Does 'Argo's' WGA Victory Seal The Deal For Oscar?

Tonight’s Writers Guild of America awards show brought further clarity to this year’s topsy turvy awards race but it also brought some embarrassment to the guild. Is there any reason the WGA can’t coordinate the so-called “simutaneous” ceremonies between east coast and west coast so that winners aren’t being tweeted thoughout the room at L.A.’s JW Marriott Hotel Ballroom a full hour before they are announced to the local crowd gathered for the main awards show?

Anyone with a Blackberry or iPhone knew that Argo and Zero Dark Thirty won their respective Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Original Screenplay awards long before the actual winners in Los Angeles even knew thanks to word leaking out of the New York WGA East show. Argo’s scripter Chris Terrio told me he had no idea until it was announced in L.A . that he had won even though that announcement came fully an hour and a half after it was blasted across several websites including Deadline. He said he wondered if something was up when other winners on stage referred to tweets they had received indicating they had won but he never checked. Director Ben Affeck stayed home with the family but told Terrio he would be closely following events on the WGA’s live streaming site. Obviously he had reason to be happy.

Zero Dark Thirty’s Mark Boal told me his phone wasn’t working but he heard about five minutes before his category was announced that he had won . I’m told Sony chief Amy Pascal was even emailing congratulations before the winner was read in L.A.  In his speech Boal mentioned that knowing gave him time to put some words of thanks together. Zero Dark’s  director Kathryn Bigelow , also at the Sony table, said she knew something was up when she looked over and saw me tweeting furiously at a nearby table. Slowly the whole room was getting the word. Half the Lincoln table next to mine clearly knew but seemed to keep the news of the Argo win from Kushner. It seems a shame that an awards ceremony has to be run like this. Can’t we keep it a secret until the envelopes are opened on both coasts?  C’mon this is the social media age. Stuff leaks out fast. Let’s fix it.

As for the show itself it was a classy affair with some first rate acceptances. Valentine Davies special award winner Phil Rosenthal stole it with a particularly funny speech that was at times heartfelt and mostly hilarious. Lincoln’s Tony Kushner also deliverered a fine thank you from the heart upon accepting the guild’s prestigious Paul Selvin Award. And Tom Stoppard’s perfectly pitched acceptance of the Laurel Award for screenwriting was exactly how it should be done and certainly was inspiration for every writer in the room.  It was also nice to see the Breaking Bad team take the series writing award two years in a row as well. Creator Vince Gilligan told me before the show that they are down to their last three episodes ever. When I mentioned rumors that there eventually could be a Breaking Bad movie he shot down the idea. And don’t even think about a  Sopranos -type ending for the series. “We are going to lay it all out on the field,” he said  dismissing any possibility that there will be any question this series has ended once and for all.

As for the meaning of the WGA awards as they relate to Oscars, there are only two days left in Oscar voting so there can’t be too much of a direct impact. But the fact that Argo took the Best Adapted Screenplay prize pretty much seals the deal for this film. If ever there was going to be a place where Lincoln or even Silver Linings Playbook might triumph it was here at the WGA.  And we can’t chalk this win up to simple Argo momentum. The WGA votes were all in by  Friday January 25th , just before the PGA and SAG coronations of Argo were announced. That means there was no big ‘Mo factor at work here and the WGA simply voted what they thought was the best film withoug being influenced by other guilds and awards shows. With Golden Globes, Critics Choice Movie Awards, PGA, DGA, SAG, BAFTA  and now WGA major wins Argo is in just about as commanding a position as any film could possibly be on the cusp of marching into the Academy Awards.

As for Original Screenplay winner Zero Dark Thirty, it’s certainly nice for Boal but it doesn’t cement his Oscar chances in the same category since WGA rules banned Oscar-nominated scripts like Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained and Michael Haneke’s Amour, both front-running Oscar entries. This is still a wide open race at the Academy Awards but the WGA imprimatur gives Boal a nice boost.

And now there is one week to Oscar Sunday. Although Argo will be entering the Dolby theatre as an overwhelming favorite, stranger things have happened and if ever there was a year ripe for upsets it is this one. Casual surveys of Oscar voters turn up no consensus at all in terms of the way the winds are blowing. That could lead to split votes and surprising winners. Or not.  At any rate expect it to be one hell of a ride in the week we have left.

