Pete Hammond

This same time last year, no one was seriously considering the awards prospects of a little Deep South sports-themed movie called The Blind Side. Not even after I saw the film at a small screening on the Warner Bros lot and wrote in early November 2009 that I thought Sandra Bullock  would, against all expectations at the time, become a major Oscar contender. Instead, commenters and bloggers vilified my prediction. Of course, she not only went on to win, the film received a Best Picture nomination. Now everyone in Oscar punditry is looking for the “next Blind Side” with many eyes focused on the feel-good Disney sports drama, Secretariat that was sneaked last weekend to pump up word of mouth and tracking before its Friday opening. In many ways, the comparisons are apt. Both are true stories about one woman’s singular cause: taking an athlete  from rags to riches. In this case, though, that athlete is a horse and the woman is owner Penny Chenery played by Diane Lane who, unlike Bullock at this point, has already made several  potential Best Actress nominee short lists. And, with 10 nominees to pick for Best Picture,  the “Blind Side slot” for an old-fashioned feel-good movie the Academy falls for as much as the general public, even if critics don’t, is not out of the question for a crowd pleaser like Secretariat. Providing it is first able to achieve hit status at the box office. Its Rotten Tomatoes rating currently stands at 63% fresh and Roger Ebert has called it “a great movie” although the basic critical consensus is mixed, just as it was for Blind Side. Hip factor and critics aside though, the Academy has already shown a predilection for this particular type of “stand up and cheer” movie by nominating Universal’s Seabiscuit for 7 Oscars including Best Pic in 2003 and that was when there were just a measly 5 nominees.

Secretariat director Randall Wallace has previous Oscar experience: he was a screenwriting nominee for the 1995 Best Picture winner Braveheart and is not drawing comparisons. “The Academy has a mind of its own. It’s interesting the whole notion of what makes something Oscar-worthy,” he told me in a phone conversation yesterday. “I’m in the Academy and my criteria has to do with how it affects my heart and whether something is authentic. I don’t know whether Braveheart was thought to be a frontrunner or a dark horse, but you don’t make these movies with the idea of winning awards. You win awards for making a powerful movie.” Wallace is confident his new movie will find an audience wherever it’s shown, pointing to research he says Nielsen did after last Saturday’s sneaks. “The scores we have gotten have not been equaled  except by 2 or 3 movies in the entire history of the studio. However we open, we open. But I believe word of mouth is gonna be real satisfying.”

Secretariat, of course, is the inspiring story of the 1973 Triple Crown winner now considered to be the greatest racehorse who ever lived, and is the first project Wallace has been part of that he didn’t originate as a writer. His other two previous directing credits are The Man In The Iron Mask (1998) and We Were Soldiers (2002), but the saga of Secretariat had a message he wanted to tell in these tough times. “I loved the unmitigated joy of this story. I think that is rare in our world today. I know I need a sense of celebration in a movie, and I was thrilled to find that in this one,” he says. Making it all work was another matter since Wallace’s goal was to put the audience right in the thick of the races, not an easy task. “That meant we had to shoot this story in an original way. We had to make an original sound design. I had to cast real jockeys instead of actors pretending to be jockeys. And all of that  made for high adrenaline for me,”  he says. To insure this was all state-of–the-art, his team started with half-millon-dollar cameras but found they weren’t good enough. What they finally settled on were little “consumer cameras” that cost about $800 each and that anybody can buy at their local store. “That’s what we used for this unbelievable horse racing footage that’s making audiences stand up and scream ‘Go! Go!’ in races where they already know the outcome.”

What Wallace wanted to avoid as much as possible were a lot of CGI effects. “I am singularly unmoved by cartoon pixel figures flying around in capes, spitting fire, and having bullets bounce off their chests. That to me is not a hero. I wanted to see flesh and blood of horses and humans in a powerful setting — and that just generated a necessity to take this realistic approach.” He singles out Oscar winner Dean Semler’s (Dances With Wolves) innovative  cinematography  and the sound work of Kevin O’Connell and his team. O’Connell is a 20-time Academy Awards loser, aka ‘The Susan Lucci Of The Oscars’, and whose curse could be broken this year if Wallace has his way. “My prediction is he deserves it for this one and maybe this time he gets his due because he did an unbelievable job.”

Wallace also is hoping for good things for Diane Lane this season whom he had never met before setting up a lunch to woo her. On his way there, he stopped to buy a dozen roses and, when he presented them to her, he says she just lit up . “The first thing I said to her was, ‘When you win the Kentucky Derby, you win roses. And these are the first roses you’re going to get for Secretariat. Diane said, ‘You had me at hello’”

Awards Columnist Pete Hammond - tip him here.

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