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The Case for Les Miserables

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Les Miserables was considered an early frontrunner Oscar’s Best Picture before the race really began. That put it at a disadvantage immediately because most frontrunners are bigger targets when the collective believes they are going to win. It’s better, always, to fly under the radar.  The film enters the race now with two major obstacles in its path: 1) its director, Tom Hooper, won as recently as 2010. Unless you talking about one of those Oscar oddities it’s not a likely scenario that one of his films can win again, or that he can win again so soon. 2) no Best Director nod for Hooper at the Golden Globes, where they honor musicals more than any other voting body. The big musicals that did make the jump to Oscar’s Best Picture had, at the very least, that Globe nod.  Baz Luhrmann for Moulin Rouge, Rob Marshall for Chicago are two recent examples.

Screen Shot 2012-12-22 at 8.32.45 PM

Those are hurdles before the film ever gets to the Kodak and before you ever get to the film itself.   What Les Miserables has going for it is a powerful fan base. Fans are out in force attacking and dismantling negative reviews, on message boards debating criticisms of the film, making a daily case for Hugh Jackman to win in Best Actor and for the film to become, eventually, too big to ignore.  In addition, two of Oscar’s most reliable pundits, Fandango’s Dave Karger and In Contention’s Kris Tapley still have Les Miserables, the longest shot in the race right now, at number one. Both are predicting the impossible to become possible.  Both also attended the now famous New York screenings where there were standing ovations and tears.

The film itself has seemed to divide critics, and even fans of the stage show, right down the middle. People love it or they hate it. I have found that on second viewing, and on screener as opposed to an overwhelming big screen experience, the movie is more enjoyable. The performances have more room to breathe and the Les Miserables story begins to emerge. The show itself has to come out from under the specific choice to film the whole thing in close-up and if it can do that it has a shot at a win.

But let’s quickly look at how divisive the film is.  Supposedly the model for Les Miserables to win is Crash.  I’ll take this moment to remind readers that odd occurrences like Crash are hard to predict. Those who accurately predicted that film to win, likewise Shakespeare in Love, were picking up on a last minute wave of enthusiasm that could be felt on the ground but that hadn’t yet permeated in the awards watching communities. For instance, back in 1998 both Kenneth Turan and Dave Karger had predicted Saving Private Ryan to win because they had to have their predictions in a couple of weeks before the big show. Both have later said that they could feel the shifting buzz in the days leading up to the race and that they both knew Shakespeare in Love would win but it was too late to put their predictions on record.

Now, we have up-to-the-minute reporting that enabled, say, the New York Times’ David Carr to predict Crash to win in 2005, when very few others were, simply because he was on the ground in the days leading up to the Oscars and could sense the enthusiasm in the air for that film. But as long as I’ve been doing the Oscars, and as many times as I have looked back on surprises and splits, they are mostly impossible to see coming — that includes Chariots of Fire and Reds, etc.

So that takes us back to the roll of the dice that tells us a long shot like Les Miserables could be that movie.  Passionate enthusiasm can get the film nominated but it takes a broader “Like” to get it the win the way the Oscars count ballots. This was one of Avatar’s biggest stumbling blocks heading into the race; it was a love it/hate it movie.  You either went with it 100% or you were going to be irritated by it. Les Miserables is that kind of movie and there’s something to be said for that — whether it’s an Oscar winner or not.

It is like Crash only in one respect: the reviews have been sharply divided.  A reader challenged me recently saying that Crash was as divisive as Les Miserables but I disagreed with that notion because Crash, unlike Les Miserables, was driven by its script, its cast and its editing.  Thus, to overcome mixed to bad reviews, a film must also have that kind of support. Thus, Les Miserables really needs an editing nomination, win the WGA (Writers Guild) [Les Miserables can’t win the WGA because it is ineligible], the Ace Eddie (Editors Guild) in Musical/Comedy, to win the SAG ensemble to sit where Crash sat heading into the race.

