Motion picture and television talent agent/manager J.J. Harris died of what is believed to be natural causes on Friday afternoon and was found today in her Beverly Hills home by her staff. She was 62. Always classy and funny but never a pushover, she at one time was among the top women talent agents and sole practitioner managers in Hollywood, representing such notable clients over the course of her decades-long career including Kevin Costner, Charlize Theron, Dakota and Elle Fanning, Kate Bosworth, Drew Barrymore, and Scott Bakula. After starting her career at the old William Morris Agency and jumping to UTA as a partner, she started her own management company more than a decade ago. Harris ran One Talent Management until recently deciding to wind down her business. Until her death, she was spending almost all her time on the career of her longtime confidante and client Costner. It was because of him that her office became worried. “She wasn’t returning my calls or texts. Then Kevin called her,” her assistant and co-manager Sharon Vitro tells me. “It’s one thing for her to ignore me. But she doesn’t ignore Kevin ever.” Her staff went to her home and discovered her body. Through the years, Harris was an outspoken feminist who challenged mano-a-mano the Hollywood men’s club that long ruled actor representation. Bluffing her way into the William Morris accounting department as a secretary, Harris rose through the ranks to become a young but powerful agent best known as fiercely loyal to her clients – even if they weren’t always as loyal to her. (“Every time we’d bring someone up, she’d go, ‘Oh, I used to represent them,’” Vitro recalled.) For instance, Harris had repped the Fanning sisters practically since they were babies, but they followed their other day-to-day One Talent manager out the door at the start of this year. But there was no acrimony when Harris and longtime client Theron parted ways in 2012. (“We had a great run, but Charlize simply doesn’t need a manager right now,” Harris said at the time. ”She wants to focus on her production company. We remain friends.” Harris in the mid-1990s signed Theron after the model-actress spilled a Diet Coke on her in a meeting and went on to win an Oscar. Perhaps Harris’ greatest achievement as an agent/ manager was her close personal and professional relationship with the Oscar-winning Costner. She inherited Costner from WME’s Garry Lucchese, fought off WME/ICM’s Ed Limato to keep him, then lost him during the filming of his Dances With Wolves to CAA’s Mike Ovitz, only to represent him again when Ovitz left the agency biz. Meanwhile Costner’s career over the years toggled frequently between hot and cold: with Harris’ help, he scored key recent roles in TV’s Hatfield & McCoys and motion pictures Man Of Steel and the upcoming Jack Ryan and Three Days To Kill. ”Nothing made her happier than negotiating a deal,” Vitro recalled. I knew Harris and adored her because she was one tough babe – and proud of it.
Telluride has been buzzing since last night’s first screening of Steve McQueen‘s excellent slavery drama, 12 Years A Slave. One site which shall remain nameless was so overcome that the writer already just about declared the Oscar race over and done. “Guess we don’t have to go to Toronto now,” said a publicist here with another contender. One blogger stopped me on the street today after I saw the film and asked, “So do you agree with us (bloggers) the actor race is done?” he said in referring to star Chewitel Ejiofor‘s towering and dignified performance as the slave Solomon Northup, who lived to tell his harrowing tale and write a book about it in 1853. As I said yesterday, hyperbole is a big part of any festival like this and intelligent moviegoers are so thirsty for Oscar-quality adult movie fare they might have a tendency to go overboard with praise. But it’s a disservice to a very fine but challenging film like 12 Years A Slave to build up such high expectations no movie could possibly live up to it.
As I exited the packed 650-seat Herzog Theatre, I ran into Fox Searchlight co-President Nancy Utley, who was there gauging reaction to her film, which they open in LA and NY on October 18 and then roll out slowly. She agreed it is a film that should be “discovered” but, obviously happy with the ecstatic reaction so far at its first two screenings, added that this film needs special handling. “It’s a movie that will depend on critical reaction and awards play to really tell people that despite tough subject matter it’s a film they must see,” she said.
Los Angeles-area movie production took another gut punch a few days ago when news surfaced that the Man of Steel sequel will shoot in Detroit. But now comes a glimmer of good news for locals lamenting runaway production: North Carolina is nearing an end to its tax incentive for filming there. The Wall Street Journal reports that although the Legislature voted in July to fund the program for two more years, it is targeted to end after 2014.
According to the North Carolina Film Office, the Tarheel State is fifth in the nation when it comes to production revenue, trailing only California, New York, Georgia and Louisiana. The state — which offers a 25% refundable tax credit — is coming off back-to-back record years for film production, taking in $376 million in 2012 that created more than 4,100 full-time crew jobs. Last year it hosted shoots for projects including Iron Man 3 and Homeland. “It is amazing to see what has taken place the past two years in North Carolina,” said NC Film Office Director Aaron Syrett said in his 2012 report. “Not only were we able to exceed our record-breaking numbers from 2011, but we continue to grow throughout the state.” But that was in December.
