Many have said 2012 has been the most remarkable year for movies in the Oscar race in a very long time. The dense list of quality contenders makes for quite a race, and it’s somewhat reminiscent of another legendary year …
Considering they’ve rubbed out characters memorably by feeding them through a wood chipper (Fargo) or with a pneumatic cattle slaughtering gun (No Country For Old Men), setting Joel and Ethan Coen loose with a revenge story in the Old West seems a recipe for mayhem. In fact, True Grit turns out to be the most mainstream audience-friendly film they have made in years. Sticking close to the 42-year Charles Portis novel and not even watching the first movie that won John Wayne his Oscar in 1969, the Coens have made a PG-13 adventure film that gives the starring role to teenager Hailee Steinfeld, and surrounds her with such seasoned actors as Jeff Bridges as salty U.S. Marshall Rooster Cogburn, Matt Damon as the blowhard Texas Ranger LaBeouf, and Josh Brolin and Barry Pepper as the ornery outlaws they are chasing. The film opens today, and could add intrigue to the Oscar race.
DEADLINE: How did you find your way to a 40 year old book you’d have been hard pressed to find in a bookstore?
ETHAN COEN: We both knew the book, and we’d both read it, amongst other Charles Portis novels. A few years ago I read it out loud to my son and that was the point we began talking about it, thinking this might be interesting to do.
JOEL COEN: Fully aware there of course there had been this previous movie. But we hadn’t seen that since it came out, and didn’t really remember it very well.
DEADLINE: The book focuses more squarely than the film did on young Mattie, the bright, headstrong teenager determined to see the man who shot her father swing from a rope. What potential did you see in that that overcame the inevitable comparison to a film considered somewhat iconic?
ETHAN COEN: That is what we liked about the book, that it was told in the first person narrative told by the 14-year old character, Mattie Ross. It’s just a very funny book. It has three really great, really vivid characters. Her, Rooster Cogburn and LaBeouf, the Texas Ranger. And it’s a simple pursuit revenge story. It all just seemed promising material for a movie. Which might sound funny because, as you say, there was this iconic movie. Which we were aware of but which we didn’t remember very well.
JOEL COEN: We didn’t revisit it, either.
ETHAN COEN: And in the course of remaking the movie, we didn’t watch the first one. We weren’t much worried about it, though. You say it’s iconic, and that’s very true. But on the other hand, I must say it’s probably iconic for people our age and older. And we’re not the moviegoing demographic anymore. I don’t think younger people have much of a connection to John Wayne, at all. So it didn’t feel like we were trespassing and we didn’t worry about it. We just had this enthusiasm for the novel.
DEADLINE: I should qualify iconic. It’s called that because John Wayne won an Oscar, but many feel that statue was a reward for a career and not that role.
JOEL COEN: That’s what I’ve read about it too, that it was a kind of valedictory thing.
ETHAN COEN: You’ve been around a long time, we love you, here’s an award.
DEADLINE: How did adapting a book like True Grit compare with adapting Cormac McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men?
ETHAN COEN: Not dissimilar, actually. In the Cormac book that we did, we had this similar issue.
The pace of the 2010 awards season seems at this early November juncture to be faster than any I can remember. (I feel like the title of the late and great Jill Clayburgh’s star turn, I’m Dancing As Fast As I Can.) Hopefuls are getting out there earlier, and more forcefully, in order to gain a foothold in the race any way they can. Examples from just two days’ worth of campaigning: Michelle Williams called me from the London set of My Week With Marilyn. Yes, she’s playing the iconic Monroe but couldn’t yet articulate what that means to her and instead wanted to talk about her awards contender, Blue Valentine. So we did before I had to run off to the Four Seasons Hotel to chat with Robert Duvall about his contender, Get Low. It was a summer release he’s now trying to keep in the conversation by doing an exhaustive series of interviews and Q&A sessions. For a guy who is about to turn 80, he could not have been more energized even with the daunting prospect of facing months of the “season” still to go. Javier Bardem called on his cell from a street corner in Madrid to recount for me the intense experience of making Biutiful. Then I had to again race to the Four Seasons for back to back bar chats with two other Best Actor wannabes, Kevin Spacey who talked Casino Jack before Aaron Eckhart arrived 10 minutes later to discuss Rabbit Hole.
