Pete Hammond

Good Evening,” AFI president and CEO Bob Gazzale said as he welcomed guests to AFI Fest 2012 with the famous salutation of Alfred Hitchcock. And it did indeed turn out to be a very good evening for both AFI and their opening-night film, Hitchcock. The last of the major fall film festivals, AFI Fest can boast just like other recent fests (Venice, Telluride, Toronto, New York) that it has put another major Oscar contender into play in the ever-increasing list of potential nominees.

With the world premiere of Hitchcock at the Chinese theatre  Fox Searchlight has a solid contender in several acting categories along with some below-the-line contests and, depending how things pan out, even Best Picture. Time will tell on that: It’s never easy for showbiz stories to make the Best Picture cut because industry voters don’t always take movies about their own as seriously as loftier subjects, but on the heels of last year’s Best Pic, The Artist maybe that’s changing. And what Hitchcock really is at its core is a remarkable love story. ”Just wait until you see this one,” a smiling and confident 20th Century Fox chairman Jim Gianopulos told me as he grabbed some popcorn before the film rolled. He had reason to be happy.

Certainly the AFI opening-night crowd (which included a large number of acting branch Academy voters) responded  in a big way. Director Sacha Gervasi (Anvil), making an impressive and assured narrative feature debut with this touching, funny and human look at the relationship between Alfred and Alma Hitchcock during the making of the 1960 classic Psycho, was probably only half-kidding when he told the crowd, “we just finished the film 20 minutes ago. We should take notes tonight”. He praised Fox Searchlight, calling them “filmmakers pretending to be a studio”.

Searchlight’s co-presidents Nancy Utley and Steve Gilula only recently put Hitchcock into this year’s race when they announced a late-breaking November 23 opening for the film that could well shake up some tight acting categories this year — particularly Best Actress, where Helen Mirren’s bravura turn as Alma certainly will bring her a nomination and put her in strong contention for a second Oscar after winning for The Queen six years ago. One killer speech she has when Alma talks about standing in the shadows of her husband’s fame drew big applause last night and will certainly resonate in an industry where working couples are not always treated on the same level. Alma Hitchcock was clearly an indispensable part of her husband’s success, but she rarely got the credit. It’s a moving, honest portrayal that Mirren socks home.

Anthony Hopkins, as one might expect, is perfection as the uber-famous director but manages to make it much more than a mere impersonation. Particularly effective is a scene where he stands alone in the lobby as the famous Psycho shower scene plays for an audience for the first time. He almost conducts each knife stabbing like it is a concert. Choice stuff.

Neither Hopkins nor Mirren could attend last night’s AFI launch. Coincidentally they are together in London making another movie together, Red 2, but they sent a filmed message that was played for the audience. “We managed to go our whole careers without ever working with each other and now we are making our second film together within a year,” Mirren said. Hopkins added, “We are very proud and hope you enjoy it”. They both received strong applause when their names came up on the end credits, as did Scarlett Johansson (also absent) absolutely nailing the role of the late Janet Leigh, the infamous star of Psycho who gets shockingly whacked before the film is even half over. Playing a well-known star is not easy but Johnasson, never overreaching, really delivers in an almost uncanny fashion for anyone who ever knew Leigh.

Leigh won the Supporting Actress Golden Globe for the film but lost the Oscar to Elmer Gantry’s Shirley Jones. Can she find herself with an ironic second chance at the Oscar she never won if Johansson lands in the same category playing Leigh playing Marion Crane? These are the Oscar scenarios we love to contemplate, folks. Oscar attention for Hitchcock in a film about his life would also be ironic since the Master Of Suspense never won an Oscar despite five Best Director nominations (Psycho was the last). Only one of his movies won Best Picture, 1940′s Rebecca, but that went to producer David O. Selznick (Hitch lost the directing award that year to John Ford for The Grapes Of Wrath). Hitchcock did finally receive the Academy’s prestigious Irving Thalberg Memorial award in 1968.

I sat directly behind executive producer Richard Middleton, who helped shepherd last year’s The Artist –  which of course was also set in the movie business. He’s hopeful about this one too. “When we previewed it (in Orange County) it got a 92 score,” he told me. Utley echoed those results, which obviously gave them confidence to throw this one into the heart of awards season. Middleton praised Danny Elfman’s music as one key reason the film really came together. Of course, Bernard Herrmann’s score for the original Psycho is one of the most memorable movie scores of all time, and Elfman told me doing this one that has to navigate several areas of Hitchcock’s life and work “was a tricky assignment. It’s just so great when you can work on a film that is so good to begin with, and this one was”, he said as he was soaking in praise just as the film ended.

Producer Tom Pollock, a former AFI head, addressed the crowd and remembered that during the second or third year of Filmex (which later morphed into the AFI Fest) he attended a 48-hour marathon of Hitchcock movies.  “I sat through them all,”  he said.  Pollock, who produced with Montecito partner Ivan Reitman and Joe Medjuck (along with Alan Barnette and Tom Thayer), told me this one was a long journey — almost a decade to get to the screen — but he was so pleased with the way it finally turned out. It started when Barnette approached Stephen Rebello, who wrote the 1990 nonfiction book Alfred Hitchcock And The Making of Psycho. “We went through three studios and an entirely different cast  but here we finally are,”  Rebello told me at the packed after-party at the Hollywood Roosevelt hotel. He gives credit to Barnette for really sticking with the project. He also introduced me to Jordan Essoe, the grandson of Vera Miles, who played Lila Crane in Psycho and is played in this film by Jessica Biel. Miles has been retired for about two decades, but Essoe met on her behalf with Biel.

For AFI Fest (which closes with Lincoln on November 8th), opening with Hitchcock was a no-brainer. The American Film Institute even gets a mention with an end card that quotes from Hitch’s acceptance speech for the AFI Life Achievement Award in 1979 when he addressed his wife: “I share my award, as I have my life, with her”. Gazzale noted all the other Hitchcock connections to the organization including the fact that AFI predecesor Filmex premiered his final film, Family Plot, in 1976. Gazzale also touted the fact that AFI Fest will be presenting 100 films from 28 countries over the next week and celebrated the almost decade-long partnership with their main sponsor, Audi (Audi International President Scott Keough also made some remarks). A good evening indeed.

Awards Columnist Pete Hammond - tip him here.