Saturday, February 25, 2017

Failed Oscar Campaigns: "Les Miserables" (2012)

Hugh Jackman
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

Les Miserables (2012)
Directed By: Tom Hooper
Written By:  William Nicholson & Alain Boublil & Claude-Michel Schonberg & Herbert Kretzmer (Screenplay), Alain Boublil & Claude-Michel Schonberg (Stage Musical), Victor Hugo (Novel)
Starring:  Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway
Genre: Drama, Musical, Romance
Running Time: 158 minutes
Summary: In 19th-century France, Jean Valjean, who for decades has been hunted by the ruthless policeman Javert after breaking parole, agrees to care for a factory worker's daughter. The decision changes their lives forever.

The Movie

It was no easy task, but director Tom Hooper followed up his Best Picture-winner The King's Speech with an adaptation of one of Broadway's most beloved musicals. Based on the Victor Hugo novel of the same name, Les Miserables is a sprawling epic of 19th-century France that explores a massive cast as they experience war, faith, and crime. The entire show is sung and features such memorable characters as Jean Valjean and Fantine, the latter of whom sings the heart wrenching number that defines the show with "I Dreamed a Dream." It may be a somewhat depressing musical, but its audacity makes it a fascinating embrace of the musical as a medium.

Among the many things that make Hooper's 2012 film special is that it's one of the very few movie musicals to be nominated in the 21st century. It's also one of the few, alongside Moulin Rouge! and Chicago, to be nominated for Best Picture. There's no denying that its all-star cast brings their all to a risky production that managed to be met with praise as well as criticism, quickly being lampooned for its over-the-top performance style. Even then, it was a film unlike any other when it was released, and that helped it to stand out among its peers. While it was a box office success, it didn't exactly set the world on fire. In fact, it would be the last nominated musical until La La Land from 2016. 

The one advantage is that it's a musical that can be enjoyed in small portions. Anyone wishing to hear "Stars" or "Who Am I?" merely need to listen to the soundtrack. It does seem unlikely that it will be remembered as a complete package, where even its most acclaimed performers (Anne Hathaway) were met eventually with a shrug and an eye roll. It's a musical the revolutionized the medium as well as showed its limitations. It's unlikely that anyone could do better than Hooper's close intimacy, and it likely helped it stand out in a sea of films more assured and memorable as entire stories. Still, Les Miserables is a towering example of movie musicals that is unlike anything that has come since - for better or worse.

The Campaign

There was plenty to set Les Miserables apart from the competition from the outset. For starters, it was a musical in an era when the genre was becoming extinct from a filmmaker coming off of his prestigious height. The first trailer highlighted the costumed melodramatic tone with a focus on the powerhouse number "I Dreamed a Dream." It wasn't long until the film's campaign took its musical novelty to the next stage as Hugh Jackman presented theater exclusive videos discussing the behind the scenes of the film. This was specifically about the magic of live performance, with all of the vocals being recorded live on tape. He discussed how he could use more sympathetic tones in his performance. While this technique had been used in other films, it would be different for a film that would be doing it for three hours.

With anticipation building, the campaign would go underway shortly after as the premieres lead Hooper and the cast to double down on the live singing sentiments. Among other things, BFCA member Scott Mantz mentioned that he received a "Les Miz iPod." Beyond this, the campaign was starting to center around Anne Hathaway, who had a minor role but had the show's big number. Among the things that were praised about her performance was her performance of "I Dreamed a Dream," which was a long take that saw her frail appearance and wavering voice become less glamorized as she went on. It was a powerful moment that had the additional commentary that even if somebody hated the movie, they at least saw the best part early in the film. Add in the familiar story of how she lost weight for the role, and it was the perfect storm of a front runner.

The film also targeted marketing at religious groups, who they believed would see the many spiritual themes of its main characters and share recommendation with their friends. Considering that Hugo's original novel was full of spiritual imagery including church figures, it wasn't that far fetched of an idea. They believed that getting younger and hipper religious groups would help to expand their audience. The film also targeted groups interested in child foster care programs, as they felt that the story revolving around Jean Valjean and Cosette was a positive representation of adoption. This inevitably paid off with a strong box office presence, though the reviews were mixed and its chances of winning Best Picture were starting to waver as more films entered the picture - including the equally religious film Life of Pi.

