The Affleck mystery
The Affleck mystery

When the nominations for the 1989 Academy Awards were read out, movie professionals and fans around the world were surprised and mystified because Driving Miss Daisy received nine Oscar nominations but no room could be found for the film's director, Australian Bruce Beresford.

Admittedly, it was a very strong year, with Beresford being edged out by Oliver Stone (Born on the Fourth of July), Woody Allen (Crimes and Misdemeanors), fellow Aussie Peter Weir (Dead Poets Society), Kenneth Branagh (Henry V) and Jim Sheridan (My Left Foot).

That rumble turned into a roar of disapproval when Driving Miss Daisy went on to win best picture, making it the third year in history (after Wings in 1929 and Grand Hotel in 1931) in which the director of the year's best movie didn't even make the short list.

The absurdity of the situation was highlighted by Billy Crystal, who introduced Driving Miss Daisy as "the picture that directed itself", a rubric that has stuck as closely to the movie as Morgan Freeman's loyal servant did to Jessica Tandy's progressive Deep South matron.

I was curious to see how Beresford felt about being on the receiving end of the most famous Oscar snub in the modern era of the Academy Awards, so I tracked him down to Louisiana where he's preparing to direct a series about America's famed gangster couple, Bonnie and Clyde.

Amazingly, Beresford, 72, feels neither aggrieved nor particularly deserving of the award. "It wasn't surprising. Driving Miss Daisy was easy to direct. It was just pictures of people talking," Beresford says, echoing the famous phrase used by Alfred Hitchcock to disparage directors who did not use all the weapons in the cinematic arsenal.

Beresford also says he didn't attend the Oscar ceremony that year because he wasn't invited, nor did he expect to be. "It wasn't necessary," says Beresford, who is best known for The Adventures of Barry McKenzie, The Getting of Wisdom, Breaker Morant and Mao's Last Dancer.

Beresford's assessment may provide a clue as to why Ben Affleck was also overlooked for a director nomination for Argo. He is almost certain to be the fourth director in history to guide a best picture winner without getting a nomination.

Indeed, the anomaly will be that much greater in the case of Affleck because he and his movie have been cleaning up since the infamous snubbing, beating Steven Spielberg and Lincoln, the one-time Oscar favourites, in every major award, including the Golden Globes, the BAFTAs and the AACTAs. He also bumped off the highly fancied Spielberg in the influential Directors Guild of America Awards.

The ever-affable Affleck, who is Hollywood's current golden boy, has been typically good-natured about missing out on nominations for director and actor.

"We got nominated for seven Oscars, including best picture," he told the New York Times. "If you can't be happy with that, your prospects for long-term happiness are pretty sad."

However, this hasn't stopped Oscar watchers from wondering how a film so widely admired missed out on acknowledgment for the director, especially from industry professionals who know the director signs off on every creative decision.

One theory is that Argo, like Driving Miss Daisy, goes down so easily, so smoothly you don't even notice the man behind the camera.

While Argo is not exactly "pictures of people talking", it doesn't have the attention-grabbing flourishes of Lincoln, with its intellectual boldness and stunning period recreation, or the eye-popping spectacle of Life of Pi (Ang Lee), the offbeat qualities of Silver Linings Playbook (David O. Russell) and Beasts of the Southern Wild (Benh Zeitlin) or the European auteurist gravitas of Amour (Michael Haneke).

Indeed, Argo is the machine-tooled genre movie of the kind Alfred Hitchcock made and for which he was repeatedly overlooked by the Oscars.

Affleck will probably get his Oscar as one of the producers of Argo (along with George Clooney and Grant Heslov) but with only seven nominations it will be one of the smallest hauls for a best picture winner in Academy Award history.

It has only one acting nomination, a best supporting actor nod for Alan Arkin. But he has to contend with four other men who have all won Oscars - Robert De Niro (Silver Linings Playbook), Philip Seymour Hoffman (The Master), Tommy Lee Jones (Lincoln) and Christoph Waltz (Django Unchained).

Chris Terrio will struggle to beat Tony Kushner (Lincoln) for the best adapted screenplay gong, best score is a raffle while the film and sound editing and sound mixing tend to go to bigger, more obviously stylish movies (Inception and Hugo dominated these categories in the past couple of years).

So the Argo factor, the film with the big one but not much else going for it, makes this the most open Academy Awards in memory, one that will have millions of movie fans around the world guessing right up until Sunday evening's ceremony at the Kodak Theatre in Los Angeles (Monday morning Perth time).

There is a fascinating article in The New York Times that gives us a clue as to why Affleck, Tom Hooper (Les Miserables), Kathryn Bigelow (Zero Dark Thirty) and Quentin Tarantino (Django Unchained) all missed out on best director nominations even though their films got the nod, and perhaps give a hint of what might happen on Sunday night.

Michael Cieply of The New York Times says that the rejection of Affleck and co may have to do with the changing nature of the academy, which in the past few years has added to its tiny membership mainly foreign and indie directors, such as Wong Kar Wai, Jacques Audiard and Lone Scherfig.

"Of the 25 directors invited to join the branch in the last three years only one - Adam Shankman, who directed Hairspray and Rock of Ages - has deep roots in the studio world. The rest, by and large, have directed, and presumably admire, small foreign films, like Amour and Beasts of the Southern Wild."

Of course, the rest of the academy will be voting for best director so Haneke will struggle to overcome Spielberg, Lee and Russell as the wider membership slip into the groove we've seen with the other industry awards.

However, without the all-conquering Affleck being in the race the votes may splinter in all directions, with Haneke's Amour, an astonishing drama dealing with ageing and death, holding real appeal to a group of voters whose median age is 62 and with only 14 per cent under 50.

Amour will win best foreign language movie. However, Haneke is a major threat in the best director and best original screenplay categories while his great star, 85-year-old Emmanuelle Riva, is a serious challenge to Silver Linings Playbook's Jennifer Lawrence (Zero Dark Thirty's Jessica Chastain has dropped down in the betting because of the political furore surrounding Bigelow's movie).

Two French movies in a row winning the entertainment industry's biggest prize (following The Artist)? Then we would all really be lost for words in this most intriguing year for the Oscars.

'We got nominated for seven Oscars, including best picture. If you can't be happy with that, your prospects for long-term happiness are pretty sad.' Ben Affleck


The West Australian

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