Argo fete yourself. “Argo,” a rousing fact-based thriller about a plan to spirit US embassy workers out of revolutionary Iran by passing them off as a Canadian film crew, took the top prize at last night’s 85th annual Academy Awards. The film won best picture as well as the awards for best adapted screenplay and editing, and it marks a stunning career return for actor-director Ben Affleck, the once-mocked celebrity turned admired craftsman who accepted the best picture Oscar in a moving acceptance speech.
“It doesn’t matter if you get knocked down in life,” Affleck said onstage. “You’ve gotta get back up.”
As many had predicted, Daniel Day-Lewis won best actor as a canny, folksy President Abraham Lincoln in Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” marking the first time a performer has won the award three times. Jennifer Lawrence won best actress for her role as a troubled young widow in the comedy-drama “Silver Linings Playbook.” At 22, she is the second youngest winner of the award.
If “Argo” was the evening’s big winner, “Life of Pi” was a surprise runner-up, with Ang Lee’s win for best director one of four Oscars for the fantastical tale of a castaway boy and a tiger. And Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” was the night’s unexpected loser, with only two wins — for Day-Lewis’s already legendary lead performance and the film’s production design — despite its 12 nominations, the most of this year’s crop of films.
Anne Hathaway won best supporting actress for her portrayal of the doomed Fantine in “Les Misérables,” a lavish big-screen adaptation of the popular stage musical. Christoph Waltz won best supporting actor for his performance as a whimsical 19th-century bounty hunter in Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained.” It was the Austrian actor’s second nomination and second Oscar; he previously won the award in 2010 for Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds.”
The 85th Academy Awards, held in Hollywood’s Dolby Theatre, were notable for spreading their wealth around. “Amour,” Michael Haneke’s acclaimed drama about an aging couple coping with the end of life, won for best foreign language film. “Life of Pi” also won awards for best cinematography, visual effects, and musical score. “Django Unchained” won best original screenplay for Tarantino’s script. “Anna Karenina” won the Oscar for best costume design for Jacqueline Durran’s Tsarist-era gowns. In addition to Hathaway’s win, “Les Misérables” took awards for best sound mixing and makeup and hairstyling.
“Brave,” a Pixar film about a young girl and her mother bear, won the Oscar for best animated feature. It is the seventh time Pixar has won in this category, a dominance unchallenged by any other animation studio.
The Oscar telecast has faced stiff competition in recent years from the Golden Globes and a growing number of televised awards shows, and producers of the ceremony remain ever-anxious about falling ratings and perceptions that the Academy and its voting members are in danger of aging beyond relevance. In the latest attempt to appeal to younger audiences, Seth MacFarlane of TV’s “Family Guy” and the potty-mouthed screen comedy “Ted” was brought in to add his trademark irreverence to the proceedings (as well as musical song-and-dance numbers inappropriate and otherwise), and the stars of the 2012 box office champ, “The Avengers,” were brought out to present the awards for cinematography and visual effects.
The effects team of “Life of Pi,” led by Bill Westenhofer, accepted the latter award while a group of visual effects workers protested outside the Dolby Theatre, calling for higher wages and better treatment in the wake of a bankruptcy filing by Rhythm & Hues, one of the effects houses that worked on “Pi.” Westenhofer was about to add his voice to their cause when the show’s producers cut off his sound.
Then it was back to unreality with a tribute to the James Bond films highlighted by a 76-year-old Shirley Bassey singing “Goldfinger.” Later in the evening, Adele sang the night’s winning theme for the latest Bond film, “Skyfall.” And, in a nod to older audiences, Barbra Streisand capped the traditional “In Memoriam” segment by singing “The Way We Were” in honor of the song’s late co-writer Marvin Hamlisch.
In other categories, “Searching for Sugar Man,” an audience favorite about the long-neglected singer-songwriter Rodriguez, won best documentary feature. The Disney film “Paperman” won best animated short, “Curfew” won best live-action short, and best documentary short was won by “Inocente,” a film about a homeless teenage girl who is helped by the San Diego organization ARTS/A Reason to Survive, founded and run by Scituate-raised Matt D’Arrigo.
There were a number of firsts going into this year’s ceremonies. The best actress category included both the youngest ever nominee in 9-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis of “Beasts of the Southern Wild” and the oldest in Emmanuelle Riva (“Amour”), who turned 86 yesterday. For the first time in Academy history, an acting category consisted solely of previous winners, with Waltz, Alan Arkin, Robert De Niro, Tommy Lee Jones, and Philip Seymour Hoffman all vying for best supporting honors. And it was the first time the country’s reigning first lady presented the award for best picture.
This year’s Oscar race was also unusual in that many of the nominated films have been popular as well as critical hits. The 2011 best picture winner, “The Artist,” was a black-and-white, French-produced silent film — about as far out of the American commercial mainstream as it’s possible to get. But while the 2012 best picture nominees included such acclaimed art-house films as “Beasts of the Southern Wild” and “Amour,” few had any doubts that one of the more epic, star-driven studio dramas would carry the night.
In a year in which many of the nominated films dealt with political events of the recent or distant past, fierce public debate about historical accuracy and violence in the media dominated the weeks leading up to the awards, with potential nominees arguably losing momentum in the crossfire. Despite critical and popular acclaim for their films, Kathryn Bigelow, Affleck, and Tarantino were all shut out of the best director category. In the case of Bigelow, the furor over the depiction of CIA interrogation tactics in “Zero Dark Thirty” almost certainly contributed to her being snubbed, as well as to the film’s five nominations and one award. It was a night when less divisive visions of America’s past prevailed.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.