Why 'Skyfall' Has the Best Chance to Break the Bond Oscar Curse

Issue 42 007 Oscar Illustration - P 2012
Alex Fine

Issue 42 007 Oscar Illustration - P 2012

This story first appeared in the Nov. 30 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

When it comes to hitting the Oscar bull's-eye, the first 22 James Bond movies mostly shot blanks. This time around, it could be different. Sam Mendes' Skyfall, which landed in U.S. theaters Nov. 9, has resurrected the 50-year-old franchise. During its first seven days of domestic release, the MGM/Eon production, which Sony is releasing, grossed $120?million, and its worldwide tally hit $574?million. More important, in terms of awards prospects, it has been hailed as a smart and stylish retooling of the Bond machinery -- which, admittedly, had grown somewhat creaky.

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At Rotten Tomatoes, the cumulative critical judgment on the movie stands at 92 percent positive. And while there's a minority opinion that finds this new Bond too serious for its own good and lacking some of the cheesy fun of earlier incarnations, those voices have been drowned out by the larger applause. "This is a full-blooded, joyous, intelligent celebration of a beloved cultural icon, with Daniel Craig taking full possession of a role he earlier played well in Casino Royale," wrote Roger Ebert. "I don't know what I expected in Bond No. 23 but certainly not an experience this invigorating." And when the movie played to a full house at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' Samuel Goldwyn Theater, it got a resoundingly enthusiastic reception.

But here's the rub: Although there might be as many Bond fans among Academy members as anywhere else, through the years -- even when it was nominating disaster movies such as 1970's Airport and 1974's The Towering Inferno for best picture -- the Academy simply didn't treat Bond, whether embodied by Sean Connery or Roger Moore, with respect. The previous Bond movies won only two Oscars -- for Goldfinger's sound effects and Thunderball's visual effects -- and picked up a handful of song nominations. (Amazingly, the Goldfinger theme, sung by Shirley Bassey, wasn't among them -- but that's another story.)

Across the pond, the British Academy of Film and Television Arts has been a bit friendlier to the series -- which, after all, has boosted the local economy. During the first run of Bond movies, it frequently nominated production designer Ken Adam, and in 2007, it bestowed nine nominations on Casino Royale, in which Craig first stepped into Bond's exquisitely tailored suits.

But because Skyfall, with screenwriters John Logan, Robert Wade and Neal Purvis taking a fresh look at the iconic superspy created by Ian Fleming, is causing moviegoers to sit up and take notice, it could encourage Academy members to do the same.

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"Up until now, the franchise has avoided delving into Bond's character so dramatically, grappling with his inner demons the way Fleming portrayed him and giving him an arc," says Bill Desowitz, author of the new book James Bond Unmasked. "And even though Timothy Dalton flirted with a more grounded, Fleming-like Bond, his two films were only moderately successful at the box office, so they obviously weren't taken seriously as Oscar bait."

Certainly the new movie could figure in a number of crafts nominations. Cinematographer Roger Deakins -- who, with nine Oscar noms, is one of the most respected people in his field -- serves up a palette that ranges from neon-lit high-rises in Shanghai, where a tricky, mirrored shootout takes place, to the misty hills of Scotland. Composer Thomas Newman, a 10-time Academy nominee, offers a propulsive score that teases with echoes of the original Bond themes. Sound mixer Greg P. Russell, who has been nominated 15 times without a win, could go for 16. Adele's title tune is a candidate for best song if it doesn't run afoul of Academy rules for sampling a few notes from Monty Norman's original "James Bond Theme." Then there's the possibility of supporting acting noms: Javier Bardem turns in a silky, insinuating performance as the vengeful Silva, and Judi Dench as M does more than give Bond his marching orders. Together, Dench and Craig suggest that beneath all of their jousting British reserve, there's a deep, abiding connection between this Bond and M.

But even if Skyfall does earn nominations in multiple categories, that doesn't necessarily mean it will get a nom for best director for Mendes or one for best picture. When the Academy opened up its best picture category to more than five movies in 2009, it did so with the hope its members would embrace some popular entertainments. And Skyfall, the epitome of successful big-budget filmmaking, would seem to merit consideration.

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Says one producer who could have a film of his own in the race: "I love Skyfall. I think it's rock-solid. The well-made studio picture should be singled out for praise; otherwise, they'll just get away with mediocrities."

But standing in Skyfall's way is the Academy's complicated preferential voting system. While Academy members are asked to list five choices for best picture, their first choice carries the most weight. As the balloting plays out, second and third choices also can influence the outcome. Realistically, though, Skyfall isn't likely to get a lot of first-place votes -- studio movies ranging from Lincoln and Les Miserables to indies such as The Master and Beasts of the Southern Wild will vie for those top slots. But what if everyone in the Academy lists Skyfall as their fifth-favorite movie? Even so, those fifth-place choices might not come into play.

And if that proves the case, well, we'll just have to wait for Bond 24.

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  • Goldfinger, 1964 -- Won for sound effects
  • Thunderball, 1965 -- Won for visual effects
  • Diamonds Are Forever, 1971 -- Nominated for sound
  • Live and Let Die, 1973 -- Nominated for song: "Live and Let Die," Linda and Paul?McCartney
  • The Spy Who Loved Me, 1977 -- Nominated for art direction; nominated for score; nominated for song: "Nobody Does It Better," Marvin Hamlisch, Carole Bayer Sager
  • Moonraker, 1979 -- Nominated for visual effects
  • For Your Eyes Only, 1981 -- Nominated for song: "For Your Eyes Only," Bill Conti, Michael Leeson