Argo named Best Picture in varied Oscars field
Brooks Barnes and Michael Cieply, The New York Times
Monday, February 25, 2013 (Los Angeles)                                  
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Hollywood gave its top honour to Ben Affleck's Argo at a song-and-dance-filled Academy Awards ceremony, completing a remarkable turnaround for a film that was once a long-shot contender.

But in a break from recent years, Oscar voters also found a way to take care of a wide variety of movies, especially Life of Pi, which won four trophies, including the best director honor for Ang Lee. Les Miserables joined Argo in taking home three awards, and Django Unchained was honoured with two, including one for Quentin Tarantino for best original screenplay.

Michelle Obama, wearing a silver gown and appearing via satellite, helped Jack Nicholson present the best picture award.

Only a decade ago, Affleck would have been a punch line at the Academy Awards, having taking an unfortunate career turn through flops like Gigli and Reindeer Games. But he has turned out several highly praised films in recent years, gaining prestige along the way. His ascent culminated with Argo, a tale of a cinematic cover for an escape from revolutionary Iran.

Still, Affleck was not nominated by the Academy for his directing, making Argo the first film to win best picture without an accompanying nomination for its director since 1990, when Driving Miss Daisy won the best-picture Oscar. When Affleck failed to receive a nomination for directing, it helped rally support for Argo, which has picked up a rash of honours on the awards circuit.

Nearly simultaneously Lincoln, considered the early Oscar frontrunner, seemed to over-reach by getting Bill Clinton to introduce a clip at the Golden Globes last month. Lincoln, the most nominated film going into the night with 12 nods, left with two statuettes, including one for Daniel Day-Lewis as best actor, his third such win.

"This is nuts," a flustered Jennifer Lawrence said as she recovered from tripping up the stairs en route to accepting the Oscar for best actress for Silver Linings Playbook.

Seth MacFarlane, this year's host, opened the 85th annual Academy Awards with a round of risky humor more akin to the Golden Globes, delivering a monologue that mocked himself as "the worst Oscar host ever" and joining with the Gay Men's Chorus of Los Angeles to perform a song-and-dance homage to topless scenes by female stars.

"We saw your boobs," they chanted to nervous giggles from the audience.

MacFarlane's performance from there oscillated between inside jabs at attendees, joking at one point about George Clooney's history of dating very young women, and one-liners that showcased his juvenile brand of humor. "I would argue that the actor who really got inside Lincoln's head was John Wilkes Booth," MacFarlane cracked to apparent winces from the audience.

The Oscars also seemed to emulate the Grammy Awards, with more emphasis on centerpiece performances - by Adele, Shirley Bassey and Barbra Streisand, among others _than on the presentation of awards. The much-advertised musical tribute, which ran for 11 minutes, had it both ways, mixing clips from films with live performances by Catherine Zeta-Jones, from Chicago; Jennifer Hudson, in Dreamgirls; and the cast of Les Miserables.

The producers made up time by hustling awards winners off the stage. But they did it musically, of course, with riffs from Jaws and the Bonanza television show. Most winners seemed to adhere to the admonishments made by producers before the show to avoid reading from a prepared remarks.

The awards presentation at the Dolby Theater unfolded pretty much as expected, with voters spreading their awards across a variety of pictures. Voters even found a way to honour Anna Karenina, which drew shrugs from most critics and ticketbuyers but nonetheless won best costume design.

Anne Hathaway won best supporting actress for her role as an emaciated prostitute in Les Miserables. "It came true," she said softly after climbing onstage. Christoph Waltz won best supporting actor for Django Unchained, something of a surprise given the Weinstein Co.'s hard push for Robert De Niro for his role in Silver Linings Playbook.

"We participated in a hero's journey, the hero here being Quentin," Waltz said of Tarantino.

Best animated feature went to Pixar's Brave, which beat its corporate sibling, Wreck-It Ralph, from Walt Disney Animation. Disney's cartoon studio did win best animated short, for Paperman. (Paul Rudd and Melissa McCarthy turned the animated-short award presentation into a strange performance piece, going on longer than some shorts.)