With the exception of Get Low, all of the above were spotlighting work in independently made movies that are mid to late December releases. But their stars cannot afford to wait if they are to get on the map in this ultra-crowded season. The ever-busy Spacey was at the Britannias and an MPTVF event on Thursday night and also turned up Sunday evening at the Pacific Design Center for an actor-centric post-screening Q&A for SAG nominating committee members. Like an episode of Inside The Actors Studio, the packed house gave him a standing ovation. Reliable eyewitness sources tell me even more impressive standing O happened to Halle Berry two nights in a row at the same place where she Q&A’d her December stealth entry, Frankie & Alice for the NAACP Image Award voters Friday and SAG Nom Comm Saturday. They marked her indie’s first screenings but Berry wasn’t watching. She was out in the lobby doing TV interviews about what the project meant to her as an actress. Meanwhile publicists were frantically cutting film clips for the late-breaking entrant and hoping to have their DVD screeners out well before Thanksgiving. As part of her campaign, Berry will also be “in conversation” with a career retrospective Tuesday night at the AFI Fest.
Speaking of that, the AFI Film Festival opened with Twentieth Century Fox’s Love And Other Drugs. The glut of AFI galas is because it’s an inexpensive way for distribs to do LA premieres this time of year and still get maximum exposure. They included The Weinstein Co’s Blue Valentine with co-star Ryan Gosling and director Derek Cianfrance on the carpet at the Chinese. While down the street at the Egyptian, Sony Pictures Classics unveiled their comedy Barney’s Version with superlative performances from stars Paul Giamatti, Minnie Driver, and Dustin and Jake Hoffman who were all on hand for the stroll down that red carpet. The film, based on the Mordecai Richler story and previously seen in Venice and Toronto, was a hit at AFI with special praise for absent co-star Rosamund Pike who could find her way into the supporting actress race.
Previous installments of my 2010 Oscar contenders rundown have included Part 1 about Oscar race films that played the Big 3 Fall Festivals: Venice, Toronto, and Telluride. And then Part 2 about Oscar race films set for release in the final three months of the year that skipped those fests or simply weren’t ready in time. Now in Part 3, I’ll look back at films from the first eight months of the year that have reason for awards hopes, and, in some cases, may have to struggle against the odds just to be remembered. If I left any film out, it was purely intentional. I am not listing pics that don’t have a rat’s chance. Here they are, in order of release date. And, remember, these are just titles from the first 8 months of the year:
THE GHOST WRITER (Summit - Feb 17) Roman Polanski earned strong reviews for this Hitchcock-style drama in which Ewan MacGregor ghostwrites the memoirs of a former British Prime Minister played by Pierce Brosnan. It has a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 84% fresh and did well by indie film standards. Oscar Chance: Summit will have to step up to the plate in order to revive it. Insiders at the distrib have special hopes for a Brosnan supporting bid.
SHUTTER ISLAND (Paramount - Feb 19) Paramount had initially penciled in this fine Martin Scorsese thriller starring Leonardo DiCaprio for last season’s awards race. But financial considerations led them to move to the very unfriendly Oscar territory of February. Yet it became the legendary director’s most successful film ever at the box office, earning $292 million worldwide and receiving good critical notice. Oscar Chance: The studio intends to campaign it and has already sent out screening notices to Guilds and Academy members. But it will be competing with Par’s two year-end entries True Grit and The Fighter for attention from the front office.
ALICE IN WONDERLAND (Walt Disney Pictures - March 5) Tim Burton’s take on the classic tale remains one of the biggest success stories of the year with a whopping billion dollar take at the worldwide boxoffice. Critical response was right down the middle with a 51% fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes. Oscar Chance: This would seem a natural bet for the Golden Globes Comedy/Musical categories and lots of technical nods at the Academy, too.
CITY ISLAND (Anchor Bay - March 19) Andy Garcia’s finely-honed comic turn in this New York-centric family comedy could — and should — be remembered at Golden Globe time. Oscar Chance: Slim, but the tiny distributor has hired a PR firm to make sure it’s not forgotten. Awards pundits got a DVD in the mail this week.
THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO (Music Box - March 19) The first in the Swedish trilogy became the most successful foreign language release of the year and has created Best Actress buzz for star Noomi Rapace. Oscar Chance: Music Box will have to spend to reap rewards. Problem is, Rapace has become so hot that she’s now filming the Sherlock Holmes sequel in England and likely won’t be around to promote the final chapter, The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest when it opens at the end of the month. She’ll miss valuable face time in front of voters.
