Saturday, February 14, 2015

Failed Oscar Campaigns: "Silver Linings Playbook" (2012)

Left to right: Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper
As awards seasons pick up, so do the campaigns to make your film have the best chances at the Best Picture race. However, like a drunken stupor, sometimes these efforts come off as trying too hard and leave behind a trailer of ridiculous flamboyance. Join me on every other Saturday for a highlight of the failed campaigns that make this season as much about prestige as it does about train wrecks. Come for the Harvey Weinstein comments and stay for the history. It's going to be a fun time as I explore cinema's rich history of attempting to matter.

The Movie

Silver Linings Playbook (2012)
Directed By: David O. Russell
Written By: David O. Russell (screenplay), Matthew Quick (novel)
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro
Genre: Comedy, Drama, Romance
Running Time: 122 minutes
Summary: After a stint in a mental institution, former teacher Pat Solitano moves back in with his parents and tries to reconcile with his ex-wife. Things get more challenging when Pat meets Tiffany, a mysterious girl with problems of her own.

The History

Whether or not there could be a consensus on this film being any good, there is one merit to its name. For the mainstream audience, it was the film that solidified Jennifer Lawrence as a star. Yes, there was The Hunger Games earlier that year that started one of the most successful young adult franchises, but it was this film that gained her a certain credibility. If for no other reason, it was the film that proved that she could do blockbusters and more serious work alongside each other while remaining the charming focus of interviews. The amount of meme culture created from her alone following this movie is almost enough to warrant the film's success.

However, it was so much more. It was the evidence needed to prove that David O. Russell had a comeback career after stalling in the mid-00's following I Heart Huckabees. While The Fighter proved that he could do hard hitting drama, this film proved that he could tackle subject matter that was more personal to his heart. With his brother being bipolar, he found several reasons to relate to the protagonist and sought to make the best story he could. The results were less dark than his previous film. In fact, it presented a lighter and more enjoyable side of the director while also tackling something very serious.

The debate remains on whether the film and its gross of $236 million worldwide is an accurate, or even reverent, depiction of mental health disguised as a flaky romantic comedy. However, what is more peculiar is how it became an awards darling to begin with. While it made sense that it was integral to Lawrence's rising profile, it managed to garner eight nominations and became the first film since Reds to be nominated in all four acting fields (the honor would also be bestowed on Russell's next film American Hustle). This doesn't just happen. While it could likely be that it played into the sliding 5-10 scale that the Oscars had adopted in 2011, it still poses a bigger question on why it was such a juggernaut.

Of course, the answers are familiar to longtime Failed Oscar Campaigns readers. Despite the admiration for the project that Russell had, it was more in the hands of a familiar figure named Harvey Weinstein. Once again, he swooped in with the hope of making a huge difference for the film. Much like in his past, he called upon a few unlikely faces and even did some obnoxious strategies in order to raise the film's profile. Of course, what else is new?

The Campaign

The more defensible move of Weinstein's Silver Linings Playbook campaign came in the disguise of a supply and demand factor. Where the film had initially been planned to be released in November of 2012 on over 2000 screens, things were changed. While many could attest it to being because of James Bond film Skyfall having a higher profile at the time, it was also a strategy to raise attention. The film opened as expected in limited release on 400 screens, a fifth of the initial total. With the film earning $27,000 per theater, there was a growing word of mouth that would build and allow a slow roll out as the Oscar season happened. The film would reach wide release a month later when it was closer to Christmas and general Oscar discussions.

As someone who had to write about it incessantly for this blog, the roll out was obnoxious and I am glad that it is over. To their credit, it did force the film back into the conversation and likely teaming up with Lawrence's charming interviews, the film had no chance of going away. The one interesting thing about 2012's Oscar year is that there wasn't the general consensus that currently faces this year's nominees. Many articles questioned if Silver Linings Playbook could beat more "important" films like Lincoln or Zero Dark Thirty. After all, it was just some light romantic comedy that just happened to have characters with mental illnesses.

That is where the deeper magic comes. In a piece for Vulture following the Oscars, the truth came out about Weinstein's latest campaign. It was unannounced at the time that former presidential aide and deputy campaign manager of America for Obama, Stephanie Cutter, was involved in spreading the word as much as she could. She posted messages expressing her love on Twitter and even promoted it during interviews when asked what her favorite movies of the year were. 

Nobody can really say how much influence Cutter had in the final sway, but Weinstein continued to approach Obama's staff for support in order to legitimize the film's subject. For starters, Weinstein held a successful fundraiser for Obama at his house that allowed him access to various members of staff. At one point, he even got the chance to have Russell and star Bradley Cooper speak to Vice President Joe Biden about mental illness and better ways to treat it. The narrative was evolving into how the film broke the astigmatism of mental illness. It created importance that it was once threatened by Lincoln and Zero Dark Thirty. Weinstein talked to other senators and advocacy groups as well.

While the fact that the film raised a lot of more interesting questions about the treatment of mental health, it does seem like one of the more bizarre ways to add levity to your movie. Along with the familiar For Your Consideration advertisements, Weinstein went above and beyond to make sure that everyone knew what Silver Linings Playbook was about. In fact, he made sure that people thought that it wasn't just a good film. He wanted them to think that it was important. That is up for debate. However, using mental health discussion, even in Russell's acceptance speeches, is a little much.

The Payoff

The film received an impressive eight Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. However, what's more impressive is that there were some surprises. Best Supporting Actress nominee Jacki Weaver was surprised by her nomination. Even seeing Robert De Niro in Best Supporting Actor seemed odd. However, the trek to make mental illness a public conversation had paid off so far. As everyone likely knows, Lawrence won for Best Actress and solidified her status as one of the modern stars. While it wasn't her first (Best Actress - Winter's Bone), it wouldn't be her last, either. 

However, the remainder of the night ended up with goose eggs. Best Picture went to Argo and the other awards were largely divided among every film. It seems silly to even argue that Lincoln and Zero Dark Thirty were threats, as they barely registered. However, it was a failed campaign in theory, as the quest to make the film win didn't happen. However, the promotion was so incessant that the film still rings in people's ears from time to time. While Lawrence has gone on to do more interesting work, her story here was actually quite interesting.

The only real irony came in the final presentation. As stated, Weinstein had a lot of involvement from the Obama administration. In a surprise twist, Jack Nicholson came out to present Best Picture. If that wasn't enough, he turned it over to a live telecast in which First Lady Michelle Obama presented the award to Argo. While it is one of the rare times that a politician presented a major award at the Oscars, it also feels like the final proof of just how much Weinstein was trying to make Silver Linings Playbook look great. 

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