Best Picture for ‘Argo’ in Varied Oscar Field

February 26th, 2013

LOS ANGELES — Hollywood gave its top honor to Ben Affleck’s “Argo” at a song-and-dance-filled Academy Awards ceremony on Sunday, 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 Misérables” joined “Argo” in taking home three awards, and “Django Unchained” was honored with two, including one for Quentin Tarantino for best original screenplay.

“I want to thank Canada,” Mr. Affleck said in a rapid-fire speech, a reference to that country’s heroics in saving the diplomats who were the subject of his movie. Michelle Obama, wearing a silver gown and appearing via satellite from the White House, helped Jack Nicholson present the award.

Only a decade ago Mr. Affleck would have been a punch line at the Academy Awards, having taken 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, Mr. 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 Mr. Affleck failed to receive a nomination for directing that helped rally support for “Argo,” which picked up a rash of honors on the awards circuit. On Sunday it also won Oscars for best adapted screenplay (for Chris Terrio) and best editing (for William Goldenberg).

“Lincoln,” considered the early Oscar front-runner, seemed to overreach 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 in that category.

In a gracious acceptance speech, he thanked his “beloved skipper,” the film’s director, Steven Spielberg, and concluded by saying “For my mother.”

A flustered Jennifer Lawrence stumbled as she ascended the stairs en route to accepting the Oscar for best actress for “Silver Linings Playbook,” but recovered with a smile before saying “this is nuts.”

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.

Mr. 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,” Mr. 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 Misérables.”

The producers made up time by hustling awards winners off the stage, doing it musically with a riff from “Jaws” in at least one case. Most winners seemed to adhere to the admonishments made by producers before the show to avoid reading prepared remarks.

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

Anne Hathaway won best supporting actress for her role as an emaciated prostitute in “Les Misérables.” “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 Company’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,” Mr. Waltz said of Mr. Tarantino.

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 for “Zero Dark Thirty,” which was once a leading best picture contender but fizzled under intense criticism for its depiction of the role of torture in the hunt for Osama bin Laden.

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.”

Best documentary feature went to “Searching for Sugar Man,” from the 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-language film.

Honoring 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. Mr. Meron said last 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 Mr. 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 Ms. Hathaway and James Franco to be hosts in 2011. Critics booed, complaining in particular about a near-catatonic Mr. 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 Sunday with Mr. MacFarlane.

The Academy was counting on Mr. 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 Mr. Zadan, making the publicity rounds last week, said Mr. 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 had crossed that threshold: “Lincoln,” “Argo,” “Life of Pi,” “Django Unchained,” “Les Misérables” and “Silver Linings Playbook.”

Close behind with about $ 90 million in ticket sales was “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 original screenplay category.

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 five percent from $ 85.5 million the year before.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: February 25, 2013

An earlier version of this article misidentified the award for which Mark Boal, the writer of “Zero Dark Thirty,” was nominated. It was for best original screenplay, not best adapted screenplay.

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