NOBODY KNOWS NUTHIN’
From commercial prospects to Academy Awards, nothing is for sure in Hollywood – but you’d better plan for it anyway, writes Michael Dwyer
FROM the awards season in early spring through the battle of the blockbusters at the summer box-office, 2006 was another year of winners and losers, yielding more than a few surprises that defied conventional wisdom. The first came as the most boring Oscars show in years crawled to an end. Jack Nicholson opened the Best Picture envelope and seemed so surprised that he had to look again before declaring that the most coveted Academy Award was going to Crash.
With that single word, Nicholson sent shockwaves through the auditorium and around the world. This was the biggest Oscar upset in decades. And, for the second year in a row, the most hotly fancied film fell at the final hurdle, as Brokeback Mountain finally lost the momentum it had built on the awards circuit.
Last year Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator suffered a similar fate, entering the ceremony as front-runner and losing out to Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby, which was scripted by Crash director Paul Haggis. The crucial difference is that Eastwood’s film was far more deserving of the major award than The Aviator, whereas Crash, for all its merits, cannot compare with Brokeback Mountain as a film-making achievement.
The beginning of May marked the traditional start of the blockbuster season, and first into the fray was the expensive, effects-laden Mission: Impossible III, carrying high commercial expectations that were dashed by the end of its opening weekend. The special effects served the narrative, rather than the other way round, and the action set-pieces were spectacular, orchestrated with cinematic flair and exemplary stunt work.
The problem was perceived to be the star, Tom Cruise, whose long-held status as Hollywood’s golden boy was tarnished overnight. It was all about image, and the consensus was that several missteps – his excessive declarations of love for Katie Holmes, his attacks on Brooke Shields for using anti-depressants to deal with post-natal depression – alienated a substantial share of his audience: women. Cruise and Shields later made up, and she even attended his highly publicised wedding to Holmes in Italy last month. But the powerful owner of Paramount Pictures, Sumner Redstone – prompted by his wife, he said – severed the studio’s association with Cruise in August.
The actor who replaced Cruise at the top of the box-office pile was Johnny Depp – an outcome that would have been unthinkable a few years ago, when Depp was a stalwart of edgy, offbeat productions. His amusingly mannered portrayal of Captain Jack Sparrow pro- pelled Pirates of the Caribbean 2: Dead Man’s Chest into the commercial stratosphere, eclipsing every other movie released here and around theworld in 2006. Most critics, however, failed to share the enthusiasm of audiences for what was rated as an unwisely over-extended yarn that sank whenever Depp was off screen.
The chasm between audiences and critics had come into sharp focus a few weeks earlier, when Ron Howard’s movie of The Da Vinci Code was lambasted in the media and cleaned up at the box-office, riding on the coat-tails of Dan Brown’s mega-seller novel.
Some distributors bit the bullet and opened movies without advance press screenings, which paid off for a few genre franchises such as Saw 3. The early internet buzz surrounding Snakes on a Plane convinced its distributors that website hype was a viable alternative to curmudgeonly critics, but the movie’s indifferent box-office results told a different story. And the most unsympathetic character in M Night Shyamalan’s risibly self-indulgent folly, Lady in the Water, was a sniffy film critic who came to a sorry end, just like the movie itself when it opened and quickly closed.
The chorus of disapproval over The Da Vinci Code echoed around the world within hours of its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, overshadowing, at least for a few days, many far superior movies showing in competi- tion. When it came to awards night in Cannes, there was another big surprise.
Pedro Alomodóvar was the hot favourite to take his first Palme d’Or for the widely admired Volver, but the jury opted to give its most prestigious prize to Ken Loach for his Irish Civil War drama, The Wind That Shakes the Barley, shot entirely in Co Cork with a predominantly Irish cast and crew.
“This is extraordinary,” Loach told The Irish Times after he accepted the award. “I hope Ireland feels it’s their film. It is their film.” The Irish audience agreed, turning out in such numbers to see it that only Pirates of the Caribbean 2 kept Loach’s film off the top of the Irish box-office chart for the first 11 months of the year. Only Casino Royale (featuring another of the year’s surprise winners, Daniel Craig, laying firm claim to the 007 role) has any prospect of dislodging it before the end of the year.
Apart from Neil Jordan’s adventurous Breakfast on Pluto, which enjoyed a successful Irish release in January, it was a disappointing year for Irish productions on home turf. John Boorman’s The Tiger’s Tail and David Gleeson’s The Front Line, topical contemporary pictures that received more favourable reviews in the international film trade papers than in the Irish media, fell well short of expectations at the Irish box-office, as did Paul Mercier’s Studs, and cinema admissions for Brian Kirk’s Middletown, Billy O’Brien’s Isolation and An-
Surprise package: Little Miss Sunshine