  1. Huh? You want simultaenous ceremonies on both coasts? Are you crazy? That would mean we’d have to use that new-fangled satellite technology and you know how unreliable that stuff is. You’re talking futuristic sci-fi and it’s only 1973 you must come from the future like the year 2000. In case you didn’t know Mr. Smarty Pants there’s a 3 hour time difference between east coast and west coast!

    The only way someone in Los Angeles could know what awards were given out in New York is if an unscrupulous guild member in New York ran to a pay phone and put in a bunch of coins to call long distance to a phone booth in Los Angeles where the information could be verbally conveyed to another guild member and that would be terribly rude and unfair.

    I’m sure by the year 2000 something futuristic might make simultaneous ceremonies possible with those satellites but that’s far in the future. For now we are stuck living in 1973 so we have to make the best of what we’re stuck with. We have electric typewriters to write out scripts on and we should be thankful we have them. No more manual typewriters for the WGA no sir we are now in the modern era!

  2. I enjoyed Speed much the way I would a sleek genre thriller. SPEED with turbans. And I found the writing to be the weakest part: little character development and very few hurdles for their little scheme to overcome.

      1. Spot on! The absolute weakest part of Argo is the writing. ONly Alan Arkin’s character shines and he probably made up most of those Hollywood lines himself. There is no emotional connection to these characters, there is no arc, no involvement by the audience. It clearly pales in comparisons to others who have won in this category.

  3. There is no competition at this point, Argo will win best picture at the oscars. This years oscars are going to be one the most boring and predictable there is no need to watch the oscars to know Argo will win, a movie like argo doesn’t win everything only to lose at the oscars. Argo will win because it’s a movie about the hollywood movie industry saving americans from the bad iranian not because it was the best movie of 2012. No way no how does it deserve best picture over great movies like Lincoln, Zero Dark Thirty, Life of Pi, Amour and Beasts of the southern wild but if crap like Crash can win, Argo can too.

  4. If the oscars truly want to make it a statement, they should vote differently. I can’t believe that everyone thinks that the same picture year after year wins every single pre Oscar and Oscar.

  5. Of all the guilds, the WGA is the worst run. An overbudened bureaucratic joke run by second rate staffers who should be at NOW.

  6. The scorn being heaped on Tony Kushner, Spielberg and Lincoln in general is really puzzling. The Master and Django were the best written of the original end-of-year awards films. ARGO has a weak script and a terrible lead performance. But it’s Hollywood congratulating itself and therefore, trumps all others.

  7. I agree they probably won’t be studying Argo in film schools 20 years from now, but it was the best adapted screenplay this year. Lincoln, like almost all of Tony Kushner’s work, is brilliant but dreadfully uneven and frustratingly unedited. This is especially difficult in film where structure is so key. Silver Linings had wonderful performances but many, many flaws (i.e. Bradley Cooper’s obsessed with his wife for 90% of the movie and then cheerfully forgets about her in a 30 second conversation).
    The real issue is what a weak field the WGA had for original screenplay. I voted for ZDT, but it’s not a great script by any means. There wasn’t one this year.

    1. Sorry to disagree. The Lincoln screenplay is “theatrical” in the best sense of the word. Kushner is not uneven. Take a look at the scene at the beginning of the film, for example, when the couple visit Lincoln and Seward. You can take any scene in this film and present it on stage (again, this is not a bad thing) – great acting parts, poetic dialogue, history embedded in the story, beginning, middle and end. This work will be studied for years to come, and the individual scenes can be an actor’s dream for scene study and auditions. The entire film hangs together, and it’s actually quite brilliant. Because it’s Spielberg and about Lincoln, people don’t think it’s cool. Not everything has to have the How To Write a Screenplay in 10 Days arc. And your comment that we won’t be studying Argo in 20 years speaks volumes. We’re not even studying it now. It’s an embarrassment compared to the other interesting films this year.

      1. I enjoyed Lincoln, my second favorite film of the year (after Argo) so I’m not looking to rip it, but I think the reason it’s being passed over for the highest honors is that while there are many excellent scenes, the pacing and structure don’t truly work. I couldn’t agree more that not everything has to be written with a Sid Fields arc, but the very best movies pack an emotional wallop at the end. Lincoln doesn’t. Yes, there are scenes actors will take to auditions, but that’s a different thing altogether. I’m a fan of Tony Kushner’s, but his signature work, Angels in America, suffered from the same problem. You could have taken an hour out of part 1 or part 2 and had a stronger play. Interestingly, while Angels was fanatically loved by the critics they both parts were commercial failures. Again, the whole was not greater than the sum of the parts. Contrast Lincoln to Spielberg’s Schindler’s List which was structurally superior and more coherent and won every award. It’s not a coincidence.

