 1932 and 1990. Argo director Ben Affleck is not a nominee, but neither are the directors behind three other Best Picture nominees. It used to be stranger back when both categories featured the same amount of contenders to have "snubbed" directors whose movies were recognized for the top award.
"The movie didn’t direct itself," goes the usual outcry when a Best Picture-nominated title doesn’t also pick up a Best Director nod. Yet this is a strange way to look at the two categories, as necessarily equal. If they’re meant to be one and the same, why even have two categories? Well, the basic answer is that the top Oscar is really "Best Producer" or "Best Production," but that doesn’t sound as nice as Best Picture. It doesn’t sound as penultimate and all encompassing. But that is what the producers do; they manage the all-encompassing big picture of a movie.
That distinction probably made more sense in old Hollywood, before producer credits got out of hand and before directors were highly celebrated as the film makers. It can often still apply today, however, as Les Miserables is indeed more deserving of recognition for production over direction. Yet Django Unchained probably should be credited more as a Quentin Tarantino film than something produced by Stacey Sher, Reginald Hudlin and Pilar Savone. Amour, too, is clearly the work of an auteur, something that couldn’t have existed let alone been so revered without Michael Haneke at the helm.
So, what about Argo? It couldn’t have directed itself, but is it only great because of Affleck’s direction? No, but it likely would not have been as great without his eye and his skill as a director of tone, mise-en-scene and actors. It could have been well-crafted and had an exquisite foundation but lacking a proper guide to lead us on a tour through that edifice. If anything, Affleck deserves a Best Director nomination more than Best Picture, and therefore he deserves the Oscar if the film is named Best Picture. But not necessarily as part of a rule that these categories should line up.
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