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Thursday, September 19, 2013
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Why Movies Tailor-Made for Oscar Often Kinda… Suck

By Doreen Alexander Child

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Based on the number of stars in the cast of August: Osage County, the big screen adaptation of Tracy Letts‘ Pulitzer Prize-winning play, the film looked like a sure-fire best picture Oscar contender. Some even began referring to it as “August: Oscar County” before anyone had even seen a frame of it. But then the film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this month, and was met with reviews that one might call very mixed, if one was feeling generous. Some of the performances that it showcases were cheered — particularly those of Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper and Margo Martindale — but the movie itself clearly had problems, with director John Wells even admitting that its ending might have to be changed prior to its Christmas Day release.

This isn’t the first time that a film that looked like an Oscar powerhouse on paper has proven underwhelming when finally seen, which begs the question… why do prognosticators keep making the same mistakes? I think it’s quite simple: without an actual film to evaluate, people can only make awards predictions on the basis of the source material, subject matter, principal talent (writer, director and cast), along with perhaps the distributor and release date. If all of those look strong, then people tend to assume that the film will be strong. But that is not always the case.

Some best-selling books, for instance, are just too epic or literary to translate into engaging 90- to 120-minute films without losing something in the process. For example, The Shipping News, written by Annie Proulx, won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. (It is one of my favorite books. Go read it. It will change your life.) Lasse Hallstrom‘s 2001 movie version with Kevin Spacey (two years after he won the best actor Oscar for American Beauty), which was distributed by Harvey Weinstein‘s Miramax, was widely expected to be a major Oscar player. While it is actually fairly enjoyable in its own right, it in no way captures the lasting magic of the novel and it was not even nominated for a single Oscar. Perhaps it’s because film is the most literal of art forms: everything is right there on the screen for you to see, with nothing left to imagine.

Similar cases: Cold Mountain (2003), an adaptation of Charles Frazier‘s best-selling book of the same title, which fell flat despite the involvement of the Oscar-winning director Anthony Minghella and actress Nicole Kidman (a year after she won the best actress Oscar for The Hours); The Good German (2006), Steven Soderbergh‘s black-and-white adaptation of Joseph Kanon‘s WWII novel of the same title, with George Clooney and Cate Blanchett in the leads (along with multiple narrators, unfortunately); and Revolutionary Road (2008), Oscar winner Sam Mendes’ take on Richard Yates‘ 1961 book that was particularly hyped for marking the first on-screen reunion of Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet since Titanic. All underwhelmed prognosticators who assumed, sight-unseen, that they couldn’t miss in the Oscar race.

Many plays also don’t hold up when they are turned into movies. Some lose the energy and electricity that is given off in the theater by live and emotionally-charged performances. Others are not “opened up” for the cinema and instead retain the look and feel of a filmed play. And still others are opened up but then suddenly feel small. Over the years, these have plagued a number of presumptive Oscar contenders: to cite but a few, Rob Marshall’s star-studded Chicagofollow-up Nine (2009) and Roman Polanski‘s four-person shoutfest Carnage (2011) were victims of the first and second problems, while two musicals, Chris Columbus Rent (2005) and Susan Stroman‘s The Producers (2008), both fell victim to the third.

Then there are movies based on original screenplays about real events that prognosticators assume must be great because of their “important” subject matter — the sort of thing that is usually catnip to Academy members in search of gravitas — but turn out not to be. Examples of these include Mike NicholsCharlie Wilson’s War (2007), the story of a corrupt congressman and his associates, with a cast that includes Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts and Philip Seymour Hoffman; Clint Eastwood‘s J. Edgar (2011), the story of the enigmatic FBI head, played by DiCaprio; and Roger Michell‘s Hyde Park on Hudson (2012), about Franklin Delano Roosevelt‘s secret lover. With the exception of a single performance, if that, each of these films’ awards prospects were D.O.A.

Finally, there are movies that are regarded as sure things purely on the basis of the talent involved, even if little or nothing is known about their plot. Nobody knew what to expect, story-wise, from Minghella’s Breaking and Enterting (2006) or Robert Redford‘s Lions for Lambs and Gavin Hood‘s Rendition (both 2007) before they came out, but everyone knew who their stars were. Breaking and Entering was Weinstein’s first post-Miramax venture and would feature Jude Law, Robin Wright and Vera Farmiga. Lions for Lambs was not only directed by the legendary Redford but would also star him — and Meryl Streep and Tom Cruise. And Rendition, South African Hood’s first film since winning the best foreign language film Oscar for Tsotsi (2005), would showcase Streep, Reese WitherspoonJake Gyllenhaal and Alan Arkin (a year after he won an Oscar for Little Miss Sunshine). How could they miss?! They couldn’t! Until they did.

It’s far too early to completely write-off the awards prospects of August: Osage County. But if we’ve learned anything from the aforementioned recent history of the Oscars, it’s that films that look good on paper don’t always play well on screen.

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  • Durch

    I guess that the only purpose of this article is to hurt “August: Osage County” awards prospects, because reviews have been actually mixed (just make a simple search). Oh, and you have (deliberately?) forgotten Julia Roberts among the praised performances…

  • Andrea

    Harvey Weinstein must realise The Immigrant this year to Marion Cotillard can arrive at Oscar for her superb performance!!!