Skip to main content

With 'Argo' win, Hollywood air-kisses itself

By Gene Seymour, Special to CNN
February 26, 2013 -- Updated 1758 GMT (0158 HKT)
<strong>"Argo," best picture:</strong> Director and producer Ben Affleck joined producers Grant Heslov and George Clooney, as well as the "Argo" cast, to accept the award. Heslov was sure to thank Affleck for his directing, after he was not nominated in that category. <a href='http://www.cnn.com/2013/02/24/showbiz/movies/85th-oscars-2013-winners-list/index.html?hpt=en_c2'>See the full list of winners.</a> "Argo," best picture: Director and producer Ben Affleck joined producers Grant Heslov and George Clooney, as well as the "Argo" cast, to accept the award. Heslov was sure to thank Affleck for his directing, after he was not nominated in that category. See the full list of winners.
HIDE CAPTION
The winners list
The winners list
The winners list
The winners list
The winners list
The winners list
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Gene Seymour: It's no surprise Hollywood picked "Argo" for best picture Academy Award
  • He says that's because its plot has Hollywood saving the day, stoking industry's self-image
  • He says if not for that, "Lincoln" or technologically striking "Life of Pi" might have cleaned up
  • Seymour: He says Oscar can't make telecast with youth appeal without alienating older viewers

Editor's note: Gene Seymour is a film critic who has written about music, movies and culture for The New York Times, Newsday, Entertainment Weekly and The Washington Post.

(CNN) -- A movie that offended almost no one, transgressed no historical fact or sociopolitical milieu and inspired every craftsperson in Hollywood to build his or her own giant pussycat (or some rough equivalent) proved to be the biggest surprise of Sunday night's Academy Awards -- without winning best picture.

"Life of Pi" did win four Oscars, including the best director prize for Ang Lee that probably should have gone to Ben Affleck (his movie, "Argo," got the best picture Oscar everyone expected it to get, along with one for best adapted screenplay and one for best editing.)

And by the way, here's a flash for you people who think best picture really means best picture. There are, and always have been, two criteria for a movie getting the Academy Awards' top prize and they have little, if anything, to do with whether it's really the year's best movie ... or even a very good movie.

Gene Seymour
Gene Seymour

Either:

1. It's a movie whose success will somehow benefit as many people in the movie industry as possible. Or ...

2. It's a movie that somehow reflects Hollywood's best image of itself.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



When both these factors are in play, the movie is unstoppable. So it should have been obvious from the beginning that "Argo" was going to nab that one, even without its pre-Oscar haul of prizes from such trade organizations as the Screen Actors, Producers and Directors guilds. Its issues of historical accuracy aside (and conceded from the start by Affleck and others), the movie's a crisp little nail-biter that easily sells itself to the international marketplace, which remains the final frontier for American commercial cinema. That takes care of criterion No. 1.

And as for No 2 -- well, duh! Movie producers are the heroes who help save the lives of helpless Americans trapped in revolutionary Iran. What's more flattering to Hollywood's self-image than that?

Ex-Iran hostages hope 'Argo' win boosts quest for reparations

If not for that, it's entirely possible that Lee's adaptation of Yann Martel's mystical adventure would have picked everyone's pocket Sunday night. Even Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln," whose focus on how the idealistic-but-pragmatic president battled intransigent legislators over constitutional banishment of slavery, carried enough contemporary resonance to make it an early favorite in the year of Barack Obama's re-election.

Even though he wasn't nominated for a best director Oscar, it was comeback kid Ben Affleck's big night at the 85th Academy Awards. His film "Argo" took home top honors as the year's best picture. From child actor to Hollywood heavyweight, see Affleck's road to gold: Even though he wasn't nominated for a best director Oscar, it was comeback kid Ben Affleck's big night at the 85th Academy Awards. His film "Argo" took home top honors as the year's best picture. From child actor to Hollywood heavyweight, see Affleck's road to gold:
Ben Affleck through the years
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
>
>>
Ben Affleck through the years Ben Affleck through the years
After the awards, the stars party
"Argo," best picture: Director and producer Ben Affleck joined producers Grant Heslov and George Clooney, as well as the "Argo" cast, to accept the award. Heslov was sure to thank Affleck for his directing, after he was not nominated in that category. See the full list of winners. "Argo," best picture: Director and producer Ben Affleck joined producers Grant Heslov and George Clooney, as well as the "Argo" cast, to accept the award. Heslov was sure to thank Affleck for his directing, after he was not nominated in that category. See the full list of winners.
The winners list
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
>
>>
Photos: The winners list Photos: The winners list
"Argo," best picture: Director and producer Ben Affleck joined producers Grant Heslov and George Clooney, as well as the "Argo" cast, to accept the award. Heslov was sure to thank Affleck for his directing, after he was not nominated in that category. See the full list of winners. "Argo," best picture: Director and producer Ben Affleck joined producers Grant Heslov and George Clooney, as well as the "Argo" cast, to accept the award. Heslov was sure to thank Affleck for his directing, after he was not nominated in that category. See the full list of winners.
The winners list
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
>
>>
Photos: The winners list Photos: The winners list

