Martin Grove’s Hollywood Report 01-24-12

Jean Dujardin in “The Artist” – 2012 Best Picture Oscar nominee

Jean Dujardin in “The Artist” – 2012 Best Picture Oscar nominee

“Hugo” – 2012 Best Picture Oscar nominee

“Hugo” – 2012 Best Picture Oscar nominee

Scene from “The Descendants” featuring George Clooney and Shailene Woodley – 2012 Best Picture Oscar nominee

Scene from “The Descendants” featuring George Clooney and Shailene Woodley – 2012 Best Picture Oscar nominee

Academy applause: What looked like it would be a slam dunk Oscar best picture victory for “The Artist” took an unexpected turn when “Hugo” catapulted into the lead in Tuesday’s nominations.

With 11 nominations — including crucially important nods for best picture, directing and film editing — Paramount Pictures and GK Films’ drama “Hugo” emerged as the film with the most Academy applause of the nine titles that made it into the best picture race. Unlike the past two years, when there were 10 best picture nomination slots to fill, the Academy’s complex revised rules this year made nominees of only those titles that received sufficient voting support as first choices.

It’s not always the case, but the film with the most nominations frequently wins best picture because it’s got the broadest support from the Academy’s branches and that’s how the votes add up. It’s exactly what happened last year with “The King’s Speech,” which led the pack with 12 noms.

The Weinstein Company’s comedy drama acquisition “The Artist” came in just behind “Hugo” with 10 Oscar noms, also including all three key ones for best picture, directing and film editing.

Having that film editing nom, by the way, is considered ultra-important because films generally don’t win best picture unless they are also editing nominees. Academy members consider editing to be a key step in the final “writing” of a movie.

Films that are best picture nominees but aren’t also in the best directing race are referred to as “orphans” and are generally regarded as having less chance of winning best picture than those titles that also are up for best directing.

Having had great success with critics groups and having just won the best picture - comedy or musical Golden Globe as well as the Producers Guild Award, “The Artist” was widely seen as the film to beat in Oscar best picture race.

However, in recent years Academy members have not been voting for comedies for best picture. This time around, “The Artist” is certainly the critics’ darling and “the little picture that could.” It helps that its director, Michel Hazanavicius, is a Directors Guild of America nominee — the DGA ceremonies will be held Saturday evening (1/28) — as well as an Oscar best directing nominee, but Academy members are a clubby group and he’s a brand new name to most of them.

“The Artist” is a Screen Actors Guild nominee for best ensemble cast, SAG’s equivalent of a best picture nod. Because actors make up the largest branch of the Academy, the SAG awards, which will be announced Sunday evening (1/29) are considered a very important bellwether for the Oscars.

Definitely on the plus side is the fact that “The Artist’s” Jean Dujardin, who just won the Globe for best actor - comedy or musical, is Oscar nominated for best actor and SAG nominated for best male lead actor. Berenice Bejo, who is Oscar nominated best supporting actress, is SAG nominated for best female actor in a supporting role. And it's always helpful for a film to have TWC co-chairman Harvey Weinstein leading its Oscar campaign efforts.

“Hugo,” which is not a SAG ensemble cast nominee, doesn’t have any Oscar acting noms. It does, however, have valuable strength in having been directed by Martin Scorsese, a high profile, well liked, Hollywood brand name filmmaker who just took home the best director Golden Globe. His movie’s had its share of critics groups wins and noms, including a best picture win at the start of the awards season from the National Board of Review.

Scorsese won the best directing Oscar in 2007 for “The Departed,” which won best picture. He’d had seven previous Oscar noms for directing or writing. So he’s definitely Mr. Insider compared to the Mr. Outsider status of “The Artist’s” Michel Hazanavicius. Like Hazanavicius, Scorsese is also a DGA nominee.

Reading the Oscar tea leaves suggests a two-way race between the critically acclaimed small, silent, black & white, French-made comedy drama (but filmed in Los Angeles) “The Artist” and the critically acclaimed, large scale, traditional Hollywood drama (but filmed in Paris) “Hugo.”

While “Hugo” and “The Artist” dominated the nominations, seven other films also were nominated for best picture. In a tight race between the frontrunners, several of these titles could emerge as the mathematical winner when the votes by nearly 5,800 Academy members are tabulated.

Fox Searchlight and Ad Hominem Enterprises’ “The Descendants” has been very visible on the awards season radar screen thanks to its high profile director Alexander Payne and its mega-star George Clooney.

After winning the Globe for best picture - drama, “The Descendants” was being talked about as the film with the best shot at erasing “The Artist” in Oscar’s best picture race. It’s the kind of serious drama that resonates well with Academy members. But “Hugo” with its 11 nominations dwarfs “The Descendants’” five nods (including the key best picture, directing and film editing categories).

It helps that Clooney just won the best actor - comedy or musical Globe and is Oscar nominated now for best actor. Another plus is that Payne won the Oscar in 2005 for co-writing “Sideways” and was Oscar nominated for directing it.

“The Descendants” is a SAG ensemble cast nominee and if it should win there that would give it a big shot in the arm just as Academy members start thinking about who to vote for. Payne’s a DGA nominee and a win there could also start “The Descendants” ascending.

