Saturday, January 16, 2016

Failed Oscar Campaigns: "Southpaw" (2015)

Jake Gyllenhaal in Southpaw
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

Southpaw (2015)
Directed By: Antoine Fuqua
Written By: Kurt Sutter
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rachel McAdams, Oona Laurence
Genre: Action, Drama, Sport
Running Time: 124 minutes
Summary: Boxer Billy Hope turns to trainer Tick Wills to help him get his life back on track after losing his wife in a tragic accident and his daughter to child protection services.

The Movie

Among the sports movie genre, there are few games that have the allure of the boxing drama. Compared to most, the logic doesn't make sense. It's arguably the most violent and abusive of acceptable mainstream sports. It also doesn't require much beyond two characters (preferably muscle-bounded) duking it out in a square ring. It's the most primitive of sports, yet The Academy has rewarded it several times, including twice for Best Picture with Rocky and Million Dollar Baby. For whatever reason, boxing remains appealing, even to those who would never watch an actual match. It is likely due to the idea of the underdog rising up and using his literal strength to become a hero among a backdrop of turmoil.

This is generally what director Antoine Fuqua's Southpaw has going for it. It's a boxing drama all about a boxer who loses his wife and child due to various problems. Some of them are connected to his own ego trouble. However, it's got the formula of a boxing movie pretty much written into its gene. While the film was initially set to star rapper/actor Eminem, the singer did provide a few tracks for the soundtrack, including "Phenomenal," which felt intended to be an anthemic cry for the protagonist. If the drama already sounds like it has every cliche in the book, it's likely because it does in most respects. If you've seen Rocky, the trailers may themselves seem like deja vu.

Yet the big draw coming into this film was Jake Gyllenhaal. While an overall compelling actor, he has gotten flack as one of the select few actors who unfortunately have been "snubbed" by The Academy. Prior to Southpaw, Gyllenhaal had starred in Nightcrawler: a film where he was almost skeletal in appearance, thus creating an interesting shift for his bulky and almost unrecognizable new role. This raised the question as to whether he would ever be nominated again. After all, most would say he was doing some of the most interesting work of his career and received no recognition for it. He had been nominated for Brokeback Mountain, but that was becoming a fleeting memory in the minds of fans.

The goal of Southpaw, beyond being a good movie, was hopefully to be a crowd pleaser akin to Rocky. Speaking as it was a formula that had worked with other boxing dramas in recent years (The Fighter noticeably), nobody could fault the potential of this working for Gyllenhaal and his co-stars. All that was needed was a great script that would highlight his ability to create conflicting characters within the realm of physically demanding performances. Many anticipated this to be his Raging Bull: Robert De Niro's movie where he not only gave a great performance, but the film itself would be awe-inspiring and unlike anything else out there. For a film released during the late summer months, it was a bold move that would require patience if it wanted to get Gyllenhaal that Oscar.

The Campaign

The entire campaign began before the film was even completed. During the 2014 Cannes Film Festival, Harvey Weinstein did his usual routine of presenting clips from upcoming projects. Among the films were St. Vincent and Big Eyes - two films that would be campaigning for Oscars that year. However, there was the curious presence of a video featuring Gyllenhaal working out. The video featured him doing torso twists and 2000 sit ups every day while shirtless. The leaner, harrier Gyllenhaal in the video spoke of his quest for getting into shape for the role that would become Southpaw. Considering that he was underweight for Nightcrawler (which came out that year), it is easy to see why Weinstein would put emphasis on this, even if it seemed out of place. By some strange luck, Weinstein would return to Cannes with Southpaw the following year. Its only conflict was that it was disqualified from competing due to Gyllenhaal (who had been absent the year before) being on the voting staff.

By the time that Cannes was finished, Southpaw wasn't too far removed from its actual release date of July 24, 2015. The conversation of Gyllenhaal being overdue for an Oscar nomination regained popularity during this time and set things in motion for what was promised to be a late-summer surprise. The film was a moderate success with a gross of $91 million on a $25 million budget. The reviews were predictably keeping Gyllenhaal's performance as the highlight, despite criticisms that the film was also very formulaic and forgettable. Things were heating up for Oscar season, and Weinstein's poster boy for the season had already made his presence. The producer would have a handful of other films in store (Woman in Gold, Burnt, MacbethCarol, and The Hateful Eight), but his hyperbole would have you believe that he was all about Southpaw.

