Did ‘Lee Daniels’ The Butler’ Just Kick Off the Oscar Race?

Did 'Lee Daniels' The Butler' Just Kick Off the Oscar Race?

One member compared the reception at the film's official AMPAS screening to last year's reaction to Best Picture nominees "Lincoln" and "Les Miserables"

“Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” which endured a heated legal fight between the Weinstein Company and Warner Bros. over its title, made a pretty good case over the weekend that it belongs in the awards conversation, too.

The sprawling epic — which looks at decades of American history through the character of a White House butler — nearly filled the 1,000-seat room for its official members screening at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills on Sunday afternoon.

It drew what a couple of members told TheWrap was the most enthusiastic reaction to any screening this year.

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(The photo at left is from an Academy screening in New York the previous weekend.)

While changes in Academy screenings have made it harder to place too much credence in the unofficial AMPAS applause meter, “The Butler” by all accounts drew similar reactions at Sunday screenings for the Directors Guild and the SAG Nominating Committee.

The elements that bothered some critics — Daniels’ occasional tendency to go for big tear-jerking moments, for instance — appear unlikely to faze the people who voted for previous Weinstein winners like “The King’s Speech” and “The Artist.”

Also read: ‘Lee Daniels’ The Butler’ Review: A Mass-Audience-Friendly Portrayal of Racism’s Legacy

Nearly everyone in the room Sunday stayed to hear a post-screening Q&A with Daniels, writer Danny Strong and actors Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, David Oyelowo, Elijah Kelley and Cuba Gooding Jr.

The ButlerOne member compared the reaction to last year’s reception for Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” and Tom Hooper’s “Les Miserables,” two films that went on to land Best Picture nominations and win Oscars – including awards for acting – even though they came up against a few critical naysayers.

“Easy nominations for all groups,” said a voter whose support for “The Help” two years ago may be an apt barometer of which AMPAS members are most likely to embrace “The Butler.”

The film, which opens Friday, also coincided with the recent election of Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the Academy’s first African-American president. Isaacs was in attendance; she and Winfrey shared an embrace after the screening, and Daniels was overheard telling Isaacs what a “big deal” her election was.

One cautionary note: For the last year, the Academy has been including post-screening Q&As with the talent from many of its films. In the past, they’d done so at occasional special events, but not at the regular member screenings.

“Everybody claps louder and longer when the director and stars are in the room,” warned one member who said that it’s become harder to judge a film’s Oscar chances on the basis of its official screening.

Still, it’s hard not to think that in mid August, even as a number of major contenders prepare to make their debuts at the fall film festivals, the race just might be on.