A weekly column talking up the season with dispatches from the awards circuit. Final Oscar balloting begins today. We can see the light at the end of the tunnel with a deadline for voting by 5 PM PT on Tuesday, February 23, just days before Oscar Sunday. And so the final push for those votes also begins with endless TV ads and lots of double-truck color ads appearing in trades and newspapers for the likes of Open Road’s Spotlight, The Revenant, The Big Short and Mad Max: Fury Road. You can tell upstart indie Open Road really feels a potential win and seems to be spending much more than it did even when the film opened earlier in the fall. It is a no-brainer that the major studios behind the other aforementioned films feel they are still in it to win it, so they are all still reaching into their deep advertising pockets to make sure voters keep their film front of mind. Contenders are still hitting the circuit, albeit in different ways from the party-heavy pre-nomination period that the Academy forbids in this second phase. Nevertheless, in the past week alone I have moderated sessions with the likes of George Miller, Alicia Vikander, Sylvester Stallone, Brie Larson, Saoirse Ronan, Bryan Cranston and more in this wide-open race.
OSCAR CONTENDERS FLOCK TO SANTA BARBARA
As is the case every year at this time, a slew of Oscar nominees have been making their way to the Santa Barbara International Film Festival — and not just because the weather has been unusually great this month. It’s also because the fest is a way of being seen accepting an award just as Academy voters are getting ready to make a decision. It doesn’t hurt that there are lots of those voters in nearby Montecito who attend the fest, or at least read about it in the local papers, which make a big deal of the honorees. I had the pleasure again this week of hosting two onstage tributes at the 2,00o-seat Arlington Theatre. First up on Monday, I raced from the Oscar Nominees luncheon in Beverly Hills to Santa Barbara for the fest’s Outstanding Performers of the Year evening honoring Best Actress contenders Brie Larson for Room and Saoirse Ronan for Brooklyn. It turned out to be a lot of fun despite being a first for SBIFF when Larson, due to a change in her production schedule on Kong: Skull Island in Australia, had to be Skyped into the theater from the A24 offices in Los Angeles. There was no other way to do it and still make her flight back to the arms of King Kong. So the script was torn up and for her portion of the tribute (film clip retrospective and all), and she hovered over me on the Arlington’s massive stage, trouper that she is. Earlier in the day at the nominees lunch, Larson told me that during the simultaneous filming of this tentpole movie for Universal and her awards-season duties, she has made four one-day trips in and out from locations in Hawaii, two from Vietnam and now two from Australia. As least she’s getting miles. In fact, she couldn’t even make it back for the Critics’ Choice Awards (she won). And for the SAG awards (she won), Larson nearly missed the plane out right afterward. And you thought it was easy being up for an Oscar!
Ronan also made a quick trip in for the lunch and the SBIFF tribute as she is deep in rehearsals for her Broadway debut in a revival of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, which starts performances just two days after the Oscars. She told me this production is going places you haven’t seen in previous incarnations, and she’s really excited about it and happy to be back in New York — where, believe it or not, this very Irish star was born, in the Bronx. “Can’t you tell by my accent?” she asked on stage in her charming Irish brogue when I brought up her early years. She actually moved to Ireland when she was 3.
SLY STALLONE’S ‘ROCKY’-LIKE PATH TO THE DOLBY
I had a blast talking onstage to Sylvester Stallone on Tuesday at SBIFF as he sat for a tribute to his long career before receiving the fest’s Montecito Award. The NBR, Golden Globe and Critics’ Choice winner wowed the crowd, which reacted to clips from Creed, Rocky and Rambo among others like they were ringside at a prize fight. After I rolled a scene from Rambo: First Blood Part II I turned to the 69 year old star and asked if he was ever planning on doing a fifth Rambo movie. The answer was no, until he seemed to spark to my idea that Rambo could take on Isis next. By their boisterous response the audience was clearly ready to line up for that one. Stallone said he was just about dead last on the list of actors who were originally going to play Rambo including Al Pacino, Michael Douglas, Robert Redford, Kris Kristofferson and many others. But don’t wait for another sequel. Stallone wants to do more dramatic things in the new phase of his career that Creed has opened up. He said he had no idea this whole new shot at Oscar was ever going to happen to him but you can tell he’s having a great time on the ride. He was very generous in telling stories about working with the likes of Woody Allen as a thug in Bananas and the great John Huston who directed him in Victory. He should write an autobiography.
