If ‘Argo’ wins best picture, who takes the best director Oscar?

Movie people and TV network executives believe that more people will watch the annual Oscar telecast when the nominees include big, popular hits.

If that’s true Sunday night’s telecast should score great numbers because the best picture division is packed with films that have done well at the box office while pleasing many critics.

“Argo,” “Lincoln,” “Silver Linings Playbook” and “Life of Pi” are all in the tradition of such crowd-pleasing best picture winners as “Amadeus,” “Braveheart” and “Terms of Endearment.”

The fact that no one seems quite certain of who will win what should also boost the ratings — there might be at least a few surprises in the top categories, and the prognosticators I’ve been reading all leave room for some dark horse winners.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences threw a monkey wrench into what is often the easiest category to forecast — best picture — by not giving Ben Affleck his expected nomination for best director.

Nine times out of ten, the best picture and director prizes go to the same film, and those two winners are handily forecast when the Directors Guild of America gives out its prize a few weeks before the Oscar.

The DGA winner almost always wins the best director Oscar as well, but a few weeks ago Affleck took that prize and so now a mystery has enshrouded both top Academy Award honors.

There is a widespread belief among critics and industry people alike that “Argo” will win best picture largely because of the surge of sympathy for Affleck not getting a nod in the directing division. If this happens, it will be the first time since 1989 that a movie wins best picture without having its director nominated (the 24-year-old film in question was “Driving Miss Daisy” and the snubbed director was Bruce Beresford).

Because we are now flying blind in the two categories, we face two possibilities — “Argo” takes picture and Steven Spielberg, David O. Russell, Michael Haneke, Ang Lee or Benh Zeitlin wins director; or “Argo” is passed over for best picture and Oscar tradition will be reinforced by having best director and best picture linked once again.

If you had asked me a month ago — when the nominations were announced — what movie was going to win best picture I would have said “Lincoln” and have added that Spielberg would win for best director. It’s a strong film that presents history with intelligence and passion and it also has been a huge box office hit.

I assumed on Oscar nomination morning that “Amour,” “Life of Pi,” “Silver Linings Playbook” and “Beasts of the Southern Wild” didn’t quite have the heft to take the two top prizes (with “Silver Linings Playbook” being a production of Oscar master Harvey Weinstein I didn’t rule it out, however; Weinstein has won in those two categories the past two years for “The Artist” and “The King’s Speech”).

So, what’s going to happen Sunday night?

I don’t know.

“Argo” feels like the best picture winner at this point and if the voters swing that way they could give “Lincoln” the consolation prize in the director category (which should prompt a bitter flashback for Spielberg, who won in the 1998 director’s race, for “Saving Private Ryan,” but saw the best picture statuette go to another Weinstein sleeper, “Shakespeare in Love”).

I’ve read columnists who make good cases for the best director Oscar going to Ang Lee for his extraordinary skill in bringing the challenging “Life of Pi” to the screen (and in 3D) or some folks think the Academy might try to recognize one of the true titans of world cinema and give the prize to Haneke.

And all of the above would be negated if Weinstein manages to pull off a “Silver Linings Playbook” sweep that repeats his underdog Oscar triumphs in past years. The Academy’s affection for the film was amply demonstrated in it getting nominations in all four of the acting categories (something that hasn’t happened since “Reds” 30 years ago).

What all of this means is lots of suspense Sunday night right down to the awarding of the final prize — best picture.

Joe Meyers