They’re two of the hot movies of the moment, but are Oscar voters ready for Darren Aronofsky and David O. Russell?
Two weeks ago, I issued a plea for some craziness in the Oscar race, for contenders that are not just strong and exemplary films like “The Social Network” and “The King’s Speech,” but messy, unruly movies to bring a little excitement into the race.
Now I’d just like to say: Thank you, Darren Aronofsky and David O. Russell. Thank you, “Black Swan” and “The Fighter.”
But are Oscar voters going to take your raw energy, glorious messiness and delicious insanity seriously, or are the hot movies of the moment just too damn weird for the Academy?
“Black Swan,” which happens to be my favorite movie of the year, is a mix of backstage drama, creepy horror and over-the-top musical moments that builds to a hysterical climax as exhilarating as it is insane. (It does for, and to, Tchaikovsky what “A Clockwork Orange” did for, and to, Beethoven.)
“The Fighter,” meanwhile, is a gritty drama from the streets of Boston, but Christian Bale’s skeletal, haunted visage makes it horrifying — and as HBO footage of the real-life character he plays proves, the actor’s trademark weight loss actually took him well beyond the worst look of the real guy.
The actual Dickie Eklund was a crack addict who looked awful, but Bale’s Dickie is the crack addict to end all crack addicts who looks even awfuller.
In addition, Eklund’s family — mother-from-hell Melissa Leo and a brood of big-haired sisters — takes the film on unexpected and occasionally jarring detours into comic territory.
Both films burst with creative energy. Both wowed audiences last week on consecutive nights at the AFI Fest. And both could have problems when it comes to the Oscar race, because they’re fresh and vital but also unruly and potentially polarizing.
“Black Swan” and “The Fighter” don’t play nice, and they’re all the better for it. But will Oscar be nice to them?
One moment of truth will come at the Academy's Samuel Goldwyn Theater on Saturday, December 4. That's when AMPAS will hold its official members screenings of both movies: "Black Swan" at 4 o'clock in the afternoon, "The Fighter" at 8 that night. (It even leaves plenty of time in between to walk down the block to Kate Mantilini's and get a stiff drink between screenings.)
Here’s one sign that AMPAS members might still be on the conservative side, despite the organization’s gradual shift toward a younger membership, and some recent Best Picture winners that don’t fit the usual Oscar mold: According to voters in attendance, a November weekend members' screening of “127 Hours,” another daring high-profile film, drew only a couple hundred members to the 1,000-seat Goldwyn.
If they won’t even show up for a pre-release screening of a film from a guy who won Best Director and Best Picture last time out, voters hardly seem likely to embrace all the blood, guts and hysteria on display in Aronofsky’s and Russell’s films.
The consensus among voters I’ve canvassed: “Black Swan” will probably get one of those 10 Best Picture slots, but it’s too weird to win.
As for “The Fighter,” the film will likely prove irresistible to the 1,200-member actors branch, which is the Academy’s largest. But it definitely faces resistance on other fronts because of its grittiness, its tonal shifts, and its famously combative director.
Russell, said one Oscar voter, is “hated” by many in Hollywood, and “won’t have producers or publicists on his side, that’s for sure.” (The producers branch is the Academy’s second-biggest, with more than 450 members; the public relations branch is a medium-sized branch, with about 370.)
Both “Black Swan” and “The Fighter” struggled to find a home in Hollywood. Aronofsky told the audience at theWrap Screening Series on Tuesday, “I knew the studio system wasn’t ever going to make it,” and said it took a last-minute intervention by Fox Searchlight to keep the movie alive when its funding fell through only three weeks before production was due to begin.
Star Mark Wahlberg, meanwhile, kept “The Fighter” afloat for five years as studios passed and directors dropped out; at his most desperate, he said with a laugh, he considered succumbing to commercial pressures and hiring “Harry Potter” star Daniel Radcliffe to play the Dickie Edlund role.
In the end, both movies got made. Both are aberrations in Hollywood. And both have a crazy vitality that makes them invigorating … and, for some Academy voters, problematic.
It’s tempting to embrace their nutty energy and shrug off the rest – to answer the question Are they too weird for the Oscars? with another question: Who the hell cares?
But this time of year people do care, because awards attention can keep worthy movies in the public eye.
I’m cautiously optimistic: I suspect that both with have more than enough partisan supporters to land Best Picture nominations, and Portman and Bale are the closest things to locks this side of Colin Firth.
And I wonder if maybe, just maybe, one or the other might pick up some real momentum and make a run at those bigger, safer movies everybody thinks will be duking it out for the top prize.
But even if “Black Swan” and “The Fighter” don’t do that, it’s okay; after all, they’ve already done what I asked, and brought a badly-needed dose of craziness to a staid Oscar season.
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