Pete Hammond

Paramount and the AFI Festival pulled off a sneak awards season manuever Tuesday night with a previously unannounced screening of Oscar hopeful, The Fighter. Billed as a “secret screening” on the ticket but also labeled a “World Premiere”  in a Tuesday morning press release, the studio and fest held back any information until the day of the show which played Grauman’s Chinese at 9:30 PM to a packed house. (A Par spokesperson later emailed me that 100 people were turned away). The film directed by David O. Russell stars Mark Wahlberg as fighter “Irish” Micky Ward and Christian Bale as his troubled brother Dicky: it opens on December 10 and until now has been one of the last largely unseen mysteries of the season. A plethora of producers and production companies are on the credits, including Relativity Media, Mandeville Films, David Hoberman, Todd Lieberman, Ryan Kavanaugh, Dorothy Aufiero, Paul Tamasy and Wahlberg. Bob and Harvey Weinstein have exec producer credits.

The original campaign strategy for The Fighter was to skip the fall fest circuit and, until today, it was holding firm to that. But the AFI coup was probably too irresistible an opportunity for Paramount to make a big splash – even though it was largely just a public screening and only Wahlberg from the film’s cast was there to make opening remarks.  Tickets were free and this felt more like a “people’s premiere.” The press release even mentioned that “all attendees are invited to walk the red carpet.” I asked Par to hold me a seat, and AFI said they would do a lockdown on the venue once the film rolled. I arrived there exactly at 9:30 PM but they had already closed the doors and were turning away a long line of people. In the spirit of the movie, I fought my way past security guys into the theater where I grabbed what seemed like the last remaining seat.

Just then Wahlberg came out. “I haven’t seen a crowd like this since I performed with the Funky Bunch,” quipped the actor/producer who has spent years on this passion project. “I can’t believe I got this made, and I am so proud of it. I would go through cheating, lying, and stealing to do it. And if there’s anyone out there who doesn’t like it, I will come to your house and do hard labor.”

Fortunately for Wahlberg, the crowd ate it up and seemed to be with it, and him, all the way. The supporting cast is rich, too, including choice roles for Melissa Leo as Micky’s mother/manager, and Amy Adams as his tough bartender girlfriend. Bale is terrific. He’ll go up for supporting actor, while Wahlberg will go for lead. All have real shots for this vivid and colorful crowd pleaser. Although it could be classified as a boxing picture, it’s a character study of two very different brothers and spends much of its time defining that rocky relationship. Actors playing boxers have a good track record at the Academy Awards, with winners like Wallace Beery in 1931’s The Champ to Robert DeNiro as Jake LaMotta in 1980’s Raging Bull. Those nominated for stepping into the ring include Kirk Douglas in Champion (1949), Sylvester Stallone in Rocky (1976), James Earl Jones in The Great White Hope (1970), and John Garfield in Body And Soul (1947), to name a few.

With The Fighter now finally unveiled for the masses, and press screenings starting this week on both coasts, there are very few mysteries left in the season. Par’s other holiday entry, the Coen Brothers’ True Grit (Dec. 22) is still to be seen and just about the last that could provide fresh Oscar meat, at least in the major categories. Otherwise, the lineup is fairly clear with no surprises on the horizon – unless Yogi Bear (Dec 17) is better than anyone dreamed.

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