Right now, the "Argo" train to the Best Picture podium seems unstoppable. After all, over the weekend, it won the Directors Guild Award for Ben Affleck, the movie's last major hurdle on the way to Oscar night victory. Still, the situation is so unprecedented that there are still some understandable doubts that "Argo" can win in a situation where no film has ever won before.

That is, no movie has ever won the DGA prize, failed to earn a Best Director Oscar nomination, and then gone on to win the Best Picture Oscar.

The voting rationales of Hollywood's directors remain a puzzle. After all, many of the people who awarded him their top prize over the weekend are the same directors who failed even to nominate him at the Oscars. Which position reflects their thinking on "Argo": the Academy snub or the DGA laurel? Maybe the directors' position has evolved; we should probably assume the more recent development indicates the way they're going to vote on Best Picture.

At the very least, this makes the Academy Award for Best Director a puzzle, since Affleck and Kathryn Bigelow can't win. Some pundits think it will go to Michael Haneke ("Amour"), a veteran master of European art cinema who's long overdue for Academy honors. But if the directors were going to pick age over beauty, they'd have picked Haneke or Steven Spielberg ("Lincoln") or Ang Lee ("Life of Pi") for the DGA prize. And the other guilds, whose members also overlap with Academy voting blocs, have all done the same. So the Academy may instead go for a younger director; indeed, one joke making the rounds has it that first-timer Benh Zeitlin ("Beasts of the Southern Wild") was nominated because Academy voters thought they were picking the other Ben.

The likeliest beneficiary of the Best Director vacuum may be David O. Russell ("Silver Linings Playbook"). After all, the "SLP" team has been all over the place promoting the film. The three Americans among the film's four acting nominees -- Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, and Robert De Niro -- have been all over the talk show and film festival circuits over the last couple of weeks. This past week, Best Actress frontrunner Lawrence picked up the Performer of the Year prize at the Santa Barbara Film Festival, while the usually publicity-shy De Niro immortalized himself in concrete outside Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, in a splashy public ceremony emceed by Oscar pundit Dave Karger. All of this is perfectly above-board and not uncommon behavior among Oscar campaigners, but the timing is hardly coincidental. And it seems to be working, to the extent that what once appeared a "Lincoln"-vs,-"Zero Dark Thirty" race now appears an "Argo"-vs.-"Silver Linings Playbook" race.

Most of the 20 acting nominees were present at Monday's Academy luncheon, an annual rite that used to be an informal way for all the nominees to mingle and congratulate each other, but which is now a publicity event and a full-fledged campaign-trail whistle-stop. The actors who show up aren't expected to do more than show up, dress well, express their admiration for the other stars present, and avoid getting food stuck in their teeth. Even Tommy Lee Jones was there smiling, an apparent indication that the usually taciturn "Lincoln" co-star would like to defend his front-runner status in the Best Supporting Actor race. In contrast, "Lincoln" lead Daniel Day-Lewis didn't show, but he's so far ahead of the Best Actor pack that not even his absence among Monday's glad-handers will hurt his chances.

With balloting set to begin in earnest on Friday, Feb. 8, and with less than two weeks of voting to follow, there's not much time left for anyone to challenge the perceptions that have already hardened. Barring some major upheaval, the race is pretty much locked into place.

UPDATE: Daniel Day-Lewis' publicist tells Moviefone that the actor didn't attend Monday's Oscar luncheon because he and his entire family have the flu, that he informed the Academy on Sunday that he'd have to miss the event, and that the banquet was "one of the things this season that he was most looking forward to." Fair enough. Nonetheless, this column didn't speculate as to why he was absent; nor did it suggest that he was deliberately snubbing the Academy or his fellow competitors. It noted only that he is such a sure thing in his category that not even his missing the luncheon is likely to affect his support among Academy voters.
categories Movies