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Why Searchlight Slipped 'Hitchcock' Into This Year's Oscar Race (Analysis)

The drama about the making of "Psycho" joins "Beasts of the Southern Wild," "The Sessions" and "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" on the Searchlight slate.

Hitchcock Movie Poster - P 2012
Fox Searchlight Pictures

Fox Searchlight just shook up this year's awards race by announcing that Hitchcock, which had been looking like a 2013 release, will now open on Nov. 23 

First of all, the facts: Hitchcock is a dramedy about the relationship between kinky master filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock and his trusted wife, Alma Reville, during the making of his seminal 1960 film Psycho.

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The film was adapted by Black Swan co-screenwriter John McLaughlin from film historian/Playboy contributing editor Stephen Rebello's book Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho. It marks the feature directorial debut of Sacha Gervasi, who is best known for his 2008 hit doc Anvil: The Story of Anvil, and was produced by Tom Pollock and Ivan Reitman's Montecito Picture Co., which also handled 2009 best picture Oscar nominee Up in the Air.

It features a large and formidable ensemble: Oscar winners Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren play Alfred and Alma; James D'Arcy, Scarlett Johansson and Jessica Biel portray Psycho stars Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh and Vera Miles, respectively; and Michael Stuhlbarg is super-agent Lew Wasserman. Also popping up are Oscar nominee Toni Collette as Hitchcock's faithful assistant Peggy Robertson, Danny Huston as Alma's friend Whitfield Cook, and Ralph Macchio, The Karate Kid himself, as Psycho screenwriter Joe Stefano.

And it was made with some of the top below-the-line talent working today, including cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth, Oscar-nominated each of the past two years for The Social Network and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, respectively; film editor Pamela Martin, an Oscar nominee for 2010's The Fighter; costume designer Julie Weiss, an Oscar nominee for Twelve Monkeys and Frida; makeup artist Howard Berger, an Oscar winner for 2005's The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe; and composer Danny Elfman, a four-time Oscar nominee.

Gervasi's film wasn't in the can until very recently, but my understanding is that, once it was, several things convinced Searchlight -- 20th Century Fox's indie unit best known for turning such tiny indies as Little Miss Sunshine (2006), Juno (2007), Slumdog Millionaire (2008) and Black Swan (2010) into smash hits and Oscar winners -- to release it this year rather than next.

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First of all, the film apparently has gone over extremely well during test screenings. It offers something for everyone: drama and comedy; a true but little-known story about one of the most famous personages -- and profiles -- of the 20th century; American and British characters and humor (which should appeal to the same overseas voters whose support was instrumental in the awards success of The Queen and The King's Speech); distinguished actors' actors (Hopkins and Mirren) and sexy young stars (Johansson and Biel); a behind-the-scenes Hollywood story (which worked out well last year for both The Artist and Hugo); and all of the things that made Hitchcock's own films so appealing: sex, mystery, suspense and "muuurder."

Second, but equally important, Searchlight has a relatively light awards plate this season. True, Beasts of the Southern Wild is a serious contender for best picture, actress, supporting actor, adapted screenplay and several below-the-line categories; The Sessions is a serious contender for best actor, supporting actress and adapted screenplay; and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel might just be schmaltzy enough to sneak into the best picture race like The Blind Side and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. But all are relatively small films that require niche campaigns, leaving Searchlight with the manpower and resources to add one more film to its awards slate.

Third, there seems to be openings in this year's awards race that this film can exploit. While the best actor race already is extremely crowded -- which might make Hopkins' path bumpy -- the road to a best actress nom for 2006 winner Mirren, who I'm told goes toe-to-toe with Hopkins in this film, looks a lot clearer. Indeed, that category is so thin this year -- the only safe bets being Jennifer Lawrence (Silver Linings Playbook), Marion Cotillard (Rust and Bone) and Quvenzhané Wallis (Beasts of the Southern Wild) -- that studios at recent fests were clamoring with one another over any film that featured even a so-so leading performance from a female. A universally respected veteran such as Mirren, playing a colorful character like Reville, will be hard for voters to resist. Moreover, the film instantly becomes a top contender for the best ensemble SAG Award and for all of the musical or comedy awards at the Golden Globes.

And finally, the studio was able to snag a release date -- it will begin a platform rollout on Friday, Nov. 23, the day after Thanksgiving -- that looks ideal in the wake of this week's announcement that the Academy is moving up its phase one timetable, thereby jeopardizing December releases. While it's true that several other highly anticipated films also will go into release that week -- among them 20th Century Fox's Life of Pi, DreamWorks Animation's Rise of the Guardians, The Weinstein Co.'s Silver Linings Playbook and Sony Pictures Classics' Rust and Bone -- a lot of people go to the movies that long weekend, and it should be able to find an audience.

Some have suggested that Hitchcock will be a biopic of the fluffy variety, a la Bobby (2006) -- probably after seeing some of the gimmicky stills that were released early in the production. But my understanding is that this one really delves into the bizarre complexities of a man whom many regard as the greatest filmmaker of all time -- certainly the "master of suspense" -- and who is enjoying a resurgence of interest of late. Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958) displaced Orson Welles' Citizen Kane (1941) as the greatest film of all time in August's once-a-decade Sight and Sound poll. Tippi Hedren, star of Hitchcock's The Birds (1963) and Marnie (1964), has been making the rounds lately to promote The Girl, an upcoming HBO film about Hitchcock's awful behavior toward her; and 15 of the director's films are soon to be released on Blu-Ray for the first time as part of a special set Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection.

Audiences will learn for sure just over two months from now whether Hitchcock is a contender or pretender. Until then, I bid you -- as Hitchcock so often did on Alfred Hitchcock Presents and as Hitchcock's poster does -- "Good evening."