The idea seems obvious, especially to those that remember The Help. Southpaw's "early" Oscar season release was meant as a chance for it to develop word of mouth. The Help benefited, even landing a Best Picture nomination in 2011. If there was one issue however, it's that nobody was now talking about Southpaw a mere month later. People were already watching Weinstein's other campaigns fall apart. Burnt's release date was moved around before underperforming on opening weekend. Carol was also delayed and had an unfortunately glacial expansion that kept it from building on word of mouth. By comparison, The Hateful Eight's only real setback was that a screener leaked online about a week before its theatrical debut. Of course, Todd Haynes and Quentin Tarantino are more vocal and able to stay recognizable even without a movie coming out. Gyllenhaal needed Weinstein to do the heavy lifting.

Among the more unfortunate pieces of news to happen during the campaign season was the death of composer James Horner on June 22. While his death was treated reverently, there was a novelty sense that Southpaw was the last score that he recorded before his death. This was partially true. Horner's other work, The 33, was recorded prior to Southpaw but released afterwards. He also recorded parts of Fuqua's next film The Magnificent Seven before his death. While this aspect was never really exploited, it was about as much press as Southpaw would be getting post-September. It was mostly tied to Horner's much deserved legacy, of which everyone involved constantly expressed gratitude.

But how was that Gyllenhaal nomination going? If you had to ask Weinstein, it was all that he could think about. In December, Weinstein wrote a piece for The Hollywood Reporter attacking awards season. The cries in general were of the logical garden variety. Nobody noticed films from earlier in the year (though the past two years have shown a noticeable variation to this) and that independent film should be recognized all year around. This was fair enough, but he couldn't help but throw in a few self-promotional jabs for himself. Among his more egotistical quotes were:
"However, it's completely puzzling, and I have to say a bit maddening, to read prognosticator lists of performances that 'may' get nominated and not see Jake’s name included. These are the same people who wrote only months earlier that he gave an awards-worthy performance and should be recognized come Oscar time! He deserved a nomination last year for Open Road's Nightcrawler, and he deserves one this year."
Yes, to Weinstein the absence of Gyllenhaal during the awards season was "completely puzzling." Some would blame the early release date, even though it had proven to work as cheaper promotion in 2009 for Inglourious Basterds. However, it is likely the word of mouth that killed the film, in that there wasn't much of anything. There was a brief but unmemorable theatrical rerelease that went under the radar as well. Along with his other big film Everest, 2015 was a bad year to be Jake Gyllenhaal if you expected him to pop up during awards season (though he did have a great central episode on The Mystery Show podcast). Yes, there were screeners with the familiar "For Your Consideration" attachment. Yet for a man who was passionate about getting Gyllenhaal into the Oscar conversation, Weinstein really didn't do anything beyond that guest writer piece. This raises the question: did he really care, or did he move on to a more promising pony?

The Payoff

Remember all of the hyperbole that Weinstein had been saying for almost two years about how Southpaw deserved to be in the Oscars conversation? Well, that didn't quite pan out. IMDb lists that the film only received five nominations - all of which were outside the realm of major awards such as The Oscars or The Golden Globes. That's right, the film failed to even register in the smaller and local communities that do this type of voting. To make matters worse, Weinstein attended that year's Golden Globes and was made the butt of a joke regarding the idea of paying off awards shows. The camera immediately cut to him laughing, even though he hadn't really done much of that either in helping his beloved Southpaw out.

Then again, he had a pretty rough year with The Oscars. Burnt and Woman in Gold also failed to receive any mention. The Hateful Eight and Carol received multiple nominations (4 and 6 respectively), but missed out on Best Picture. However, there's many additional insults to injuries, as former members of The Weinstein Company are competing against him and actually won in some respects. The most noticeable is firm member Lisa Taback, who left The Weinstein Company in 2014. This year, she worked on both Spotlight and Room - both of which are expected to win awards. While more ironic, Spotlight got Rachel McAdams an Oscar nomination where Southpaw didn't.

While Failed Oscar Campaigns is a column that usually focuses on films that make it to the final rounds, it does feel noteworthy to sometimes focus on the ones that fail to even register. Considering that Weinstein is capable of such influence when he's passionate, it is very baffling to wonder what went wrong here, or why he stopped trying right when he was needed the most. It doesn't help that his film was also practically forgotten by December when the race was finally taking shape. Whatever the cause may be, this was not Weinstein's year and it's a strange revelation to see how different The Oscars are in 2015. The familiar head honchos of years past (David O. Russell, Tarantino) came up short with smaller (Room) and weirder (Mad Max: Fury Road) films taking the mantels. 

Is this the end of Weinstein's huge influence on awards season? Probably not. However, his lack of presence in the Best Picture race does show that whatever he did to make an impression this year did not work out. One could only imagine that if he found a film that he was passionate about, and not just lying about as it seems the case with Southpaw, that maybe we could be looking at a race that actually includes him next time. There's no sure bet on what will be next for him, though he's likely going to be sitting at The Oscars, disappointed that he didn't get his way for once.

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