GREENBERG (Focus Features – March 19) Focus has set up some screenings and includes it in their Academy ads. But it’s not likely to give much support beyond that to this Ben Stiller/Noah Baumbach passion project which never quite caught on the way they hoped. Oscar Chance: Uh, probably not.
HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON (Dreamworks Animation – March 26) Rapturous reviews gave it a 98% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes placing it between Toy Story 3 and The Social Network for bragging rights. Top box office doesn’t hurt, either. Oscar Chance: An animated feature nod is a given. But Dreamworks is aggressively going for the gold with this one, starting with a big DVD launch party next week to renew the fire. Suggestions of not only an animated category nom but also Best Picture mean they dream big there. But is there room for two toons on that list of 10 which will include Disney’s Toy Story 3?
PLEASE GIVE (Sony Pictures Classics – April 30) Writer/Director Nicole Holofcener’s quirky comedy was well received and sparked buzz of an Original Screenplay nomination upon its release last spring. But that seems to have faded. Oscar Chance: It’s still deserving as is Ann Morgan Guilbert’s nifty supporting turn as the tenant who just won’t die. SPC will be asking members to please give the DVD a play.
MOTHER AND CHILD (Sony Pictures Classics – May 7) Rodrigo Garcia’s multi-character drama came and went in theatres, so wisely SPC made sure the screener was the very first one Academy voters got this season. Oscar Chance: On the DVD box, they are suggesting Annette Bening for Best Actress but, great as she is here, there’s no way she gets it for this over the higher profile The Kids Are All Right.
Passing the giant Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps billboard at the Pico Blvd entrance to 20th Century Fox, I noticed the words “Academy Award” prominently mentioned no less than five times. Academy Award Winner Michael Douglas. Academy Award Nominee Josh Brolin. Academy Award Winner Susan Sarandon. Academy Award Nominee Frank Langella. Academy Award Nominee Carey Mulligan. Not so subtly, making an early bid like this to find any way to associate the Academy Awards and an opening movie this time of year can be a smart marketing strategy. It’s a way to establish a new film as a contender amid the endless glut of generally still-sight-unseen Oscar wannabes.
With that in mind, I continue my rundown of award hopefuls. I started last week with an assessment of Oscar chances for the films that had just appeared at any or all of the three Fall Film Festivals in Venice, Telluride, and Toronto. I began that list with Friday’s New York Film Festival opener The Social Network. Now comes, in order of scheduled release date, the trickier proposition of forecasting the awards status of films that weren’t unveiled at a Fall Fest but will be opening before the end of the year:
WALL STREET: MONEY NEVER SLEEPS (Twentieth Century Fox – 9/24) On paper, with its timely theme, this is exactly the kind of popular drama with an Oscar-heavy cast and director that the 10 Best Picture nominations would tend to favor. Well-received in Cannes last May, it still hasn’t generated the kind of serious buzz which fall fest entries like Social Network, The King’s Speech, and Black Swan all managed. Oscar Chance: Bearish, since sequels rarely compete and Oliver Stone’s 1987 original received just a single nomination — and won Best Actor for Michael Douglas. His bigger-than-life Gekko remains its best chance to jump in the race, particularly with goodwill for the actor running high due to his cancer and memories of his acclaimed work in the indie Solitary Man still fresh from earlier this year. Never-nominated Eli Wallach, 95, might have had a shot for his small but indelible role. But he’s already getting an Honorary Oscar in November.
NOWHERE BOY (The Weinstein Co – 10/8) This story of the young John Lennon opened last Christmas in England and has already hit British Airways and Blu-ray but is craftily timed for U.S. release the day before what would have been the musician’s 70th birthday. Oscar Chance: Both female co-stars Kristin Scott Thomas and Anne-Marie Duff were BAFTA nominees last season and might have a long shot in the Supporting Actress category if Weinstein does any sort of serious campaign for this.
SECRETARIAT (Walt Disney Pictures – 10/8) This emotion stirring crowd-pleasing story of the 1973 Triple Crown winner and the woman who wouldn’t give up on him could appeal to the same feel-good contingent that made The Blind Side such a player last year. Oscar Chance: Diane Lane and John Malkovich could figure in acting races. While sound, cinematography, music, and Best Picture nominations are not out of the question. If 2003’s Seabiscuit, which landed 7 nominations including the big one back when there were only five slots, could do it, then it should be a breeze for this horse. But Disney has to campaign just as aggressively as Universal did back then.
