Saturday, February 17, 2018

Failed Oscar Campaigns: "Wonder Wheel" (2017)

Scene from Wonder Wheel
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

Wonder Wheel (2017)
Directed By: Woody Allen
Written By: Woody Allen
Starring: Jim Belushi, Juno Temple, Justin Timberlake
Genre: Drama
Running Time: 101 minutes
Summary: On Coney Island in the 1950s, a lifeguard tells the story of a middle-aged carousel operator, his beleaguered wife, and the visitor who turns their lives upside-down.

The Movie

Regardless of what you think of him, Woody Allen has remained one of the most prolific filmmakers of the past 50 years. He has done an exhaustive amount of work to guarantee almost a movie-a-year release schedule (with limited exceptions), and has been rewarded kindly for his work in the process. He remains one of the screenwriters with the most writing Oscar wins, and nominations in general. If looked at subjectively, there's plenty to recognize in Allen's work ethic. He's someone who has withstood the test of time with more consistency than most of his peers that came up with him in the 1970's. With all of that said, he is the living embodiment of the infamous "Art vs. The Artist" debate, which rages on in large part because of his controversial past.

It's become such a grey cloud over his career that it's impossible to not think of it whenever he comes out with a new movie (which is every year). In fact, the accusations were at the front of the Blue Jasmine campaign when Cate Blanchett was about to win a Best Actress trophy when a damning letter about Allen's sexual harassment to daughter Dylan Farrow was made public. In fact, the details have always been there and continued into the next few years when the Cannes Film Festival made a joke to Allen's criminality right before his film Cafe Society was set to play. To say the least, he is a figure that has been controversial since the early 90's when his marriage to daughter Soon-Yi caused a stir. 

What does this have to do with his 2017 film Wonder Wheel? In a sense, it has everything to do with its reputation. To some extent, most of his recent previous films have failed to have the stink of his past on it in spite of middling reviews. For instance, Irrational Man and Magic in the Moonlight were both films that lacked a violent backlash quite like Wonder Wheel - which among other things took a beating and is currently among the director's worst performing movies in close to 30 years. It's almost insignificant to note that it's a reworking of "A Streetcar Named Desire." The film's press never stood a chance to mean anything for its star Kate Winslet, who was primed as an Oscar front runner at one point. It's a moment that more symbolized a possible end to the director's effortless run because, more than any film of his career, he was finally getting the backlash that couldn't take down Blue Jasmine (his arguably last successful film) but was now threatening to take down his career.

The Campaign

On one hand, the Woody Allen Oscar campaign is a bit vanilla by this point. By the time that a movie trailer drops, there's already a buzz concerned around whether this would get him another Oscar nomination. It happens every time, even if it's been accepted that his films are hit and miss. When he's good, he's praised as having created "a return to form." Wonder Wheel had that allure going into its release, especially for Winslet as a potential Best Actress nominee. Amazon Studios was coming off of a great year for Manchester by the Sea, and this could be their shot at more Oscar glory. In fact, it was the year of wonder, as their other major release Wonderstruck had a prime release date, though that film fell to bad scheduling. 

Then it happened. The Me Too movement bloomed with the revelation of Harvey Weinstein's sexual harassment history. Suddenly he was out of Hollywood and many figures would fall in his wake, including Louis C.K. and Kevin Spacey. It left a certain mystery around Allen, who was one of the worst kept secrets but had managed to endure in Hollywood for several decades. Would he finally be taken down? As the remaining pins began to fall, Allen had to face certain backlash. His daughter Dylan Farrow would perform an interview that accused him of harassment. His son Ronan Farrow would help to take down other men who sexually harassed women. Meanwhile, the Me Too movement began to change its policies in ways that would suggest that a modern day and young Allen wouldn't be welcomed. So, how would it play towards the film? It wasn't looking too well.