      2. Kushner’s screenplay for Lincoln was most certainly “theatrical,” but it was not cinematic. As a writer who made his start in theatre, I was both amused and confused by the theatrical nature and structure of the Lincoln; the haggling for votes was the one thin thread of a storyline that attempted to knit together a whole string of incongruous character moments. The argument regarding their son Bob between Abe and Mary in the bedroom was such a scene in which I thought: “this would work on stage, but good lord is it dreadful on film.” I also had the pleasure of attending Kushner’s Q&A at a WGA screening on Lincoln, and was not at all surprised to hear Kushner himself say that the structure of this story came about in the editing bay; his script was no less than a 491 page manifesto that he did not know how to whittle down into a two hour film, so Spielberg chose which 100 pages from it he wanted to film! I don’t disparage Kushner’s literary accomplishments, but to insinuate that his SCREENPLAY (not theatrical manuscript) was anything more than a jumbled mess of dramatic but fleeting moments is to misunderstand the convention of cinematic storytelling.

        1. Once again, “theatrical” is not a dirty word. Spielberg staged the film (and yes, all films are blocked) beautifully. Dialogue between characters can go on longer than two minutes. Going to a talk by Kushner has magnified so-called flaws in your mind after the fact. This was a historical feature film, and I’d rather see important points about Lincoln’s last months included, instead of dropped because of cinematic convention. The “convention of cinematic storytelling” is what has killed auteur cinema in the last 30 years, and now we are reduced to cookie-cutter arcs and fake pacing problems which need to be resolved. Films are created in the editing room, scenes dropped, shortened or even lengthened. No critics have been calling Kushner’s screenplay a jumbled mess – only you.

          1. I’ve seen a tremendous number of films that did not use “conventions of cinematic storytelling”. They were made by people who picked up a camera and pressed “record” — no thought to where to place the camera, how to light the scene, what to focus on at any particular moment, how to “pay off” what is “set up” and vice versa, etc.. And they pretty much all sucked.

            Making a movie without the rules of cinematic storytelling is like writing a novel without the rules of spelling and grammar.

          2. benten32 – Nobody here is using “theatrical” pejoratively. I believe that theatricality can play a supportive, intrinsic, and, at times, crucial role in film. There are many films in which the theatrical nature is germane to the story; films like Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet or Moulin Rouge, Lynch’s Blue Velvet or Mulholland Dr., Hitchcock’s Vertigo, etc. The theatrical elements of certain films are oftentimes necessary to achieve a certain aesthetic and sometimes act as a pertinent part of the story. But in the aforementioned instances of theatricality, I don’t attribute that description to the STRUCTURE of the story. I also do not subscribe to the McKee notion that the inciting incident must happen on page 17 or the like, but our characters must achieve a dramatic change by actively doing something to bring about a transformation both in circumstances and in character. What many are commenting on, myself included, is that the story structure employed in Lincoln was occasionally incoherent in its intentions.

            Was it character-driven? Sort of, since the titular character is the main focus. But then again, he’s one of the least proactive characters story-wise; James Spader’s character was one of the few active ones in the film (aside: I thought Spader was excellent). If we were to cut out all the scenes regarding Robert, Abe’s eldest who joins the Union Army, it would not change the story or the plot of the film. As subject matter, Robert provided a reason for Abe and Mary to have a dramatic marital spat. In theatre, this is a common structural practice because plays are far more character-focused than story-driven, and they should be. And don’t write me off here as only appreciating “plotty” films because I’ll admit right now that The Master was one of my favorite films of the year.

            So was Lincoln plot-driven? It sometimes tried to be, using the accrual of votes for the amendment as a clock-device to tell the audience where we are in our story. The countdown to the vote was indeed one of those “fake pacing problems” that you mentioned.

            The point here is that Kushner, while a supremely talented writer with a gift for research and rhetoric, did not write this year’s best SCREENplay. And technically, the film we saw was comprised of chosen moments made up from only 20% or so of what Kushner put to paper. Many moments, and perhaps the whole piece, could translate brilliantly as a staged piece in a theater, but Kushner was not adapting a theatrical play and transplanting it to film, a la Taymor’s Titus or The Tempest. He was writing a movie, one that is meant to live within its two and a half hours of existence, and in that time impart a focused and nuanced story whose characters struggle, adapt, and achieve in a way that is evocative and entertaining.