COMPANY MEN (The Weinstein Co – 10/22) There hasn’t been a whole lot of buzz on this John Wells written and directed title since it debuted to mixed reviews in Sundance. But this of-the-moment drama about the effect of corporate downsizing on three men has a strong cast that includes past Oscar winners Ben Affleck, Tommy Lee Jones, and Chris Cooper. Oscar Chance: A longshot that needs to step up its awards game or risk downsizing to also-ran status against stiff competition.
WELCOME TO THE RILEYS (Samuel Goldwyn – 10/29) Fine acting from James Gandolfini, Melissa Leo, and Kristen Stewart highlight this drama about the effect that a young runaway has on a married couple. Oscar Chance: This quiet and effective drama was a Sundance success. But it’s likely to be more prominent at the Spirits than the Oscars.
FAIR GAME (Summit – 11/5) The hot button Valerie Plame/CIA leak story gets the cinematic treatment from director Doug Liman. It played well to critics in competition at Cannes in May but has been dormant on the Fall Festival circuit. Oscar Chance: It has two stars, Sean Penn and Naomi Watts, who are usually Academy bait. But so far neither is generating much heat in the highly competitive lead actor and actress races. Perhaps that will change when the film gets its second shot at glory just after election day. Of course, Penn already has a couple of Oscars.
FOR COLORED GIRLS (Lionsgate – 11/5) Except for the trailer, no one’s really yet seen this Tyler Perry adaptation of Ntozake Shange’s 1975 play with the longer title For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When The Rainbow Is Enuf. But apparently Lionsgate has enuf confidence to push the release right up to the start date of the film industry’s official holiday movie season. Oscar Chance: Perry’s a cash cow for Lionsgate but he’s got no Oscar cred yet except for an AMPAS membership card. Last year, this distributor scored 6 nominations and 2 Oscars with Precious (which Perry supported by lending his name). But can lightning strike twice?
HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS PART 1 (Warner Bros – 11/19) The mega-box office Harry Potter series begins its wrap party with the first of a 2-part finale. Oscar Chance: These films are usually good for one or two technical nods but haven’t broken through into the marquee categories. If Harry has any shot at pulling a Lord Of The Rings-style victory lap, it’s probably with the more emotionally potent Part 2 which gets a July release.
THE NEXT THREE DAYS (Lionsgate – 11/19) Oscar-winner Paul Haggis co-wrote and directed this thriller about the turmoil in a couple’s life after the wife is accused of murder. Russell Crowe, Liam Neeson, and Elizabeth Banks star. Oscar Chance: Although Haggis and Lionsgate last struck Oscar gold together with Crash, this one is said to be a strictly commercial bet with no similar awards trajectory.
The Academy Of Motion Picture Arts & Science’s official private weekend screenings for voting members are generally a must-stop for serious Oscar contenders, not only to show the films to voters all at once but also to gauge reaction both audibly during the film and by buzz in the lobby and restrooms after. After complaints about the quality of some the films shown, the Academy last year revamped the committee that chooses them and now seems much more savvy about booking movies that aren’t wasting members’ time – or so they’d like to think. While some fluff still gets screened, the cinematic menu this time of year turns to a heavy sked of Oscar prospects.
Not everything gets booked because there are basically just four slots each weekend: two matinees and two evening shows. But of the 10 pictures nominated last year, only The Blind Side, which seemed to catch even Warner Bros by surprise, did not play at one of these screenings.
In terms of this year’s Oscar contenders, it was a big weekend for Ben Affleck’s The Town (which he directed and co-wrote and stars in for Warner Bros and Legendary Pictures) which topped the weekend box office with nearly $24 million. That was a bit of a surprise, particularly for an adult-skewing drama (albeit one with a LOT of action in it). Then again, it had a 94% fresh critical rating on Rotten Tomatoes. But what was really significant awards-wise is that I hear it had a smash screening at the Academy’s Samuel Goldwyn Theatre in Beverly Hills on Saturday night. So you have a film right out of the gate among Fall releases that looks to be a serious awards prospect.
Even though the movie’s official Academy screening was skedded just as Yom Kippur was ending, the turnout was larger than normal and the response at the end very enthusiastic. A 2-time Oscar winner who frequently attends these private weekend screenings for voting members told me, “There was big loud applause at the end credits — and that’s something I rarely see at the Academy.” He went on to praise the film as easily one of the best he has seen there in some time (and, interestingly, he’s not impressed with much of the 2010 output so far). He singled out Affleck’s direction and the acting ensemble for particular kudos. Two other Academy members who saw the film at non-Academy screenings told me the same thing. So Warners could