One part of the campaign worked. Hathaway won countless Best Supporting Actress awards. Among the funnier and more memorable accounts of her awards circuit push was a moment that followed her correcting the awards ceremony, who misspelled her name as "Ann." This lead in part to a parody video that lampooned her crazy campaign technique, ending with the button of "Ann" just to rub in how ridiculous the melodramatic nature of it all inevitably was.

As funny as the video was, it wasn't far off from the reality. There was an alternative campaign forming that referred to themselves as "Hatha-haters." While many were annoyed at the emphasis on how hard she prepared for the role, most people were hating the actress for her time accepting awards. Many found her speeches to be phony and disgusting. She was disingenuous and had it memorized like a theater kid. This would continue when she won the Oscar and her speech began with the forced expression "It came true." The Hatha-haters was antithetical to the Best Actress front runner Jennifer Lawrence, whose work in Silver Linings Playbook had made her one of America's sweethearts. To make matters worse, Lawrence was candid and silly where Hathaway was refined and predictable. Both even doubled their prestige pictures with franchise movies with Lawrence doing The Hunger Games and Hathaway doing The Dark Knight Rises. Even then, she was Les Miserables' biggest chance at winning an Oscar.

The Payoff

The film wasn't short on Oscar nominations. With a total of eight nominations, it was a film that looked to dominate the race. Besides Hathaway's Best Supporting Actress nomination, Hugh Jackman received a Best Actor nomination and the film received a Best Picture nod. Even then, the film was on Hathaway's shoulders, as the race was one of the most open that it had been in years. This was also the first film to have four consecutive  years where there was a split between Best Picture and Best Director between Argo and Life of Pi. It was a year where almost every film won something, proving that not one film had the dominance.

The film even had its cast perform live, which included the Oscar-nominated original number "Suddenly.":

The film would win three Oscars including Best Sound Mixing and Best Hair and Make-Up. Hathaway's win featured a gleeful but restrained acceptance speech. Those who hated her had plenty of fodder to keep their eyes rolling. Despite the momentum that she would gain from this win, this was the start to her hiatus. With exception to a very small cameo in Don Jon, she wouldn't appear in movies for two years. It was seen as a chance for her to mentally recover from the tumultuous experience of losing weight and physically giving her all to the role that she loved and wanted to play when the adaptation happened.

The story of Hathaway's Oscar win lasted until four years later when in 2016 she gave a candid interview that explained her somewhat forced acceptance speeches. She claimed that, "I kind of lost my mind doing that movie and it hadn't come back yet. Then I had to stand up in front of people and feel something I don't feel which is uncomplicated happiness." Nobody would mistake her for giving a good Oscar speech, but it explained her vulnerability and redeemed her career in a small way. Since her Oscar win, she has mostly taken on less taxing work, including Interstellar, The Intern, and the monster movie comedy Colossal.

Even if Les Miserables didn't quite take the world by storm, it left a mark on the world of movie musicals. It may have had a few imitators (Into the Woods), but it remains one of the strange and singular achievements in cinema that is a hit and miss film that features greatness as well as bizarre choices. Still, it was a thankless task and Hooper brought it to the big screen in unimaginable ways, making an epic feel intimate. With La La Land likely going to be the first musical to win Best Picture since Chicago 14 years ago, it is interesting to look back at the last movie musical that almost made it all the way. It may not be perfect, but it's definitely interesting.

1 comment:

  1. Relieved your final prediction didn't pan out and Moonlight triumphed. Yet another Oscar rule broken where the most nominated (or in the case of La La Land...over-nominated) film takes home the Big One.

    It must be said, making a truly brilliant, demographic-busting movie musical is a tough task. Has there been one since, historically speaking, The Sound Of Music? The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg, Thoroughly Modern Millie, Cabaret, Tommy, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Phantom Of The Paradise, and of course Chicago all remain personal favourites of mine but what it finally depends on is of the music hits your ears.