Pete Hammond

Awards strategists for other horses in the ever-tightening race for Best Picture may not want to hear this but Universal Pictures today may have unleashedLes Miserables the 800-pound-gorilla in the Oscar race. That is, if initial reaction to today’s launch of the much-awaited movie version of the celebrated musical Les Miserables is any indication.  Screenings at Alice Tully Hall in New York along with a smaller invite-only unveiling for about 100 people at the 1000-seat Samuel Goldwyn Theatre at The Academy Of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences in Beverly Hills both elicited immediate Oscar talk. Les Mis, one of the few remaining unseen contenders, is now fully in the conversation for real, if not quickly vaunting near or to the top of Best Picture favorites (along with Argo, Lincoln, Silver Linings Playbook and Life Of Pi).

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Almost immediately after the Academy screening this afternoon I got on the phone with star Hugh Jackman in Australia. Shortly afterward its Oscar winning director Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech) called me as the second of the NY screenings was taking place (we could both hear the applause in the background). Both seemed relieved to have the film, which opens Christmas Day, finally in the race. Universal is wasting no time as Hooper heads to Los Angeles on Saturday to participate in six, count ‘em, six screenings for Guild and Academy members tomorrow and then (along with Jackman) will be travelling to Japan on Sunday. It will be a busy month leading up to the opening but the studio knew it had to get the film out there now since Oscar voting is taking place during the Christmas/New Year’s break this year.

Les MiserablesThe last musical to win Best Picture was Chicago a decade ago and before that there was a 34-year drought between that film and Oliver which took it in 1968. Based on what Hooper, Jackman and cast and crew have wrought Les Mis could be joining that list. It is certainly an instant major contender, a thrilling cinematic realization of the legendary musical that has taken 27 years to reach the screen. Filled with stunning imagery and performances, Les Mis is musically a masterpiece thanks largely to the decision to have the actors sing it live as they were filming rather than pre-recording the songs as is the norm for most, if not all, movie musicals. But bottom line is this is the kind of fully realized triumph that Academy voters traditionally eat up, and it joins a race that has suddenly become one of the most interesting and competitive in years. At the screening Universal held at the Academy, AMPAS President Hawk Koch  watched along with Oscar show producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron among others in the small group . Zadan and Meron were Executive Producers of Chicago. Multiple Oscar nominations would seem to be a no-brainer. I would venture those could include Picture, Actor (Jackman), Supporting Actor (Russell Crowe and/or Eddie Redmayne), Supporting Actress (Anne Hathaway and maybe one of the other women), Director, Screenplay Adaptation, Cinematography, Art Direction, Costume Design, Film Editing, Sound Mixing and Editing, Song (for Suddenly, the one new tune written for the film) and Makeup. It could rack up quite a total if everything falls into place.

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Les MiserablesJackman himself only just saw the film last night and when we spoke just a while ago he was still reeling from the experience. “I just saw it last night (in Sydney). I was pretty speechless I have to say. I think when I saw it in its entirety — I knew intellectually it was a big risk — but when I saw it I said ‘wow, man. This is massive, a big bone to chew on, that one’. I felt so proud to be part of it. And I think for Tom to do this as his first film after King’s Speech is just an incredible kind of testament to him,” he said.

Jackman praised Hooper saying he was a real warrior and didn’t think he got more than three hours sleep a night for the past four months in getting the film ready to be seen. Hooper confirmed it. “I finished it at 2AM yesterday and was already screening it today at Alice Tully Hall. I don’t think I’ve ever been more exhausted. But it’s been an extraordinary response. I think they broke into applause 14 or 15 times during the film. I remember the audience breaking into applause near the end of The King’s Speech but this is taking that to a new level. Towards the end of this film today this weird thing happened like a rustling kind of sound. For a minute I freaked out wondering what’s that odd sound on the soundtrack. I looked around and realized it’s the sound of people crying en masse. Rather extrarodinary for me,” he said.

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Although he’s well-known as a song and dance man with a Tony on Broadway and hosting gigs on the Oscars and Tonys this is only the first movie musical for Jackman. “I was waiting for the right one to come along. This is better than I could have imagined myself not only in musical terms but in literary terms. Jean Valjean is such an iconic character and I think that everything I’ve done up until now somehow has fed into it. It was a daunting role, I will admit that to you, but i put everything into it. I know I had that feeling. Russell Crowe and I were talking about it, that you know you’re doing something that is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” he said adding that he put on 29 pounds during the making of the film because in the early scenes in prison he had to look very gaunt .

“As Tom Hooper said ‘I want people to worry about you. I want your friends to think you’re sick when you see them’. I even went to the point of doing water dehydration before shooting that first scene,” he said. And like all the other actors in the film he auditioned for it, even before Hooper had officially signed on as director. “There was a time when it looked like this might clash with the Wolverine movie but I really wanted to this role so I called Tom and said I had read that he was thinking about doing it but hadn’t yet signed on. I said ‘do you mind if I audition for you anyway in case you decide to do it?’ ” Jackman went to see Hooper in New York and spent three hours going over the role. Hooper knew it was going to be a really difficult challenge finding actors who can sing at the level needed.

“I can tell you having been through the audition process they are very, very rare,” Hooper tells me. “People who can act through singing and sing at that level. The audition with Hugh, which was in May of last year, was an extraordinary moment because that was when I knew I had a movie. I’d go as far to say the movie wouldn’t exist without Hugh Jackman. There wasn’t a second choice. Who else would you cast? I still don’t have a second choice now. He’s a perfect storm of truly global film star, an extraordinary actor, and an extraordinary singer with musical theater pedigree and training. And most importantly for Valjean, Hugh has a kind of innate grace and spirit as a human being and a great kind of moral compass and gentleness that is perfectly suited for this man going on this spiritual journey. In that  audition the sheer power of his singing standing just a couple of feet in front of me was formidable. That’s when I knew this was a ‘go’ movie in my head. He took me over the line in three hours.”

Les MiserablesFor Jackman this was the toughest film role he has ever taken on. “It’s a big risk and I’m not surprised it has taken 27 years to take the punt on it, ” he said adding that before he saw the finished film last night he was more nervous than he had ever been in his life. “It’s tough to watch any movie you are in anyway, no matter what the genre, because you always put everything into it. You want it to work. With a musical all those feelings are tripled because you have a lot of elements that come together. I was a very relieved man about 6PM last night.”

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Says Hooper: “With The King’s Speech the greatest reward was seeing how it made people feel, the emotion it provoked in people and how it touched them. Coming out of that I wanted to work on something that moves people even more. Also after that success I felt I should take a risk, to stretch myself and go someplace new.”

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