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Joel and Ethan Coen have a ton of Oscars and other awards on their shelves, but the duo is fairly elusive when it comes to touting themselves and their work. So it isn’t exactly surprising that they’d never agreed to a Telluride Film Festival tribute, until this year. And the only way — a smart and entertaining one as it turns out — to lure them here was to wrap it around the use of music in their films and in particular the remarkable work they do with T Bone Burnett, who is getting equal treatment with the Coens here at the tribute shows on Friday night and this morning. The trio received the Festival’s much-prized Silver Medallion last night from their friend Barry Sonnenfeld right after a lively musical performance of Coenesque tunes by a group called The Americans and a half-hour of superbly-chosen clips from the T Bone-infused films The Big Lebowski, O Brother, Where Art Thou, The Ladykillers and their latest, Inside Llewyn Davis, a grand prize winner at Cannes and set to open in December via CBS Films. It is also playing here this weekend.
A 35-minute onstage conversation followed the Medallion presentation which was placed on a chain around their necks. “I’m feeling like Mark Spitz,” joked Ethan about the latest award they have received. As I said in Cannes, this film, set in the folk singing scene of the early ’60s, is one of their best. Needless to say, it has great music in addition to a terrific cast including star Oscar Isaac, who should be a contender for awards (along with a scene-stealing cat). In fact one of those “stolen scenes” was an extended sequence with Isaac forced to carry the cat through New York City after he dashes out the door of his apartment. As with the other clips shown, it really demonstrates the power of music in the films of these iconic filmmakers.
One of the most anticipated films in the Venice competition, Stephen Frears’ Philomena blew a breath of fresh air onto the Lido this morning. Essentially a Judi Dench/Steve Coogan two-hander, it screened to laughs, tears and lots of applause – the latter both during and after the film. Following a series of intensely serious movies – some of which, like Gravity, have been very well-received – festgoers were still looking for a genuine crowd-pleaser. Although Philomena treats a very delicate subject matter, which resulted in the pulling out of a lot of hankies in the Sala Darsena, it’s also a very funny and heart-warming film. The Weinstein Co. won a bidding war for it in Cannes after Pathé screened a seven-minute reel for buyers.
Philomena was positioned to open here using a similar strategy to The Queen. Frears also directed that film which won Helen Mirren the Best Actress Volpi Cup, a screenwriting prize for Peter Morgan and the International Critics Prize (FIPRESCI). It later garnered six Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actress which Mirren won. Philomena next heads to Toronto. An exec involved in the film recently told me they hoped to arrive at that festival “with a little bit of a reputation.” Given today’s reaction, that hope would appear fulfilled.
Hyperbole at film festivals is to be expected, BUT even with direct competition from Brad Pitt and the Coen brothers, the reaction to the first public screening Friday night anywhere of director Denis Villenueve’s thrilling and penetrating drama Prisoners at the 40th Telluride Film Festival was completely unexpected and significant. This was a “surprise” screening (although I predicted it) and filled the 650-seat Herzog Theatre. For weeks some I spoke to thought on the basis of the trailer and more mainstream elements of the film that it was probably an unworthy commercial film that somehow snuck into the more tony environ of Telluride. Uh, no. This is a first-class motion picture experience unlike any other that I, for one, have experienced in a long time. But it’s not an easy sell.
The applause was strong and early critical praise is over the moon. Pundits will have to add this Alcon production being released by Warner Bros on September 20 to the list of strong Oscar contenders. That is, if audiences and Academy members can handle the intensity of this superbly directed and produced film that features career-best performances, for sure, from Jake Gyllenhaal and Hugh Jackman (OK, I liked Les Miz too a lot), plus a brilliant supporting cast including Melissa Leo going for another supporting win; Terence Howard; the great Viola Davis; Maria Bello; and Paul Dano, who goes through the ringer for his art. You can easily compare this gem to critically acclaimed pictures like Zodiac, Seven, Mystic River and any number of films in the genre. Director Villeneuve doesn’t shy away from the comparisons. He says he is a great admirer of David Fincher and Clint Eastwood. In fact one of his editors, Joel Cox, is an Eastwood regular.
Global Showbiz Briefs: ‘X Factor’ Musical; Hugh Jackman Honored In Zurich; Beijing Fest In Venice & More
London’s ‘X Factor’ Musical Finds Its Simon Cowell
Nigel Harman, the former Eastenders star who has a role in Season 4 of Downton Abbey, has been tapped to play a character based on Simon Cowell in I Can’t Sing! The X Factor Musical. The show will be directed by Olivier Award-winner and Tony Award-nominee, Sean Foley. It’s set to premiere at the London Palladium on March 26, 2014. Cowell and Sony Music’s joint venture Syco Entertainment is partnering with Stage Entertainment UK to launch the show that’s written by British comedian Harry Hill.
Hugh Jackman Honored At Zurich Film Festival
Hugh Jackman will receive the Golden Icon Award at the Zurich Film Festival which runs September 26 – October 6. The fest’s most prestigious symbol of recognition is awarded “in appreciation of the lifetime achievements of an actor or actress.” Jackman’s latest film, Prisoners, will be screened at the fest. “Hugh Jackman is in a class by himself as a multi-talented entertainer with a global following,” said fest co-director Karl Spoerri. “There is nothing he can’t do and he proves this time and time again with every project he’s involved in. We’re honored to recognize his brilliant career at the Zurich Film Festival.”
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CBS has bought a terrorist drama from Bates Motel executive producer Kerry Ehrin, series’ writer Nikki Toscano and Universal TV. Meanwhile, former CSI: NY showrunner Pam Veasey is reuniting with series producer Bruckheimer TV for a cop drama based on Jonathan Kellerman’s Alex Delaware series of books that has gone to Fox. Both projects have script commitments.