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
September 13, 2014 -- Updated 1620 GMT (0020 HKT)
Joe Torre and Esta Soler say much has been achieved since a landmark anti-violence law was passed.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2055 GMT (0455 HKT)
David Wheeler wonders: If Scotland votes to secede, can America take its place and rejoin England?
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2207 GMT (0607 HKT)
Jane Stoever: Society must grapple with a culture in which 1 in 3 teen girls and women suffer partner violence.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2036 GMT (0436 HKT)
World-famous physicist Stephen Hawking recently said the world as we know it could be obliterated instantaneously. Meg Urry says fear not.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2211 GMT (0611 HKT)
Bill Clinton's speech accepting the Democratic nomination for president in 1992 went through 22 drafts. But he always insisted on including a call to service.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2218 GMT (0618 HKT)
Joe Amon asks: What turns a few cases of disease into thousands?
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
A Scottish vote for independence next week could trigger wave of separatist tension in Europe, says Frida Ghitis.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2212 GMT (0612 HKT)
You couldn't call him a "Bond villain" in the grand context of Dr. No or Auric Goldfinger. They were twisted visionaries of apocalypse whose ideas were to be played out at humanity's expense.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 1705 GMT (0105 HKT)
As a Latina activist I was hurt to hear the President would delay executive action to keep undocumented immigrants with no criminal record from getting deported.
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 1721 GMT (0121 HKT)
Sally Kohn says bombing ISIS will worsen instability in Iraq and strengthen radical ideology in terrorist groups.
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 2224 GMT (0624 HKT)
Stevan Weine says the key is to stop young people from acquiring radicalized beliefs in the first place.
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 1730 GMT (0130 HKT)
Analysts weigh in on the president's plans for addressing the threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 1227 GMT (2027 HKT)
US Currency is seen in this January 30, 2001 image. AFP PHOTO/Karen BLEIER (Photo credit should read KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images)
Lisa Gilbert says a million people have asked the SEC to make corporations disclose political contributions.
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 0455 GMT (1255 HKT)
Christi Paul says unless you've walked in an abused woman's shoes, don't judge her, help her get answers to the right questions: Why does he get to hit her? And why does nobody do anything to stop him?
September 10, 2014 -- Updated 1932 GMT (0332 HKT)
Mel Robbins says several other NFL players arrested recently in domestic violence are back on the field. Roger Goodell has shown he is clueless on abuse. He must go.
September 10, 2014 -- Updated 1759 GMT (0159 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says President Obama has a remarkable opportunity Wednesday night to mobilize support for a coalition against ISIS.
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 0041 GMT (0841 HKT)
The Texas senator says Obama should seek congressional authorization for a major bombing campaign vs. ISIS.
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 1327 GMT (2127 HKT)
Artist Prune Nourry's project reinterprets the terracotta warriors in an exhibition about gender preference in China.
September 10, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
The Apple Watch is on its way. Jeff Yang asks: Are we ready to embrace wearables technology at last?
ADVERTISEMENT