November 23, 2012 4:09pm PT by Scott Feinberg
'Les Miserables' Wows First Audience in New York, Clearly Headed for Oscars (Analysis)
Universal's highly-anticipated awards hopeful Les Miserables, the first film directed by British filmmaker Tom Hooper since he won the best director Oscar for The King's Speech two years ago, screened for the first time on Friday afternoon at Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall.
No movie musical has seriously contended for the best picture Oscar since Chicago (2002) won it a decade ago, though several have tried, including The Phantom of the Opera (2004), The Producers (2005), Rent (2005), Dreamgirls (2006), Hairspray (2007), Mamma Mia! (2008), and Nine (2009). But, judging by the loud applause that followed every one of Les Mis' big numbers -- which were divvied up between stars Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Samantha Barks, Eddie Redmayne, Amanda Seyfried, Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen, respectively -- and the raucous standing ovation that the film and its key talent received once its credits started to roll, that could certainly change this year.
At the very least, Les Mis joins Argo, Lincoln and Silver Linings Playbook in the top echelon of this year's contenders, and puts Universal back in the thick of the race for the first time since Frost/Nixon (2008) was in contention five seasons ago. If it wins, it would be the studio's first best picture winner since A Beautiful Mind (2001).
At about 3 p.m. EST, Hooper came out before the packed house to introduce the film, and told the crowd that he had only finished working on the film at 2 a.m. on Wednesday morning. "You are the very first people to see the film," he said to cheers. He then noted that The King's Speech had begun its theatrical rollout on Thanksgiving weekend two years ago, and that last night, at his first Thanksgiving dinner, everyone was asked what they were grateful for. He said that he can now say, "I'm grateful that I finished it [the film]... I'm grateful to the thousands of people who have been on this journey, particularly the wonderful cast... and I'm grateful to Victor Hugo [who wrote the novel upon which the Broadway play upon which the film is derived], who unfortunately can't be with us."
When the film finished roughly two hours later, Hooper was joined on-stage by several unannounced special guests -- Hathaway, Redmayne, Seyfried, and Barks -- for a Q&A moderated by Columbia University's Annette Insdorf.
Journalists in attendance at the screening had to agree not to review the film, but can offer general reactions. Mine:
- Whether or not the use of actors' live on-set singing (as opposed to re-recording it in post-production) actually enhances the believability of a film more than it compromises the quality of the music, audiences seem to have been sold on the former, thanks in large part to Universal's recent featurette about the practice. Moreover, any "first" makes for a great talking-point on the awards season campaign trail. (Incidentally, all of the musical numbers were also shot in close-up and uninterrupted takes.)
- Hooper could become only the 19th person to win two best director Oscars. Considering the fact that most film people hadn't even heard of him three years ago, that's pretty amazing. He seems to inspire a great deal of loyalty and affection from his actors -- who rehearsed for this film with him for nine weeks before the cameras started rolling -- which matters, since actors account for the largest branch of the Academy.
- Hathaway, a Hollywood darling since she blossomed from an ugly duckling into a princess in her breakthrough role, is probably now the frontrunner in the best supporting actress category. As Fantine her screen time is brief, but she makes an indelible impression, particularly during the showstopping "I Dreamed a Dream" number. Moreover, she has some great talking-points: she lost 25 pounds for the part, and you can tell -- she's all eyes and teeth in the film; she spent four months working with a vocal coach before the nine-week rehearsal period in order to learn how to make her face look relaxed in a close-up while belting out a number; and she cut her hair off for the role even though it meant she'd be almost bald on her wedding day ("When I eventually looked in the mirror I just thought I looked like my gay brother," she told the audience).
- In Valjean, Jackman has finally found a screen role custom-made for and worthy of his talents as a great physical specimen who can sing as well as anyone who can also act. He even lost 30 pounds in order to play Valjean as a prisoner in the film's opening scenes. But this year's best actor Oscar race couldn't be more competitive, and, despite giving a career-best screen perf (you'll have to forgive him for Australia), he's no sure-thing for a nom -- remember that Chicago's lead male Richard Gere was snubbed the year that his film won everything. That being said, if he hits the campaign trail hard then his unequaled off-screen charm should put him over the top.
- Crowe, who plays Javert, was the only principal cast member whose singing was not prominently featured in the film's first trailer and featurette, sparking concerns in some circles that he must have struggled. As it turns out, the Oscar winner, who got his start in musical-theater back in Sydney, actually acquits himself quite nicely as a vocalist.
- Barks, who played Eponine on London's West End production of Les Mis from June 2010 to 2011 before returning to play the part in this film, is very good and could join Hathaway in this year's relatively thin best supporting actress category, but that is not a sure thing. Frankly, her prospects are probably compromised by the fact that co-stars Seyfried, as adult Cosette, and Carter, a Madame Thenardier, are very good, as well.
- Theater buffs will appreciate Hooper's inclusion of Colm Wilkinson, who originated the role of Valjean on the stage, and makes a cameo in this film as the bishop.
- One original song, "Suddenly," was written for the film, and it too, of course, will be an Oscar contender.
- During the post-screening Q&A, Hathaway revealed that her mother, who was in attendance, had also played the part of Fantine in a Philadelphia production of Les Mis that was mounted when Anne was just seven; her mother initially played the factory worker who got Fantine fired and understudied Fantine, but eventually got to play the primary part on stage. Also, Seyfried revealed that she had played the part of Cosette in an amateur production of Les Mis when she was 15.