Now, the reviews.  I don’t often use Rotten Tomatoes for an accurate reading on reviews because they are divided up as positive and negative and that doesn’t really give you a precise qualitative idea of how that movie is really doing with critics.  But I noticed an interesting trend.  All Best Picture winners in recent years, except one, had less than 20 rotten scores.  For some of the older films, too many modern reviews have been added to the mix so, in the case of Crash, I removed the reviews that happened after 2005 to arrive at its total, but you can see that Crash and Les Miserables have the highest numbers heading into the race.  That shows how divisive both films are.  Still, one might think that if Crash could win, Les Miserables can win also.

The Artist- Fresh (214) | Rotten (4)
The King’s Speech – Fresh (209) | Rotten (12)
The Hurt Locker – Fresh (212) | Rotten (7)
Slumdog Millionaire – Fresh (218) | Rotten (15)
No Country for Old Men – Fresh (234) | Rotten (14)
The Departed – Fresh (222) | Rotten (17)
Crash – Fresh (157) | Rotten (49)
Million Dollar Baby Fresh (214) | Rotten (20)
Lord of the Rings: Return of the King Fresh (248) | Rotten (14)

Crash – Fresh (157) | Rotten (49)
Brokeback Mountain Fresh (212) | Rotten (31)
Capote Fresh (171) | Rotten (20)
Good Night, and Good Luck Fresh (208) | Rotten (14)
Munich Fresh (162) | Rotten (35) (otherwise 44)

Now onto this year so far:

Les Miserables Fresh (99) | Rotten (39)
The Master Fresh (178) | Rotten (32)
Beasts of the Southern Wild Fresh (148) | Rotten (26)
Life of Pi Fresh (180) | Rotten (23)
Lincoln Fresh (164) | Rotten (17)
Silver Linings Playbook Fresh (154) | Rotten (16)
Django Unchained Fresh (105) | Rotten (13)
Moonrise Kingdom Fresh (196) | Rotten (13)
Argo Fresh (232) | Rotten (11)
Amour Fresh (84) | Rotten (7)
Zero Dark Thirty Fresh (79) | Rotten (6)

**additional information – the Metacritic score for Les Miserables has climbed to 64. But that still puts it lower than Crash, the lowest Metactic score to date for any Best Picture winner. It is also still lower than Moulin Rouge (66) and Chicago (82), and even Sweeney Todd (82). But higher than Phantom of the Opera (40) and Evita (45).

You could probably take each recent Oscar year and measure them and you’d find only Crash as the winner with those kinds of divisive reactions. But that means it isn’t totally impossible that Les Miserables pull it through. Crash also lacked a Golden Globe nod for Director (except that’s more common from the drama category than musical/comedy).

What I’ve built here is a case against, and potentially a case for Les Miserables to win.  But that doesn’t tell the whole picture. There is the matter of audience reaction to the film.  Both War Horse and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close last year managed to still head into the Oscar race for Best Picture even with divisive reviews mostly because of the audience reaction to them.  According to many reports, many audiences are clapping wildly and crying, some even standing after seeing the film.  It has a strong Cinemascore of A and looks to shatter the box office this season.

None of that can be easily discounted.  In the same way that Lincoln is doing so well “outside the bubble,” Les Miserables could be that movie that does much better outside the bubble than inside of it. We all tend to be more cynical, less willing to surrender to something as emotional as Les Mis.   If it becomes, say, as big or close to as Skyfall, it will become too big to ignore and will become critic-proof.

Although I was not a part of it, Les Miserables swept up a generation with its addictive songs and deep emotional resonance.  It defines childhoods for many and reminds them of an emotionally powerful experience in the theater.   The film brings it all rushing back and could result in repeat viewings.

The big risk Tom Hooper took in having the actors sing live, which is no easy feat, has caused many to stand up and cheer just on its own.  And the actors give it their absolute all, many of them already enamored of the stage show. Indeed, if you’re an actor, especially a musical theater actor, your dream might have been to be cast in Les Miserables.

All of that is to say what we knew going in — Les Miserables is a long shot both for a nomination and a win. But it isn’t impossible, at least not yet.  A DGA nomination could go a long way to help fortify its base.  Either way, whether it wins any Oscars or not shouldn’t dampen the enthusiasm of its fans. Sadly, we know that it does, but it shouldn’t.  They should feel free to keep dreaming that dream.