Saturday, October 17, 2015

Failed Oscar Campaigns: "Philomena" (2013)

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

Philomena (2013)
Directed By: Stephen Frears
Written  By: Steve Coogan & Jeff Pope (Screenplay), Martin Sixsmith (Book)
Starring: Judi Dench, Steve Coogan, Sophie Kennedy
Genre: Biography, Drama
Running Time: 98 minutes
Summary: A world-weary political journalist picks up the story of a woman's search for her son, who was taken away from her decades ago after she became pregnant and was forced to live in a convent.

The History

Among the 2013 Best Picture nominees, director Stephen Frears' Philomena probably remains the only true dark horse. In a year that brought us 12 Years a Slave, American Hustle, and Gravity; it seemed strange to throw in this drama about a woman looking for her son, of whom she forcefully gave up for adoption. In all senses, it's a film for an older crowd, and one that feels very much in the vein of Oscar bait. However, that would be to ignore a lot of what the film does right. Despite seeming very much groomed to be that year's prestige picture, it was a heartfelt drama that reminded us of the charisma of Judi Dench and introduced The Academy to the wit of Steve Coogan. Between the two, they made for an enjoyable pair.

Dench played the title character, Philomena Lee and Coogan her cohort and the book's author Martin Sixsmith. The story that followed was surprisingly controversial for several reasons. It wasn't like The Wolf of Wall Street where debauchery and moral objectivity were front and center. It was something more implicit that only bothers a certain facet of people. The film was considered anti-Catholic for its depiction of nuns as taking away babies from unwed teenage mothers. It's a conflict that inevitably inspired the real life Lee to start up The Philomena Project, whose goal is to reunite mothers with their adopted children; specifically around the area of Lee's residence in Ireland.

Despite the controversy, the film didn't make much of a splash and was part of a cavalcade of films produced by Harvey Weinstein during that awards season. There was August: Osage County, which earned two acting nominations. Then there was Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, which didn't follow in Invictus' footsteps by earning Oscar nominations outside of Best Original Song. Of course, another complaint is that these two films didn't do all that well theatrically. Comparatively, Philomena was a modest film that got less attention yet earned more of the overall acclaim. It seems peculiar, but not as much as the Oscar campaign that followed in which Weinstein played into the religious subject matter and had a living Philomena Lee do press in very on the nose places. 

The Campaign

The year 2013 was a very aggressive time for Weinstein's Oscar campaigns. In the time following the Golden Globe nominations announcement, he ran ads for August: Osage County that congratulated the film on "winning" nominations. While true, the wording was subjective. This paved the way for a more egregious campaign for Philomena in The New York Times. Following the Oscar nominations, Weinstein ran an unprecedented ad in the A-Section as well as ads in the sports section. These ads were egregious, appearing three times within the same paper. However, the quotes were even more manipulative, with various critics such as Rex Reed claiming that “It is unbelievable that the miraculous Judi Dench has never won a best actress Oscar.” However, the most manipulative came from Scott Feinberg, who is actually not a critic, but an awards prognosticator. The quote that was used stated that: “Could Philomena be the spoiler in this year’s Oscar race? Don’t rule it out.” 

While it was an aggressive push, it's nothing new for Weinstein. He's been known to drop significant budgets onto newspaper ads. Unlike most topics related to Failed Oscar Campaigns, there was one positive to come from all of this. On January 24, 2014 (during awards season), Lee started up The Philomena Project in Dublin, Ireland, which has been going strong since. Much like the film's subject matter, it focuses on reuniting adopted children with their parents. Thankfully, it wasn't just a fluke and has actually become a fairly successful organization with events being held as recently as July 2015. It has inspired various other organizations to follow suit in places such as The United States.

It is easy to see how this organization can be mistaken as an Oscar campaign motive. The movie's tragic plot feels like the mission statement. While the film isn't manipulative enough to make this problematic, it does seem strange when considering what else happened during this time. The 80-year-old Lee was seen making press rounds and taking pictures with Dallas Buyers Club star Jared Leto. The one obvious and appropriate thing that Lee did was speak out to critics who were in any way offended by the film. Lee's activism served as the starting point of a very blurred campaign strategy that would involve, but also not involve, one of the most influential religious figures in contemporary world history.

In February of 2014, Lee went to Italy with actor and co-writer of Philomena, Steve Coogan. The story goes that they were at The Vatican to congress with Pope Francis regarding The Philomena Project. Since it is a serious cause, the visit makes sense. However, its closeness to the film's Oscar campaign season struck many as being suspicious. In a public statement from Pope Francis, it was acknowledged that he doesn't give out endorsements. The statement went on to claim that  "The Holy Father does not see films, and will not be seeing this one. It is also important to avoid using the Pope as part of a marketing strategy." 

Even if the latter statement has been held true, the deed was already done. The press was already covering the event. Even if it was about The Philomena Project, its ties to Philomena are too jarring to ignore. From the film's religious text to the organization being formed in the aftermath of the film, this does feel like a strangely motivated Oscar campaign, even if its intentions were good. From now on, regardless of quality, people will look back on this film as the one that tried to get endorsement from Pope Francis. This inherently isn't true, but it serves into a strange narrative that makes this mixture of activism and competitive awards into something wholly perplexing. To call this a campaign is to suggest that The Philomena Project was started to buy votes (it wasn't). But to say it didn't impact and raise awareness of Philomena is also wrong. 

The Payoff

The film wasn't without its share of honors. Philomena ended up receiving four Oscar nominations, including a Best Actress nod for Dench. In a year where 12 Years a Slave looked to be an unstoppable force and every other category already had favorites, it was already clear that the film wouldn't stand much of a chance. It was fortunate enough to get into the Best Picture category as it was. Alongside Nebraska, it was a film for old people that was also wholesome and full of deep, thought-provoking ideas. They were good movies, but they were clearly to a specific demographic that wouldn't be recognized at that year's Academy Awards.

What's more interesting is that despite the anti-religion accusations, it was a film that flew under the radar for most of the season. Everyone was wrapped up in 12 Years a Slave and its impact on film as well as in the public school systems, where projects were launched to make the book part of required curriculum. Others complained about The Wolf of Wall Street's morally objectionable behavior. Others just loved Gravity. Even if the bigger loser was American Hustle, which joined a rare list of films with 10 nominations to win zero, Philomena was a film that nobody was really talking about. People liked it, but as Weinstein's best bet in the 2013 season, it was lucky to even place.

The one positive is that it raised awareness to a good cause. Still, others may mistake it for being about targeting people's beliefs for easy votes. Or, they just wanted Lee to schmooze:

Left to right: Philomena Lee and Jaret Leto
It's very interesting when the subject of your biographical film is still alive. In most cases, they just get a brief moment of press before enjoying a quiet life. For Philomena, it arguably changed Lee's world. Beyond the film and its arguable manipulation, it helped her to raise awareness of an important cause. So while Weinstein remains the sinister trickster of the awards season, this ambiguously manipulative "campaign" had some positive real world pay-off. It's not likely to be a film that a lot of people think about. However, when Weinstein has made less worthwhile films into Best Picture contenders, you have to be thankful for the few that don't end in forcing lies about history and quality. Bravo, Philomena. Bravo.

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