There was a now famous interview in which Winslet joined a group of potential Best Actress nominees in a Los Angeles Times interview where she said:
"Woody Allen is an extraordinary writer and he’s obviously known for having created extraordinary roles, very powerful, complicated roles for women for many, many, many years and to join that lineage of incredible actresses made me feel terrified and also immensely privileged, and it was a responsibility as well."
She would also claim to call him "a woman" at one point for this. Still, the surrounding participants looked confused and even annoyed at Winslet's comments. She got called out by Ronan Farrow later for her comments. She was the only woman standing by Allen by this point, save for Diane Keaton (who hadn't worked with Allen in several decades). The other performers who had any history with the director would come out against him. Suddenly to have worked with him was seen as a curse. Among those who would come out and attack him were: Greta Gerwig and Ellen Page (To Rome with Love), and Selena Gomez and Griffin Newman (A Rainy Day in New York). The latter group were in a movie that wasn't set to come out until 2018, which already set that campaign in a bit of a stall. Newman also said that he would donate his earnings to RAINN as personal atonement.

On one hand, Allen was coming out of the season without as many scars as the other Me Too targets. However, the damage was about to get underway as the controversy steamrolled over the film, almost making the press obsolete for Wonder Wheel. This move was so effective that Wonder Wheel would go on to gross $1.4 million. According to Box Office Mojo, it was the second lowest grossing film from Allen since 2000 (the first being Cassandra's Dream, grossing $973,018).To show how bad this grossing was, even for Allen's independent output, you'd have to go back to 1988's Another Woman to find a film that grossed less than $2 million, making Wonder Wheel Allen's sixth lowest-grossing film (out of 47) to date. Critics aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes wasn't any more favorable, giving the film a 31%: his lowest rated as a director, and fourth lowest rated overall.

The irony wasn't entirely over just yet. Many pointed out that Allen had worked with both Harvey Weinstein and the current president on the film Celebrity, which put Allen in a beehive of bad moves. Allen would eventually come out with a public statement that claimed many tests and investigations proved his innocence, but the divide on actuality remains. If Allen's fallout wasn't bad enough, Amazon Studios' head Roy Price would also step down during this time following certain allegations related to the Me Too movement. Everything about Allen at the exact moment didn't look good, including the fact that the film wasn't chocking up any awards nominations, even for Winslet, and it was looking less likely that Amazon Studios would continue their business with him for his proposed 2018 film A Rainy Day in New York, which lead many to speculate as to whether Wonder Wheel was his last movie to receive a theatrical release (the verdict is still uncertain as of this publication).

The Payoff

What hurt Wonder Wheel more? Was it that the film itself wasn't well received, which is the hallmark of any film that fails to get Oscar nominations? This may seem obvious, but one can turn to the other and more reasonable actor of awards season who got "snubbed." James Franco seemed like a lock for The Disaster Artist a mere month before Oscar nominations, including a Golden Globe win for his performance. However, sexual harassment allegations came out that many believe hurt his chances. In a time where the Me Too and Time's Up movements are trying not to reward sexual harassers, it becomes clear that Allen was always to blame. Even if Winslet was devoid of this controversy, she would still be seen as a pariah for working with Allen. In fact, the influx of regret that Hollywood had towards putting up with him for decades seemed to be a story that happened biweekly. A new era was coming, and Allen wasn't invited.

There is some redemption for Winslet however. She didn't walk away from this awards season without some attention. The Alliance of Women Film Journalists bestowed her with an award that may seem pretty fitting given the backlash that she didn't play into. Winslet won the award for Actress Most in Need of a New Agent (an honor shared with her other film The Mountain Between Us). Considering that everyone else seemed to have jump ship to save their career, it was a sign that maybe Winslet is going to need some reevaluation in the years to come. Maybe she'll even come out and admit regret of following a campaigning technique that generally has worked in prior years, but has become less acceptable in 2017. She was a victim of the campaign, even if one could argue that "She should've known better." Many have expressed regret in a way that suggested that everyone should've known better. Give Winslet time. Maybe she'll come around.

But the future for Allen seems less certain. Will he continue to have movies that play well with audiences, or is this the career ruining moment many have waited for? The accusations and regret are likely to keep on coming. A Rainy Day in New York may resort to cheap video on demand releases as figures like Ronan Farrow manage to eviscerate him publicly. It's hard to tell. Still, Wonder Wheel is a film that almost fails to exist because of the Me Too movement. Those who had any idea that it existed probably didn't see it for moral reasons. It's harder and harder to become a Woody Allen fan, and the debate on "Art vs. The Artist" is clearly coming down in favor of life influences art, and poor behavior is not encouraged. Maybe Blue Jasmine was his last shining moment. Who knows. The work on Wonder Wheel, even without controversy, wasn't that promising of Allen getting into the Oscar race as it was. 

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