Best documentary feature went to Searching for Sugar Man, from first-time director Malik Bendjelloul - the only feel-good documentary in a list that otherwise wrestled with grim problems like the AIDS epidemic and the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. Michael Haneke's Amour, about an elderly couple coping with illness and death, won best foreign film.

There was a rare tie in the sound editing category, with Oscars going to Zero Dark Thirty and Skyfall. The last time there was a tie was in 1994 in the live action short category, according to an Academy librarian. It was the only award given to Zero Dark Thirty, which was once a leading best picture contender but fizzled under intense criticism for its depiction of torture in the hunt for Osama bin Laden.

Honouring a wide variety of pictures is a hallmark of the Golden Globes and the producers of Sunday's telecast, Neil Meron and Craig Zadan, also worked to give their ceremony a more laid-back atmosphere, hoping to emulate the festiveness of the Globes. Meron said on Tuesday that the words "Academy Awards," for instance, had been dropped from the show's title ("The Oscars") because they sounded "musty."

The celebrity-packed telecast was as musical as any since 1989, when the producer Allan Carr (Grease) opened the show with a campy production number that found Snow White joining Rob Lowe in an ill-advised sendup of Proud Mary. That show got a significant ratings bump, but Hollywood recoiled - Disney sued for unauthorized use of a copyrighted character - and Carr's show is remembered as one of the worst of all time.

Hollywood has learned to have low expectations for the Oscar telecast, which for the past three years has posted declines among viewers ages 18 to 49, the demographic group advertisers pay the most to reach. (Last year the Oscar show attracted a total audience of 39.3 million viewers, a 3.7 percent increase from the previous year.)

The Academy, desperate to attract younger viewers, hired Hathaway and James Franco to be hosts in 2011.

Critics booed, complaining in particular about a near-catatonic Franco. Last year the Academy overcorrected, handing hosting duties to Billy Crystal; the critics hissed, calling the show antiquated. It had hoped to strike the right chord with MacFarlane.

The Academy was counting on MacFarlane to lure young male viewers, the primary audience for his Family Guy television cartoon and R-rated movie Ted. But in a bit of a disconnect Zadan, making the publicity rounds last week, said MacFarlane in rehearsals reminded him of a "throwback to the days of Bob Hope."

Oscar telecasts tend to rise and fall among total viewers based on the popularity of the movies being honored. Last year the winning film, The Artist, was seen only sparsely by audiences, and only one of the nine nominated films - The Help - had taken in more than $100 million in North America before the ceremony. This time six films have crossed that threshold: Lincoln, Argo, Life of Pi, Django Unchained, Les Miserables and Silver Linings Playbook.

Close behind with about $90 million in ticket sales is Zero Dark Thirty, which lost Oscar steam as it came under attack from members of Congress and others for its depiction of torture as a tool in the hunt for Osama bin Laden. Oscar voters snubbed Kathryn Bigelow, who directed the film, leaving its writer, Mark Boal, as its best hope of winning, in the adapted screenplay category.

The Academy began its voting process and announced its nominees about two weeks earlier this season. That gave contenders less time to campaign for a nomination, and more time to enjoy one.

But it did nothing to make the race less taxing for the contenders, most of whom trotted from one awards gala to another, a grind that can make even the freshest face a shade too familiar. In past years stars like Diablo Cody and Kate Winslet began to show some wear as they traversed the awards circuit; this year Lawrence and Affleck were among the overexposed. On the upside, even losers were rewarded lavishly for their trouble: Oscar nominee gift bags contained an estimated $45,000 in free stuff.

After years of watching independent film companies or art-house-oriented subsidiaries dominate the Oscars, the major studios finally stepped into the limelight. Of the nine most-nominated films - led by Lincoln, with 12, and Life of Pi, with 11 - seven were distributed by major studios.

The Weinstein Co., with Silver Linings Playbook and Django Unchained, accounted for the other two.

The Oscars may go up and down in the ratings, but revenue from the show keeps rising. Last year the Academy took in a record $89.6 million from the show, up about 5 percent from $85.5 million the year before.

© 2013 New York Times News Service

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