Sony Pictures Classics’ “Midnight in Paris” is a best picture Oscar nominee that rivals “The Descendants” as potential competition for the two frontrunners. “Paris” has four nominations, including best picture and directing, but not film editing. What it doesn’t have are acting nominations, which are important since actors make up the Academy’s largest voting branch.

While “Paris” is a comedy, it’s also a drama, but not nearly as heavy a drama as “The Descendants.” Oscar voters like serious dramas because they seem to think a best picture should be about something important. On the other hand, in troubled times such as today the Academy crowd might want to lighten up a bit and celebrate a more intellectual drama like “Paris” with its time travel storyline that raises the question of whether Paris in the 1920s was or wasn’t a better time in which to live than today.

When “Paris” opened last spring it quickly became writer-director Woody Allen’s most successful film ever at the boxoffice, which is also a help with Oscar voters. What won’t help “Paris,” however, is that Woody doesn’t campaign for awards and is well known for not showing up when they’re handed out.

“Paris” is a SAG best ensemble cast nominee and a win Sunday would give it a big boost. It’s also a DGA nominee so Saturday’s DGA ceremonies could be helpful if Woody were to win.

“Paris” is a kind of mirror image of “The Artist” in that it’s from an American director who shot it in Paris while “The Artist” is from a French director who shot it in L.A.

DreamWorks and Disney’s drama “The Help” is another best picture Oscar nominee that’s also nominated for a SAG best ensemble cast award. It has four nominations, but isn’t in the best directing or film editing races, which won’t help its best picture prospects.

Unlike Oscar’s eight other nominees, “The Help” enjoyed solid blockbuster business, grossing nearly $170 million since it went into theatres last August. Academy members like to vote for movies that have done well at the boxoffice, but too much success can sometimes work against a film.

“The Help’s” low profile director Tate Taylor isn’t a DGA nominee, but that’s balanced by the film having a SAG ensemble cast nomination. A SAG victory Sunday for “The Help” would be extremely helpful. The film’s star Viola Davis is an Oscar best actress nominee who lost in the Globes to Meryl Streep’s performance as former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in “The Iron Lady.”

Davis and Streep will face each other again in the Oscar race where Streep is the likely favorite, having been Oscar nominated an enviable 16 times previously (including wins in 1980 for “Kramer vs. Kramer” and in 1983 for “Sophie’s Choice”). Davis was Oscar nominated in 2009 for supporting actress for her performance in “Doubt.”

“The Help’s” Jessica Chastain and Octavia Spencer are both supporting actress Oscar nominees, a situation that sometimes works against a film because the two nominees cancel each other out. That didn’t happen in the Globes supporting actress race, however, where Spencer won despite Chastain also having been nominated.

Columbia Pictures and Scott Rudin Productions’ biographical baseball drama “Moneyball” is another boxoffice hit that made it into Oscar’s best picture race. Its $75.5 million domestic theatrical gross is big enough to satisfy Academy members’ preference for success, but not so big as to arouse feelings of envy that might hurt it in the voting.

“Moneyball’s” six nominations include best picture and best film editing, but not best directing. As with “The Help,” “Moneyball’s” director, Bennett Miller, is a low profile filmmaker and also didn’t get into the DGA race. It also isn’t a SAG ensemble cast nominee.

On the other hand, “Moneyball’s” Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill are best actor and supporting actor Oscar nominees and also are SAG nominated in their categories.

DreamWorks and Disney’s World War I drama “War Horse” from director Steven Spielberg didn’t resonate greatly with critics groups or Golden Globes voters, but Academy members still gave it six nominations.

Although it’s a best picture nominee, “War Horse” isn’t in the best directing or film editing races and doesn’t have any acting noms. This time around Spielberg isn’t a DGA nom and his film isn’t a SAG best ensemble cast nominee.

Fox Searchlight and River Road Entertainment’s drama “The Tree of Life” from director Terrence Malick, received three Oscar nods, including best picture, directing and cinematography. It’s missing a best film editing nod and didn’t get acting noms for stars Brad Pitt and Sean Penn.

“Life” isn’t a SAG ensemble cast nominee and Pitt and Penn aren’t SAG nominees for “Life” (although Pitt’s SAG nominated for “Moneyball”). Malick, who’s not a DGA nominee, was Oscar nominated in 1999 for writing and directing “The Thin Red Line.”

Warner Bros., Paramount and Scott Rudin Productions’ drama “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” received two Oscar nominations, including best picture and supporting actor (Max von Sydow). The film didn’t resonate with critics groups or the Globes and without best directing and film editing nods, it’s not in a position of great strength.

“Close” isn’t a SAG ensemble cast nominee and stars Tom Hanks, Thomas Horn and Sandra Bullock aren’t SAG or Oscar nominees.

Director Stephen Daldry, a three-time Oscar nominee for “The Reader,” “The Hours” and “Billy Elliot,” isn’t a DGA nominee. So this weekend’s guild awards can’t do anything to help “Close.”

Bottom line: It looks like Academy voters will be choosing between “Hugo” and “The Artist” for best picture. Of the other seven best picture nominees, “The Descendants” and “Midnight in Paris” appear to be the strongest alternatives right now. But this could change depending on how this weekend’s DGA and SAG votes go.

Meanwhile, there are lots of Oscar contenders to see if you haven’t already done so. That way, you can follow your own good instincts when you dive into your favorite Oscar pool and then sit down to watch the 84th annual Academy Awards telecast Sunday, Feb. 26.