But "Pi's" bargain-basement metaphysics is like organic fruit salad to the collective Hollywood mindset, irrespective of ideology. And the various trades in movie land from the production designers to the boom operators were likely jazzed by "Pi's" technological achievements, notably the digitally enhanced Bengal tiger that even the movie's harsher critics believed to have stolen the movie from its human actors.

The only other (mildly) unexpected incident Sunday night came with Quentin Tarantino's Oscar for best original screenplay for his cheeky, incendiary antebellum satire, "Django Unchained." Most of the flak Tarantino caught for the movie came from African-Americans, who believed he was at best presumptuous and at worst defamatory in playing fast and loose with the history of American slavery.

Those who stood up to cheer the most emphatically when presenter Dustin Hoffman announced Tarantino's name were African-American actors in the film, including Jamie Foxx and Kerry Washington. As usual, we'll have to wait another 20 years to see which of these movies endures beyond their varied contemporary controversies.

Oh and by the by -- Sunday night's Oscar telecast was as embarrassing as it always is, and not even host Seth MacFarlane's attempts to cover up the embarrassments by commenting about how embarrassed he was couldn't conceal the fact that, yet again, the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences has failed to make its annual pageant appealing to younger audiences without alienating its older patrons.

It would seem the only way to pull that off would be to play things safe while seeming to be rebellious. And Hollywood's usually pretty good at playing pretend games like that -- except when it's not.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Gene Seymour.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 28, 2014 -- Updated 1237 GMT (2037 HKT)
Errol Louis says forced to choose between narrow political advantage and the public good, the governors showed they are willing to take the easy way out over Ebola.
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Eric Liu says with our family and friends and neighbors, each one of us must decide what kind of civilization we expect in the United States. It's our responsibility to set tone and standards, with our laws and norms
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 1145 GMT (1945 HKT)
Sally Kohn says the UNC report highlights how some colleges exploit student athletes while offering little in return
October 26, 2014 -- Updated 1904 GMT (0304 HKT)
Terrorists don't represent Islam, but Muslims must step up efforts to counter some of the bigotry within the world of Islam, says Fareed Zakaria
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Scott Yates says extending Daylight Saving Time could save energy, reduce heart attacks and get you more sleep
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 0032 GMT (0832 HKT)
Reza Aslan says the interplay between beliefs and actions is a lot more complicated than critics of Islam portray
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 1119 GMT (1919 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says control of the Senate will be decided by a few close contests
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1212 GMT (2012 HKT)
The response of some U.S. institutions that should know better to Ebola has been anything but inspiring, writes Idris Ayodeji Bello.
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
Paul Callan says the grand jury is the right process to use to decide if charges should be brought against the police officer
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1619 GMT (0019 HKT)
Theresa Brown says the Ebola crisis brought nurses into the national conversation on health care. They need to stay there.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2235 GMT (0635 HKT)
Patrick Hornbeck says don't buy the hype: The arguments the Vatican used in its interim report would have virtually guaranteed that same-sex couples remained second class citizens
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
The Swedes will find sitting on the fence to be increasingly uncomfortable with Putin as next door neighbor, writes Gary Schmitt
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1632 GMT (0032 HKT)
The Ottawa shooting pre-empted Malala's appearances in Canada, but her message to young people needs to be spread, writes Frida Ghitis
October 26, 2014 -- Updated 0148 GMT (0948 HKT)
Paul Begala says Iowa's U.S. Senate candidate, Joni Ernst, told NRA she has right to use gun to defend herself--even from the government. But shooting at officials is not what the Founders had in mind
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 2208 GMT (0608 HKT)
John Sutter: Why are we so surprised the head of a major international corporation learned another language?
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Jason Johnson says Ferguson isn't a downtrodden community rising up against the white oppressor, but it is looking for justice
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1621 GMT (0021 HKT)
Sally Kohn says a video of little girls dressed as princesses using the F-word very loudly to condemn sexism is provocative. But is it exploitative?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1414 GMT (2214 HKT)
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1135 GMT (1935 HKT)
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
ADVERTISEMENT