Off the Carpet: Ang Lee's position in all of this

Posted by · 9:31 am · January 28th, 2013

I have to say, it was nice to spend a week or so away from the Oscar fray, and for its part, the Oscar fray seemed to be very content with putting things on hold while the Sundance Film Festival did its thing in the mountains of Utah. I guess maybe that’s one good thing about this season’s scheduling change: room to breathe in January.

But the festival is over and now it’s back to our regularly scheduled programming, with the deep dive happening this weekend as the guild awards got going. And the question rises once again: What’s going to win Best Picture? Though that would seem to have been answered by the events of the last two days, it’s still a question for some.

But I’ll leave that for now. Lately I’ve been curious about the Best Director race. With an “Argo” win would obviously come a split director decision (unless that write-in stuff finds traction). My instinct has been Steven Spielberg, because “Lincoln” is a hell of an accomplishment and even if I’m betting “Argo” will reap the benefits of the preferential ballot system (born out by its victory Saturday), it still makes sense for Spielberg to get some love.

But what about Ang Lee? “Life of Pi” is clearly strong throughout, and I started wondering about its potential to win Best Picture and a whole lot more besides right after the nominations. (That’s the fun of this season, by the way — I don’t think I’ve gone back and forth so much in an Oscar race.) But each and every time Lee has been in the race, it’s been a tight and interesting year for Best Director.

It started in 1995, when he was snubbed by the directors branch for Best Picture nominee “Sense and Sensibility” after netting a DGA nod. Interestingly enough, that was the same year Ron Howard won the DGA after also getting snubbed by the directors branch, which is an instance many are pointing to to back up the notion that Affleck could pull off the same feat next weekend. Lee and Howard were replaced by Chris Noonan (“Babe”) and Tim Robbins (“Dead Man Walking”) by the Academy’s directors branch.

Five years later came probably the tightest Oscar race we’d see until this year. In 2000, “Gladiator” was our Best Picture winner, yet Ridley Scott never seemed like a safe bet for Best Director. That’s probably because, after Lee won the DGA for “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” his film was suddenly a potential winner of the big prize. Then on Oscar night, Steven Soderbergh shocked them both by winning Best Director for “Traffic.” That’s how you get a split: a tight race.

Five MORE years later, we got one of the great (overblown) scandals in recent Oscar history. Lee’s “Brokeback Mountain” dominated the precursor circuit and appeared to be the chosen one. On Oscar night, nothing seemed amiss as the film won Best Adapted Screenplay as expected and Lee picked up his first Oscar ever for Best Director. Then Jack Nicholson opened the envelope and out came “Crash” (and a lot of bitching).

And now, seven years removed from that night, Lee is in another interesting position. He’s likely battling it out with Spielberg for the trophy this year. Michael Haneke, David O. Russell and Benh Zeitlin all feel like longshots. And if Affleck or Bigelow were in the mix, they’d be predicted by many, I’m sure. Does the Academy let awards for (maybe) screenplay and actor suffice for “Lincoln” and go with Lee? Do they let crafts category wins suffice for “Life of Pi” and go with Spielberg? Who knows?

It could be a mystery all the way up until the envelope is opened. The BAFTA Awards are two weeks from today. Perhaps they’ll help shed some light on a couple of races, like Best Actress, where there is still some question about Emmanuelle Riva. Will “Life of Pi” come on strong there? It certainly could. And maybe the Best Director field will suddenly be illuminated, and Ang Lee will pull off his second Academy win, in yet another bizarre Oscar race.

He’s used to them by now.

Check out my updated predictions HERE and, as always, see how Guy Lodge, Greg Ellwood and I collectively think the season will turn out at THE CONTENDERS.

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