Welcome to the latest installment of Awardswatch’s Contender or Pretender 2014, and this week we give you something a little bit different. To this point, the series has focused on films whose releases are months in the future, some of which having not yet even put out trailers. But this week we turn our attention to perhaps the one film already released this year with a chance at being remembered by awards bodies at year’s end: Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel.
The Hopeful: The Grand Budapest Hotel
Directed by: Wes Anderson
Written by: Wes Anderson and Hugo Guinness
Starring: F. Murray Abraham, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Ralph Fiennes, Jude Law, Edward Norton, Tony Revolori, Saoirse Ronan, Tilda Swinton
Distributor: Fox Searchlight
Release Date: March 7
Wes Anderson emerged in the 1990s as one of group of independent American directors widely hailed as revitalizing and innovative forces of that era and in the years since. But Oscar has never embraced Anderson the way it did the likes of Quentin Tarantino, David O. Russell, or Paul Thomas Anderson- to date Anderson has scored three nominations – Original Screenplay for 2001’s The Royal Tenenbaums and 2012’s Moonrise Kingdom, as well as Animated Film for 2009’s Fantastic Mr. Fox. And yet Best Picture has remained elusive, even in the era of the expanded lineup, which Moonrise failed to crack despite scoring nominations from key precursors such as the Producers Guild of America (PGA), Writers Guild (WGA) and Golden Globes.
Another disadvantage that The Grand Budapest Hotel has besides Anderson’s shaky Oscar track record is the fact that it was released on March 7th of this year. As a result of most major films targeted at an adult audiences being historically released in the last quarter of the year, the Academy has historically had a short memory when it comes to considering films released earlier in the year, especially in the first quarter. Not counting festival premieres at venues such as the Sundance Film Festival, the last film to be nominated for Best Picture with a release date in March or earlier was 2000’s Erin Brockovich.
Although The Grand Budapest Hotel has all of these disadvantages working against it, it may be Anderson’s best chance at being embraced by the Academy yet. One of the key reasons for this is the extraordinary box office success of the film. As of this writing, the film has grossed almost $49 million at the domestic box office, an enormous success for an arthouse film, and the second highest gross of Anderson’s career after The Royal Tenenbaums. Internationally the film’s performance has been even more outstanding, with its take of $82 million from overseas easily Anderson’s best. Part of what helped Erin Brockovich overcome the stigma of a March release date was the strength of its performance at the box office, and if Anderson’s film hopes to repeat that success, it is certainly off to a flying start in this area.
Where Brockovich’s success was carried by the star wattage of Julia Roberts in her prime, Grand Budapest benefits from not one name in the cast, but rather the strength in numbers of a whole host of marquee names. While none of Tilda Swinton, Bill Murray, Saoirse Ronan, F. Murray Abraham, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum or any of the other names in the film has the drawing power that Roberts did in 2000, the fact that so many recognizable actors were assembled for the same film made them a type of collective draw – a fact which the film’s marketers seized upon with highly colorful promotional posters highlighting the above names and many more. In terms of ensemble performances, late-year releases will be hard pressed to displace this one as one of the most acclaimed and buzzed-about casts of the year. Recognition for the cast by year-end critics groups will likely be one of the most important ways that awards discussion around this March release can be revived at the end of the year, and if it can crack the field at the all-important Screen Actors Guild (SAG) Awards for Outstanding Ensemble, then a Best Picture berth would be looking very promising – as none of Anderson’s previous films have been nominated before at this key precursor.
Despite all of the praise for the cast (and the fact that with the exception of newcomer Tony Revolori and one or two others, all are previous Oscar winners or nominees), recognition for any of the actors will likely be an uphill battle. Part of the reason for this is that so many of the roles played are extended cameos or otherwise short of the screentime or impact required for a nomination, another is the fact that no Anderson film has received a nomination in the acting categories. The one possibility for such recognition rests with the actor serving as the cast’s nominal lead. Ever since his breakthrough as the villainous SS officer Amon Goeth in Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, Ralph Fiennes has become one of the most revered British thespians working in Hollywood over the past twenty years. Fiennes has two Oscar nominations under his belt to date – Supporting Actor for the aforementioned Schindler’s List in 1993 and Lead Actor for 1996’s The English Patient, and his work as Gustave H, the classically-minded concierge of the titular hotel, won him arguably his best reviews in years. The reception for his performance brings to mind Gene Hackman’s lead role in The Royal Tenenbaums, the closest an Anderson performance has come to an Oscar nomination (Hackman won the Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Comedy/Musical in 2001). Nonetheless, Hackman still missed out ultimately, and given the strength of the Best Actor field in most years, a nomination for Fiennes in Lead would be an uphill battle.
Nonetheless, there may be a way for Fiennes to avoid the high difficulty of a Lead Actor nomination. Although he is the first-billed actor in the cast, it is the character of Zero, played by Revolori as a teenager and F. Murray Abraham as an older man, who narrates most of the film and whose character technically has more screentime. This would open up the possibility of campaigning Fiennes in the Best Supporting Actor race, where he would stand a much greater chance of a nomination, and could even contend for a win. Though some would cry category fraud at this maneuver, arguable co-leads who have campaigned in the Supporting category have a strong track record of success, with recent winners for such roles including Christian Bale in The Fighter, Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men, and Christoph Waltz’s two wins for Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained.
As far as distributors are concerned, Grand Budapest finds itself in an ideal situation. Created in 1995 as the specialty branch of 20th Century Fox, Fox Searchlight has established itself as one of the most formidable players in Oscar campaigning, culminating in its first Best Picture win just last year with 12 Years A Slave. No studio is better at turning quirky indie comedies into strong Oscar players, as evidenced by the performance of previous Searchlight contenders such as Little Miss Sunshine and Juno. The Grand Budapest Hotel may not be Searchlight’s only priority, howeve; the studio is also distributing Alejandro Gonzalez Inñaritu’s Birdman, which has been widely predicted in advance as a top contender. With Budapest, though, the studio knows for a fact that it has a well-received film on its hands, and if Birdman should falter with critics or audiences, they may well shift all of their efforts behind Wes Anderson. Even if Birdman is well received, Searchlight has managed to score two Best Picture nominees before, with 127 Hours and Black Swan in 2010.
If ever a Wes Anderson film is to receive widespread AMPAS recognition, The Grand Budapest Hotel would be the one. The film boasts an all-star cast, period setting, and themes that many of the older members of AMPAS can relate to, such as the passing of an older world into the annals of history. It has also received stellar reviews and become the biggest financial success of Anderson’s career to date, and has one of the best distributors in the business backing it up. Some of Anderson’s prior films had had some of these factors going for it, but none have had all of them at once- until now. At this early point in the year, many more traditionally baity projects being released later in the year are being ranked ahead of Grand Budapest by pundits, but Oscar history tells us that almost every year, some contenders that appeared to be sure bets in April prove themselves lacking by December. If and when that happens to some of this year’s more obvious awards releases, then The Grand Budapest Hotel is in a unique position to take advantage of that.
RALPH FIENNES: PRETENDER as LEAD ACTOR, CONTENDER as SUPPORTING ACTOR