    2. ZDT may not have been a great script – not even sure what the criteria for that is – but it certainly is the best original screenplay of the year. The structure worked brilliantly, building up suspense and tension right to the climax. What I loved about it is how neatly Mark Boal buried its theme within the story, how he managed to have both protagonist and antagonist express a quality – that of inhumanity – but to different effect. You have an antagonist (Osama) who long lost his humanity and turned into a mass murderer, and a protagonist who must now suspend this same sense of humanity and come to see Osama’s capture – dead or alive, but especially dead – as a cause to celebrate. This for me is why Maya cries at the end of the film rather settle into celebration; for a brief moment she realizes that she may have just been as wicked as the man whose death she engineered. You know, her life’s purpose comes to be of zero existential reward, zero emotional payoff.

      As for the adapted category, haven’t watched Lincoln, but I won’t have a problem with Life of Pi winning. The script was wonderfully layered. I love how in the end Pi poses a question to the audience – Which story do you want to believe – but in a manner so indirect as to not break the third wall.

  8. Brokeback Mountain also won every award up to oscars (except SAG) and still lost the race. After a best director snub for Argo, giving Argo Best Picture would show that the reason for snubbing Affleck is personal and the whole academy would come under fire. They certainly don’t want that. Argo will lose best picture.

  9. I find the script writer’s comments on Zero Dark Thirty interesting thus far. Especially at the fact some beliece Bigalow’s film isn’t going to win best picture. It’s like he and Bigalow have been dogged with controversary from the onset over that few seconds of waterboarding in the film itself.
    I can see why Argo is winning every award left and right among the guilds.

  10. “Argo.” Fine picture, screenplay, film. Affleck great new director. And this may have been a successful C.I.A. initiative. But I don’t understand why its narrative embellishments have not been as subject to the cross-fire that “Lincoln” (very isolated at that) and “Zero Dark Thirty” have been subject to. It’s got to be the way that Hollywood invention and C.I.A. invention are posited as the very same thing. Supposed to be celebrated even. I find that disconcerting at best. I haven’t seen “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” Having said that, preceding full disclosure aside therefore this is an ignorant statement technically, I would be most comfortable with a toss-up between “Les Miserables,” and “Lincoln.” Big pictures with important themes that translate unambiguously – love “Silver Linings Playbook” – but some gravitas for the Best Picture winner would be nice. I’m of the opinion that the Hollywood movie business needs that now. Ambitious and smart therefore differentiated from mindless “Mission Impossible”-style franchise. Particularly liked Tom Hooper’s use of special effects in “Les Miserables,” that sequence of law man Russell Crowe’s shaky but steady voice facing but distant from Paris’ Notre Dame a subtle take – laugh all you want – on contemporary American foreign policy; the special effects don’t get talked about enough and neither does Crowe. Everybody showed up with an “American Idol” take on his voice. That was the point. Counterpoint to everybody else but similarly vulnerable to his own interpretation of beliefs – which is how we wound up with losers who supposedly can’t sing like Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits. The movie wouldn’t work as well as it does without him. His vocals were possessed of a natural and unforced soulfulness. In my opinion. Hooper’s exclusion – and I didn’t think that much of “The King’s Speech” – bewildering – I think in terms of look and feel “Les Mis” is an innovative movie musical – Bigelow’s exclusion just as bewildering, a heroic effort of using film as a measuring gauge of truthfulness as well as the limitations of “dramatization” – although I question big time to what extent the filmmakers were played and used by the C.I.A. That’s the thing with the C.I.A. – they work the system and human character and decency in so many devious ways so that the phrase “time will tell” – won’t. Most especially about them.

    But enough about Obama’s and Clinton’s finessing of Benghazi.

    1. Seriously? Talk about a pathetic dose of rambling horse crap. Find a blog and some sad sack followers but please don’t post here.

  11. And no one anywhere, at any time, gave you the moral or ethical right to be on anybody’s computer any time you feel like it and for any reason you dream up. It’s like John McCain sets your timetable. Take, take, take…and so ungracious about the decency, good will, and generosity that’s gone on for years, 24 hours a day and uncompensated. Were you on Jay Moloney’s and Tony Scott’s? Don’t be touchy, touchy, touchy.

  12. You must be Ben Affleck. I think your performance was excellent and unfairly maligned! Sort of like a cross between Harpo Marx and Hattie McDaniel.

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