Oscars 2013 Movie

Oscars 2013: how Argo beat Lincoln

Argo and LincolnHead to head ... Argo and Lincoln

Argo's yo-yo awards season ended on an upswing on Sunday as the Tehran yarn clinched the Big Kahuna of movie honours. Ben Affleck's third outing as director endured the proverbial rollercoaster ride over the past five months and the Warner Bros crowd will be partying late into the night after winning best picture. This was the first time since Driving Miss Daisy in 1989 that the prize had gone to a movie whose director had not been nominated for an Oscar.

The popular narrative of what has been an unusually high-calibre awards season is that Argo - the people's favourite - snuck in at the eleventh hour to swipe the best picture prize from Lincoln. Not so. Argo never lost its high standing among voters and maintained its campaign momentum – albeit in a more nuanced manner in recent weeks – despite the mighty efforts of the publicity machine behind Steven Spielberg's august history lesson.

Argo hit the ground running at the outset of awards season, wowing crowds in the Coloradan enclave of Telluride in August before moving north of the border for the official world premiere in Toronto. Argo was one of two notable crowd-pleasers in Canada, along with the eventual audience award winner Silver Linings Playbook, but it was always going to mean more to Academy voters. The aged, nostalgic convocation eschews comedy and likes its entertainment sprinkled with a little derring-do and patriotic tub-thumping.

Affleck and fellow cast members did the publicity rounds in the US and attended Q&A sessions and receptions, joined occasionally by Affleck's co-producer George Clooney. This was a textbook play that conformed to strict awards season rules governing how talent gets involved in a movie's promotion. The tide was with Argo. Plus Hollywood was eager to heap praise on Affleck the comeback kid, who had atoned for personal and professional missteps in his past and was now being groomed (rightly so) as a Serious Director To Watch.

The campaign machine was chugging along nicely and then on 8 October, four days before Argo was due to open in US cinemas, Lincoln premiered at the New York film festival. Spielberg was about to throw a spanner in the works. Suddenly Argo was no longer the name on everyone's lips. Lincoln was being hailed in some quarters as a masterpiece, perhaps Spielberg's best since Schindler's List. Hollywood lined up to kneel before the altar of Daniel Day-Lewis. An air of invincibility coalesced around Lincoln as the first awards groups prepared to announce their winners.

Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln was a match made in prestige movie heaven and the Anglo-Irish actor dominated his category, earning accolades from just about every awards group including the influential Screen Actors Guild, the largest voting block in the Academy. He duly won his third lead actor Oscar on Sunday and became the first man to do so. Spielberg did not make it on to the winners' podium and, in a rare surprise on the night, had to watch as Ang Lee won best director for Life of Pi.

Towards the end of 2012 the suspicion remained that Lincoln was a movie people admired rather than loved, and this translated into immutable fact as the season wore on. It was not winning best film awards, while Argo had picked up a few. Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow's formidable Osama bin Laden movie anchored by Oscar nominee Jessica Chastain, was collecting the most best picture wins. Argo's campaign strategists weren't fazed. The movie had opened well in October and was climbing steadily towards its $128m-plus US box office and $200m-plus worldwide haul. The talent had got out to support it and the strategists had learned that pockets of Academy voters were passionate champions.

By the start of the year Lincoln had garnered the most Golden Globe and Oscar nominations and was the perceived frontrunner. This suited the Argo camp, which wanted their contender to be the marginal underdog. At the Golden Globes in January, Lincoln suffered its first public reversal as Argo prevailed in the best dramatic picture contest and Affleck beat Spielberg in the directing category.

Two weeks later, over the course of one heady weekend, Argo delivered a one-two punch to land best picture at the Producers Guild of America and best ensemble cast at the Screen Actors Guild. On 3 February Affleck became only the third person to win the DGA award without an Oscar nomination. Two weeks later Chris Terrio won the WGA's adapted screenplay honour. The votes for successive shows had already been cast. The late cascade of prizes may have seemed like people were suddenly championing Argo, but in reality the movie's enduring pedigree never wavered and Hollywood had made up its mind.

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