A column chronicling conversations and events on the awards circuit.
Julia Roberts is back in the awards conversation this season, not only with her latest film, Ben Is Back, which has been winning her some of the best reviews of her career, but also her Amazon series Homecoming, which got a two-season initial order and has racked up Lead Actress nominations right out of the gate for her at the Golden Globes and Critics’ Choice Awards after just a 10-episode first season.
I caught up with her Thursday night at CAA for an interview set to run on Deadline next week. We talked as a full house, largely Academy members, watched Ben Is Back. She’s justifiably proud of the movie, which just began its limited runs last week and will expand through Roadside Attractions to the top 25 markets next week as it continues to widen during the season. Even though it is set in a 24-hour period starting on Christmas Eve, it is like no holiday movie you have seen, to be sure.
Written and directed by Peter Hedges and starring Roberts as a mother determined to save a severely addicted son (Lucas Hedges) from drugs, it is a sober warning against the increasing opioid crisis in this country, but also a gripping thriller that serves as the rare film that entertains as much as it informs. Roberts is proud that it covers a wide tent of those affected. “It’s not just this boy,” she told me. “It’s not just this boy and his mom. Everybody really represents everyone in this kind of global experience, because we are all the sister, the neighbor, the churchgoer. We are all these people. I love that he in some quiet, subtle way represents everybody in this sort of horrible crisis of drug addiction. And it is a crisis that has gone on for so long. Sadly, there is just so much bad news. There is only so much that can go front-page above the fold. This has become just numbers, statistics. We don’t really have conversations about it. So this to me reignites the human conversation of people. It’s not numbers, it’s not just Big Pharma and this and that. Here are these people. Here are these families, and for me if we can do that, if we can reignite the human conversation about this then that is everything to me.”
It certainly ignited a conversation at the reception last night that followed the CAA screening, Everyone seemed to have a personal story — a family member or friend affected by this epidemic — and the film made them feel free to talk about it, not only with Roberts but also director Hedges, who also was there. Among those in the crowd, many visibly shaken by the film, were Sean Penn, Marcia Gay Harden, Sally Kirkland, Camryn Manheim, Howard Rosenman, Teddy Schwarzman (one of the film’s producers) and so many others from various AMPAS branches. There was a similar response at a Writers Guild screening last weekend, where Hedges fielded several personal stories from the audience. The film has yet to figure in the early precursor critics group nominations or at SAG, but it is one that clearly could make a mark if it gets seen by enough voters. More on my Julia Roberts interview next week.
As is the custom this time of year, there are numerous screenings of movies being hosted by well-known industry figures who otherwise have no personal connection to the film they are loaning their name to in order to draw a crowd. Quincy Jones did that at another Thursday night screening on the circuit for Universal and Participant Media’s Green Book. In his case it took on extra meaning because, as he explained in his welcoming speech at the post-reception at Ysrael on Fairfax, he knew Don Shirley, the acclaimed concert pianist Mahershala Ali plays and so far has earned Globe, Critics’ Choice and SAG supporting actor nominations for playing (as has his co-star Viggo Mortensen in the corresponding lead categories).
“I hope that you all enjoyed this very special film about friendship and the power of music to bring people together,” the Grammy-laden Jones told the audience. “I had the pleasure of being acquainted with Don Shirley while I was working as an arranger in New York in the ’50s, and he was without question one of America’s greatest pianists … as skilled a musician as Leonard Bernstein or Van Cliburn. … So it is wonderful that his story is finally being told and celebrated. Mahershala, you did an absolutely fantastic job playing him, and I think yours and Viggo’s performances will go down as one of the great friendships captured on film. Jones added that he had been there as well about the same time when the movie was set in 1962. “I did that ‘Chitlin Circuit’ tour through the South when I was with the Lionel Hampton band, and let me tell you … it was no picnic. And we were a band. I can’t imagine what it would have been like to do it alone with just a driver. So Peter [Farrelly, the film’s director-writer], thank you for telling this story of our country’s not-so-distant history and capturing on film the ties that can bind us when we spend time listening, talking and living with one another.”
Despite blowback from a few critics who feel it should have been grittier in dealing with racial tensions, Green Book continues to be an audience-pleaser, having cleaned up on the festival circuit in terms of audience awards starting at Toronto. Even at my KCET Screening Series (sponsored by Deadline), which concluded Tuesday night with a great screening of Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk, the total of votes for Green Book as favorite film of the nine-movie series was the largest margin of victory by any film in the 17 years I have been hosting this series.
PRINCESS OF NORWAY INVADES OSCAR RACE
Not every film has the kind of budget you need to compete in the modern Oscar race, where money can make a big difference in getting you into, and keeping you in the game (just ask Netflix). That doesn’t stop some dreamers from trying, and such is the case with a superb new World War II-set film from Norway called The 12th Man, which became the sixth-highest-grossing movie ever released in that country and a movie that actually beat the latest Star Wars when it was in theatres there last year. The film was so successful that, for whatever logic, the national committee that selects the single Norwegian entry for Oscar’s Foreign Language contest instead went with a much smaller, less heralded movie (What Will People Say? is the name) as the country’s official selection, a decision that could well cost them a spot on the shortlist of nine finalists that the Academy will be releasing Monday afternoon. I guarantee you that, having seen this gripping and rather incredible true story at another awards screening on Monday, it would have found much favor with the Academy’s foreign language committee and definitely had a shot. The Academy ought to finally lose that one-film-per-country rule. Too often political or other considerations interfere with what should be purely artistic choices.
The film is about Jan Baalsrud (rapper-turned-first time actor Thomas Gullestad), a Norwegian Resistance fighter on the run from an obsessed Gestapo Nazi General (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) in snowy conditions that make The Revenant look like Bambi. In a way it is like a Norwegian version of The Fugitive, and every bit as compelling. Nevertheless the film, which inexplicably was released through IFC Midnight (a label usually reserved for horror film fodder) in May, now is being pushed for Oscar attention in other categories by the filmmakers (including director Harald Zwart) themselves and on their own dime.
Realistically they hope for at least a Makeup/Hairstyling nomination and created a handsome booklet showing the process used in the film. Considering a couple of Scandinavian films have landed in the category in recent years, they could have a shot there. They got a big boost from none other than the Princess of Norway, who came into town to shake hands with Oscar voters at a debut launch for the new Cinepolis Pacific Palisades theater, where a packed group of numerous AMPAS members turned up. The Palisades is rich with voters, and the new theater — the first since the old Bay Theatre disappeared in the same location decades ago — is a plus for getting potential voters in the area out of their expensive homes. The nearby Malibu Twin Theatres also shut down, so for these AMPAS Westsiders this new theater could be a smart campaign stop for contenders. One famous Palisades resident the filmmakers were hoping to lure was Steven Spielberg, and in order to get his attention, they shot an ambitious special video featuring that Princess from Norway, Märtha Louise, complete with a cameo from a Jurassic Park dinosaur. Spielberg wasn’t at the screening, but they got a response and got to send a copy of the film over to his Amblin offices. Never say never for resourceful Oscar hopefuls, even if you have the longest of shots and nothing close to Netflix-style money.