In the coming days, I will make a case for each contender on the Best Picture plate to win Best Picture. Silver Linings Playbook goes first.
The qualifying round of the Oscar race is coming to a close. There are three major films left to be seen — Les Miserables, Zero Dark Thirty and Django Unchained — that will either shift the race or they won’t. Many are betting that at least one of them will. History tells us that late entries have a harder time winning than films already tested for success. Winners with critics, winners at the box office with a winning team behind them. Two slam dunks in a row with another feelgood movie in their pocket, The Weinstein Co is very much in the game right now, or at least in a very good spot to win for their third consecutive year.
At the helm is Lisa Taback, maybe the most savvy of all Oscar strategists, who knows the Academy better than they know themselves. A film only needs to be perceived as the underdog to make audiences and voters want to root for it because they root so hard for the scrappy characters. This worked last year and it worked the year before and it worked for Slumdog Millionaire on top of that, and it could very well work again this year; the best thing that can happen to this movie is to repeat last year and the year before — Oscar pundits, save Fandango’s Dave Karger and Jeff Wells, are underestimating it. If it were number one across the board it would have a harder time being perceived as the scrappy underdog. Slumdog is the model for this type of Oscar win: the little movie that could, can and does makes people feel good.
The harder thing to overcome is being the frontrunner early on. It seems counter-intuitive but it almost always seems to work that way. Once Les Miserables and Zero Dark Thirty have been seen it’s going to be a different story, perhaps. But none of them will likely tickle the heartstrings and renew their vigor like Silver Linings does. It’s well liked, or even loved, across the board. Men, women, rich, poor, young, old — they all will connect with it.
If there is any Oscar year this pattern once again reflects, at least so far, it may be the infamous and overused 1976 when All the President’s Men and Network went up against Rocky. Rocky was the emotional win and the public’s favorite. Funnily enough, Rocky wasn’t really a feelgood. It’s like Silver Linings, all the winning is in winning the girl. It is also probably a ordinary-American-makes-good kind of movie which could help people feel better in our terrible economy. It’s a movie that doesn’t ask us to take a political sides. You can be conservative or liberal and like it just fine.
The decision to hold back Silver Linings from wide release was a smart one: if it goes up against The Guardians and Life of Pi, not to mention Red Dawn (which could take a lot of the football-guy ticket sales) on November 21 and doesn’t do so well at the box office that takes away some of its shimmer. But if they platform the rollout and people fight to see it, the box office soars in limited release.
It is a fairly recent phenomenon that fantasy-fulfillment movies win Best Picture. Does it correlate to the rough economy? Depressed people want happy movies? It’s possible. Before Slumdog Millionaire, most Oscar winners needed a certain amount of gravitas, a deeper theme somewhere. Movies like Titanic and A Beautiful Mind and Return of the King — these weren’t feelgood movies.
Looking back through Best Picture winners to see whether there was a previous wave of fantasy/rescue-fulfillment and/or happy ending movies that did win, we observe when these came along in recent years — like Little Miss Sunshine or Juno, or As Good as it Gets — they fell short of the top prize.
Jerry Maguire lost to the English Patient, Sense and Sensibility lost to Braveheart, and on and on it goes. Shakesepare in Love, despite how people like to paint it, does not end happily. Quite the opposite, actually: Will loses his true love. She gets married and leaves him. In his fantasy she then becomes his muse for all time. Last year’s The Artist was kind of clever in that it flipped the familiar paradigm — the girl rescued the boy for once, which was just one of its many charms. Best Picture winners in which one partner rescues the other used to be few and far between. But what has changed to make that a trend now? What has altered our perceptions that we like to see the underdog give a speech or get the girl? Hard to say.
People like to feel good. When deciding between a handful of films that voters feel represent equal quality, nowadays, they more often go with the one that sends them out of the theater feeling more energized than they felt going in. Choosing from an expanded field for Best Picture, it might come down to that. With only five movies to weigh, it might have been easier to say, well that movie made me feel good but this other one is hands down the better film. But with nine or ten, voter allegiance can become even more divided, so the more emotionally moving the film, or the more it makes you feel good, the better chance it has of reaching a consensus. Remember, The King’s Speech won with ten nominees, The Artist won with 9. How many suitors will we have vying for our minds and hearts this year?
The Weinstein Co./Lisa Taback + audience award in Toronto + great reviews + Dr. Feelgood + a plethora of superb Best Picture nominees could equal a Best Picture win for this formula once again. Add to that, David O. Russell has never won. He came closest with The Fighter but that movie was too hard-edged. Still, the lure of awarding someone who has been kicking around Hollywood a long time but has yet to win is always a good selling point.
How do you build Best Picture? You need to build it a branch at a time – Screen Actors Guild, Producers Guild, Directors Guild, Writers Guild, Editors Guild. BOOM.