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Those who saw ‘Argo’ as best-picture long shot are singing a new tune

Historians say the lesson of history is that there’s no such thing as a foreseeable future. Honest Oscar forecasters would have to agree.

When Emma Stone and Seth MacFarlane announced the best picture nominees Jan. 10, pundits immediately declared a front-runner. “The contest has come down to one film, and it’s ‘Lincoln,’ an excellent, very popular movie by a great director on a subject that inspires, uplifts, redeems. It’s the perfect Academy movie,” wrote Wesley Morris, the Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic for the website Grantland.

Goldderby.com, which collates the opinions of entertainment journalists nationwide, gave Spielberg’s history lesson commanding 4-1 odds of winning best picture. Online bookmaker Bovada put actual money on the race, giving “Lincoln” 2-5 odds. (It might seem odd that a betting concern based in Latvia is one of the leading Oscar oddsmakers, but bear in mind that in Nevada and many other localities, gaming houses don’t offer betting on such non-sports competitions.)

In mid-January, “Argo” looked like an afterthought in the best film category. It was a fact-based spy caper with a hefty dose of inside-the-industry humor about Hollywood types who build a cover story concealing a CIA rescue mission to Iran. The film garnered seven nominations, including best supporting actor for Alan Arkin, but not a prestigious best actor or director nod (best picture and director Oscars traditionally go hand in hand).

The movie was undeniably polished and uplifting. Still, it lacked the brio of “Django Unchained,” the moral complications of “Zero Dark Thirty,” the operatic intensity of “Les Miserables,” the gravitas of “Amour,” the life-affirming zest of “Silver Linings Playbook,” or the visionary sweep of “Beasts of the Southern Wild” and “Life of Pi.” The best picture nomination looked like a symbolic gesture commending director/star Ben Affleck for crafting a good, facile piece of commercial entertainment.

What a difference a month makes. The story of an improbable escape plot has become the unlikely front-runner for Hollywood’s highest honor. Over the past four weeks “Argo” has surged, becoming almost every commentator’s top contender.

The reassessment follows a string of meaningful wins in the run-up to the big show. The movie won best film at the Producers Guild, Affleck won at the Directors Guild, and both triumphed at the Golden Globes, Britain’s BAFTAs and the broadcast film critics’ Critics’ Choice Awards. The Screen Actors Guild, the Academy’s largest voting bloc, awarded “Argo’s” cast its prize for best ensemble performance. Hedging its bets, bookmaker Bovado boosted “Argo” to the likeliest winner, with odds of 2-7.

Suddenly the afterthought was a juggernaut.

This is hardly the first time a dark horse has made a last-minute charge to the head of the pack. Just ask Spielberg about Oscar night 1999. Presenter Harrison Ford looked a little shocked as he read the best picture results. The lightweight romantic comedy “Shakespeare in Love” trounced “Saving Private Ryan” even though Spielberg had beaten “Shakespeare’s” John Madden as best director. The upset was seen as a triumph of canny campaigning by Miramax chief Harvey Weinstein, with backroom lobbying speaking louder than the films’ artistic merits.

In 2006, another of this year’s best director nominees, Ang Lee, was heavily favored to win a best picture prize for his emotionally intense cowboy love story “Brokeback Mountain.” The film swept up critics’ and guild prizes, but lost to “Crash,” a sprawling drama about race relations in Los Angeles that opened to mixed reviews. The win was greeted with gasps of astonishment inside the Kodak Theatre.

Perhaps it shouldn’t have come as such a shock. “Crash’s” huge ensemble cast won the crucial SAG award, and some Oscar observers reasoned that virtually every actor voting for the film shared an agent, manager or publicist with someone on-screen in “Crash.”

Others linked “Brokeback” backlash to voters’ discomfort with the film’s frank portrait of a gay romance. Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan said the problem wasn’t with the film’s quality, but its subject matter. “You could not take the pulse of the industry,” he wrote, “without realizing that this film made people distinctly uncomfortable.”

This year, it’s not an issue of discomfort, but of which film makes movie-industry voters feel better about themselves. Hollywood adores films about Hollywood, and “Argo” paints its filmmaker characters as brilliant hucksters more adept at the art of deception than even career secret agents.

John Goodman plays the late makeup man John Chambers, a real-life Oscar winner. Arkin plays composite character Lester Siegel, a gruff, crafty producer. They gear up the Hollywood dream factory to hoodwink the Iranians with dazzling posters and storyboards and save the day for the U.S. government.

Despite “Argo’s” surge, the other major categories have shifted little. Bovada still calls Spielberg the man to beat for best director, though with less certainty. Daniel Day-Lewis’ odds of winning best actor for “Lincoln” have dramatically improved. Jennifer Lawrence (“Silver Linings Playbook”) has slipped slightly as the best actress favorite. Tommy Lee Jones (“Lincoln”) is holding steady as the best supporting actor pick. The bet-the-mortgage favorite to win best supporting actress is Anne Hathaway (Les Miserables”).

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