LOS ANGELES » Nominations morning last month revealed major surprises for the Academy Awards, promising one of the most wide-open campaigns ever for Hollywood’s highest honors.
Six weeks later, things have shaken out into the same old predictable Oscars.
Like almost every awards season, earlier honors have established clear favorites for the top prizes at Sunday’s Oscars, where Ben Affleck’s CIA thriller "Argo" is expected to take home the best-picture trophy.
"Argo" has dominated the awards picture with wins at the Golden Globes and ceremonies held by the Directors Guild of America, the Screen Actors Guild and the Producers Guild of America. The film now is poised to do what only four movies have managed before at the Oscars: win best picture without a nomination for its director.
With the top trophy and other key prizes expected to go to obvious front-runners, the Oscars will live or die on the show itself, which has a hipper flair with "Family Guy" creator Seth MacFarlane as host and a cool lineup of current and vintage stars. Among performers, presenters and other special guests are Barbra Streisand, Norah Jones, "Harry Potter" star Daniel Radcliffe, key players from "The Avengers," and Mark Wahlberg and his cuddly stuffed-bear sidekick from "Ted," voiced by its writer-director, MacFarlane.
Adele will perform her nominated title tune from the James Bond adventure "Skyfall," and the show features a salute to the 007 franchise, an appearance by Bond theme song singer Shirley Bassey, and a tribute to the resurgence of movie musicals over the last decade, which includes current best-picture contender "Les Miserables."
Oscar organizers are trying to inject more verve into a show whose awards generally play out by the numbers. While drama may be lacking in the outcome Sunday night, there was plenty of it early on in the Oscar race.
When nominations came out and Affleck was omitted of the best-director lineup, it seemed to doom the best-picture prospects for "Argo." Likewise, the best-picture chances looked slim for Kathryn Bigelow’s Osama bin Laden thriller "Zero Dark Thirty" and Tom Hooper’s musical "Les Miserables," since they also were snubbed for directing nominations.
Leading the field with 12 nominations, including one for director Steven Spielberg, the Civil War epic "Lincoln" suddenly looked like the best-picture favorite, almost by default. It seemed the only realistic choice among the nine nominees, given how rare it is for a film to win best picture without a directing nomination. The last time it happened — and the only time other than in the earliest years of the Oscars — was for 1989’s "Driving Miss Daisy."
The other best-picture contenders that also had directing nominations — Michael Haneke’s old-age love story "Amour," Ang Lee’s shipwreck saga "Life of Pi," David O. Russell’s oddball romance "Silver Linings Playbook" and Benh Zeitlin’s low-budget bayou drama "Beasts of the Southern Wild" — were acclaimed films that all seemed like best-picture longshots.
But the crowd-pleasing "Argo," Affleck’s liberally Hollywood-ized chronicle of the real-life rescue of six Americans during the Iranian hostage crisis, defied expectations by sweeping other awards despite the Oscar directing snub — or perhaps partly because of it.
"There’s this groundswell of support for ‘Argo’ that took a lot of people by surprise, and it’s making me think that the omission of Ben Affleck in the best-director category was the best thing that ever happened to that movie," said Dave Karger, chief correspondent for movie-ticket website Fandango.com. "All of the ‘Argo’ fans are going to rally behind it in that best-picture category."
Affleck has taken a page out of fellow "Argo" producer and smooth operator George Clooney’s playbook, handling the Oscar attention and his directing snub with grace, humility and self-deprecating humor. It’s a reverse of Affleck’s quarrelsome demeanor earlier in his career, when he bristled and barked over publicity centering on his relationship with Jennifer Lopez.
Rarely lauded for his performing chops, Affleck joked at the Golden Globes that no one felt he was snubbed for an acting nomination on "Argo," in which he gives one of his finest performances as a CIA agent orchestrating a scheme to disguise the Americans as a Hollywood film crew scouting locations in Iran.
Earning acclaim for all three of the films he has directed, Affleck talks like a modest newcomer, saying after his Directors Guild win that he considers filmmakers such as William Wyler, Martin Scorsese and Spielberg to be the "grown-ups I think of as directors. I think of myself as a work in progress."
And despite the directing snub, Affleck has expressed nothing but gratitude to the academy for his film’s seven nominations — repeatedly making note that he is up for an Oscar. As producers of "Argo," Affleck, Clooney and Grant Heslov would share the best-picture honor if the film wins.
Assuming it does, there still will be plenty of love to spread around among other films, particularly "Lincoln." Spielberg’s consolation prize, should "Lincoln" miss out on best picture, is a probable third directing Oscar. He would be only the fourth filmmaker to achieve that, along with Frank Capra and William Wyler, who also won three times, and John Ford, who won four.
"Lincoln" star Daniel Day-Lewis is expected to earn his third Oscar in the title role, making him only the sixth performer to win three or more Oscars and the first to win three times in the best-actor category.
Other acting favorites: Jennifer Lawrence, best actress for "Silver Linings Playbook"; Anne Hathaway, supporting actress for "Les Miserables"; and Tommy Lee Jones, supporting actor for "Lincoln."
So where’s the surprise of Oscar night? Maybe in the hands of versatile show host MacFarlane, whose talents include animation, comedy writing, singing and songwriting (he’s an Oscar nominee himself for a tune from "Ted").
His skills also include crude humor, setting the stage for something livelier, more irreverent and less predictable than the usual ho-hum broadcast.
Producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron "have mixed it up quite a lot compared to Oscar ceremonies I’ve seen in the past," MacFarlane said. "Without it being a long ceremony — their goal is to keep it shorter than it’s been — but they’ve managed to pack more surprises and more cool stuff into the ceremony than I think I’ve ever seen in any one Oscars. …
"They have a real sense of command of what they’re doing, but at the same time they’ve allowed me to play to my own strengths, or weaknesses, depending on how you look at it, and structure my own segments as I see fit."