Martin Grove’s Hollywood Report 01-31-11

Colin Firth, star of “The King’s Speech”

Colin Firth, star of “The King’s Speech”

Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush at the 17th Annual SAG Awards

Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush at the 17th Annual SAG Awards

Jesse Eisenberg, star of “The Social Network”

Jesse Eisenberg, star of “The Social Network”

“Black Swan’s” Natalie Portman

“Black Swan’s” Natalie Portman

“The Fighter’s” Amy Adams

“The Fighter’s” Amy Adams

Guild gold: Well, to paraphrase Mel Brooks, It’s good to be “The King’s Speech.”

Lightning struck twice last weekend as the Directors Guild of America and the Screen Actors Guild both handed their top gold honors to The Weinstein Company’s indie British biographical drama directed by Tom Hooper and starring Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush and Helena Bonham Carter.

This leaves Sony’s “The Social Network” in the not very enviable position of being yesterday’s Oscar front runner for Best Picture. Despite the boatloads of acclaim it’s enjoyed from critics groups since early December, “Social” has been badly eclipsed by “King’s,” which a week earlier won the Producers Guild of America’s top award and then scored 12 Oscar nominations, the most of any contender this year.

The DGA’s award to Hooper was in stark contrast to what most Academy handicappers had anticipated — a vote for “Social” director David Fincher that would have put his film back in the race as a neck-and-neck contender.

For Fincher it’s a case of history unfortunately repeating itself. In 2009 Fincher’s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” also started out as the Oscar frontrunner, but by January had run out of steam. It was overtaken by “Slumdog Millionaire,” which blossomed as a Best Picture contender and whose director Danny Boyle won the DGA and Oscar for best directing. “Slumdog” went on to win eight Oscars, including Best Picture.

Hooper discussed his approach to directing “King’s” at a recent SAG news conference, which can be seen in part here on ZAMM.com. In this video clip he talks about the film’s ensemble cast. In this video clip Hooper addresses the film’s origins as a play his mother saw and brought to his attention. In this video clip he focuses on the central conflict in the film’s story.

At this point, “King’s” is clearly the Oscar front runner for the 83rd Academy Awards as Hollywood heads down the campaign’s home stretch. It’s hard to see how “Social” can regain the lead it had from the start when last Dec. 2 the National Board of Review named it the year’s Best Film. On the heels of its NBR victory it won the Best Picture votes by the New York and Los Angeles film critics as well as those by numerous other critics groups across the country. And then it captured top honors in votes by the Broadcast Film Critics Association for the Critics Choice Awards and by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association for the Golden Globes.

But what the critics like and what Academy voters like can be altogether different. Right now, “King’s” appears to be very much what the Academy crowd likes to see on screen. It helps that it’s both a boxoffice success (over $72 million in domestic grosses) and a critical success (95 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes).

Of course, “Social’ is no slouch in either of those departments — with a 97 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a domestic gross of about $96 million. But what resonated with the critics doesn’t seem to be resonating with the guilds, many of whose members vote again in their roles as Academy members.

What “King’s” has to watch out for is the rise of an alternative contender that could attract votes from Academy members who previously favored “Social” but may now think it’s unlikely to win.

The strongest such alternative is Paramount and Relativity Media’s biographical drama “The Fighter,” which has attracted awards support primarily for its supporting performances. Amy Adams and Melissa Leo were supporting actress Golden Globe nominees with Leo, who had the showier role, winning the Globe and now the SAG award for outstanding female actor in a supporting role. And Christian Bale, whose role was much showier than the not-nominated Mark Wahlberg, took home the supporting actor Globe and went on to win SAG’s award for outstanding male actor in a supporting role.

“Fighter’s” well regarded by the critics with an 89 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes and it’s grossed nearly $80 million to date.

“Fighter” is one of only four Best Picture contenders to have what’s perceived as the essential package with directing and film editing nominations. The other three films with these key noms are “King’s,” “Social” and Fox Searchlight’s ballerina thriller “Black Swan.”

“Swan” has generated best actress success for Natalie Portman (winner of SAG’s award for outstanding female actor in a leading role), but the film hasn’t resonated in other prime races. “Swan” director Darren Aronofsky was a DGA nominee, but after losing in the Guild’s vote he’s unlikely to prevail in the Academy branch vote.

Paramount’s western “True Grit” has an Oscar nod for directors Joel and Ethan Coen, but isn’t a film editing contender. If you believe that an editing nod is mandatory to win Best Picture, that’s that.

Fox Searchlight’s real life drama “127 Hours” has a film editing nom, which is great, but there’s no directing nod for Danny Boyle to go with it, so “Hours” isn’t the safest bet to make.

While anything’s possible, neither “Grit” nor “Hours” look like they can amass enough support to overthrow “King’s.” “Grit” is to some extent a remake of the 1969 western that starred John Wayne and remakes don’t tend to excite Academy voters. Although Paramount’s positioned “Grit” as a reimagination with roots in the original novel by Charles Portis rather than the first movie, who knows if Academy members will see it that way?

“Hours” is a tough film for some viewers to sit through because of its arm self-amputation scene. The graying Academy crowd may not have the stomach for seeing that on screen.

But, then again, these days anything’s possible. Maybe the rule of thumb about needing a film editing nom no longer applies and maybe Oscar voters know it’s just a movie and that the arm severing in “Hours” is just one more special effect.

Meanwhile, the previously low profile Hooper is now the favorite to win the best directing Oscar. Only six times in 62 years has the DGA winner not gone on to win the Academy directors branch’s vote. Better to bet on Hooper than anybody else.

Of course, now that Hooper’s emerged as the directing favorite Academy members could pull a shocker and split their votes to honor him and then hand Best Picture to “Social.” But their affection for “Social” seems to have cooled so that scenario may be a bit far fetched.

With SAG having handed “King’s” its Best Ensemble Cast award, its equivalent of a Best Picture vote, the likelihood is that the Academy’s actors branch will follow suit. Since the actors are the largest Academy branch, that would put a lot of first place votes in place for “King’s.” And with the Academy’s preferential voting system, those first place votes are what it takes to win.