I was a little nervous in including a clip of a country duet he does with Dolly Parton in the 1984 musical bomb, Rhinestone, but I couldn’t resist and apologized to him in advance of showing it. It’s not one of his biggest hits to say the least but frankly he held his own with Parton who he said insisted on singing live, rather than dubbed like nearly every other movie musical. He was a good sport about all the clips, especially when he heard literally thunderous applause after that one ended. He revealed that he signed on to the film when Mike Nichols was going to be the original director. “Instead it ended up being directed by Bob Clark, the guy who did Porky’s.” he laughed. Apollo Creed himself, Carl Weathers presented the award to Stallone after a heartfelt ten minute speech. During the show Stallone said Weathers was easily his toughest opponent in the ring. The SBIFF fest closes on Saturday, and if you are up there be sure to check out the Women’s Panel at 11AM at the Lobero Theatre, always a highlight of the fest and moderated every year by Madelyn Hammond. Several Oscar nominated women are among those participating.
ALICIA VIKANDER ON A LUCKY ROLL
As I mentioned in my Monday column about the Oscar nominees lunch, I drew the lucky number in the Academy’s press lotto and got to sit at Alicia Vikander’s table during the Beverly Hilton event. She may think she can’t get rid of me. The day before, I moderated a Q&A at Pacific Design Center in which she revealed how she heard about her first ever Oscar nomination for Supporting Actress in The Danish Girl. She was in Las Vegas with her parents and was blown away when she got the news. “Hey with that kind of luck you should have gone on and played craps,” I suggested. “That is exactly what I did do, and I won,” she replied. A good omen? The Swedish native is up for two BAFTA awards this Sunday in London, but at that show she’s in the lead actress category for Danish Girl and supporting for Ex-Machina. Another Scandinavian nominee, Tobias Lindholm, director of Denmark’s superb Best Foreign Language contender, A War, told me since the start of the season when his film premiered at Venice he has made about 20 round trips back and forth from Denmark, but after another quick trip to New York where his film opens today he is coming back and staying in Malibu, and flying in his mother, wife and three kids until after the Oscars. “It’s snowing and freezing in my country right now. This is a lot better,” he said in the ultimate understatement.
FOX SEARCHLIGHT LOOKING AHEAD TO NEXT YEAR’S OSCARS
Also at my table at the nominee lunch was Academy Governor Nancy Utley and her Fox Searchlight co-President Steve Gilula. Winners of the last two Best Pictures in a row for 12 Years A Slave and Birdman, they have Brooklyn as their Best Picture hope this year, but are already looking to the 89th Oscar season. It is easy to see why. They got the hot property out of Sundance, Nate Parkers slave rebellion drama, The Birth Of A Nation, which drew a record $17 million pricetag. Gilula says they are still trying to figure out when to release it. “We want to make it a global success like 12 Years A Slave”. That film opened in October, prime time for Oscar contenders and it also turned a nice profit. But although they won’t rush it out this Spring he says they are also exploring August, the summer month where movies like The Help, Lee Daniel’s The Butler and Straight Outta Compton all became breakout hits.
Mad Max: Fury Road director George Miller was, of course, also at the nominees lunch and although he had lost the DGA award just two days earlier, by my gauge he got the biggest applause of the 150 or so nominees as they were called to the risers for the annual Oscar class picture. And that bunch also included back to back DGA winner Alejandro G. Inarritu who told me he was still shocked that he won. And it also even included Miller’s wife Margaret Sixel, who is nominated for Film Editing, making them this year’s only husband and wife nominees. Sixel recently won an ACE Eddie award for her work on the film much to her husband’s delight. At a Friday night Q&A following a screening of the film, Miller told me it is interesting working on a movie his wife is editing. “She always tells me she’s saving me from myself,” he smiled. By the way, that screening was held at the fantastic new IMAX headquarters theatre in Playa Vista. Miller popped in and watched the last 20 minutes of his movie and told me afterwards that, even though fans have been seeing it this way since its opening in May, this was the first time he had seen it in the IMAX 3D format. “I was impressed. I liked it,” he said. Better late than never. Whatever happens at the Oscars, Miller already has another prestigious awards date lined up. He has been named head of the Cannes Film Festival jury in May.