Welcome back to Contender or Pretender 2014, an Awardswatch series where, in each entry, we profile a different 2014 film and try to determine whether or not it is bound for Oscar glory next winter. Our installment this week takes a turn for the dark and twisted, as we tackle David Fincher’s adaptation of novel Gone Girl.
The Hopeful: Gone Girl
Directed by: David Fincher
Written by: Gillian Flynn
Starring: Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Neil Patrick Harris, Tyler Perry, Carrie Coon
Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Release Date: October 3, 2014
The novel, which was a massive success upon its release in 2012 (topping the New York Times’ best-seller list for eight weeks), concerns the unraveling of a seemingly perfect all-American couple, Nick and Amy Dunne. When Amy (Rosamund Pike) disappears and is presumed dead, suspicion falls on her husband Nick (Ben Affleck).
From the moment his name became attached, Fincher has seemed the perfect choice for such a project, given that over the past 20 years he has established himself as Hollywood’s modern master of the thriller, turning out such classics such as Se7en, Fight Club, and Zodiac. Adapting the source material is the book’s author herself, Gillian Flynn, a former television critic for Entertainment Weekly, who will see not one, but two of her works on the silver screen this year, with the Charlize Theron-starring adaptation of her 2009 novel Dark Places currently scheduled for a September release.
Fincher’s history with Oscar over the course of his career has been something of a curious one. Despite the critical acclaim his films garnered during the 1990s and the early years of the new millennium, the Academy proved to be cold to them, due to AMPAS’ historic reluctance to embrace genre filmmaking, whether pulpy thrillers or fantasy, unless it should prove an undeniable force of acclaim or box office. It was, ironically by switching from the first of these genres to the second that Fincher broke through with the Academy, with The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, the story of a man who ages in reverse. The film received thirteen nominations, including Fincher’s first for Best Director. His following film, The Social Network, a drama centering around the foundation of Facebook, scored Fincher his second nomination, as well as wins from the Golden Globe and BAFTA awards, but, despite being the most acclaimed American film of 2010, fell short in the Best Picture race to the Harvey Weinstein-backed The King’s Speech, with Fincher losing to that film’s helmer Tom Hooper.
Fincher was an early favorite to return to the Oscar race a year later with the adaptation of a popular Swedish thriller, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, with him, the film, and young breakout star Rooney Mara widely predicted for nominations. However, one of the more bizarre series of events in recent Oscar history followed-critics were barred by embargo from writing about the film until almost right before its Christmas 2011 release, preventing it from gaining momentum in the Oscar race and causing it to miss nominations from most of the key early precursors in the race. The film rebounded with a strong showing at the craft guilds, most importantly with a Directors Guild of America nomination for Fincher, which seemed to presage that it would ultimately make it into the Best Picture race. On nomination morning though, both the film and Fincher missed nominations, despite better luck for Mara and a number of technical nominations, including the usually pivotal Film Editing category, which it would go on to win in an upset on Oscar night itself.
Gone Girl seems better positioned to avoid the rather unique pitfalls that would befall The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. For one thing, it has moved away from the year’s end release strategy in favor of a month that is rapidly displacing December as the ideal launching pad for Oscar films: October. Despite a December release being traditionally seen as the home of Oscar films, a film released in that month has not won Best Picture since Million Dollar Baby in 2004. With most awards hopefuls packing themselves into December, a contender released in October can have months of time to build up buzz unimpeded, not to mention avoiding the fiercest competition for those film-goers who enjoy the more adult-oriented fare that dominates Oscar’s lineup each year. In fact, the two most recent Best Picture winners, Argo and 12 Years a Slave, both rode October releases straight to box office success and the Dolby Theater podium alike. While on the surface it might appear that slating this film for October might be a sign of weakness, it will in fact likely prove to be one of the strongest assets to the film’s campaign.
No asset will be as great for the film, in all likelihood, than Rosamund Pike’s performance as Amy Dunne. After being introduced to audiences under somewhat less than ideal circumstances as a duplicitous Bond girl in the reviled franchise entry Die Another Day, the British actress has been working as a reliable supporting player in films ranging from the arthouse (An Education) to the blockbuster (Wrath of the Titans), before landing her first lead role with this film. Although Amy seemingly appears to be a victim of tragic circumstances in the early going of the book, events prove her to be far more than that- a character plagued with her own personal demons and concealing dark secrets. A highly desired role initially offered to A-list talent such as Charlize Theron and Natalie Portman, it will surely give Pike a showcase the likes of which she has never had before, and if she delivers, her performance will be the engine that powers the film’s campaign.
Less certain of factoring into the film’s campaign is Ben Affleck in the role of Nick. Affleck’s rise, fall, and rebirth within the industry are widely known, culminating in his Argo winning Best Picture despite his infamous snub for a Best Director nomination. Nick, a character who gets caught up in the whirlwind of events surrounding his wife’s disappearance and who is suspected of being her killer, is less of a dynamic force than Amy, as his character is more passive faced with the events that surround him. Affleck has never been nominated for an acting Oscar, and is no stranger to playing the role of the quieter, more passive lead surrounded by flashier performances, including in his own Argo. If even a runaway Best Picture winner was unable to get him into the ever-competitive Best Actor field with such a role, Gone Girl is unlikely to do so, barring drastic changes to the source material.
Such changes may be more likely than it would seem on the surface, however. Despite the choice of Flynn to helm her own novel seeming to suggest a strongly faithful adaptation, the early word has been that the material has been altered significantly in the transition from page to screen. Flynn has gone on record stating that the pivotal third act of the story has been re-written completely, and other changes have been variously hinted at or stated outright, including indications that the media firestorm surrounding Nick may be emphasized more heavily in the film, which may give Affleck juicier material. One of the most intriguing questions raised by these changes, the third act re-write specifically, is what exactly they entail for the chances of Neil Patrick Harris in the role of Desi, Amy Dunne’s lover.
The How I Met Your Mother star and frequent Emmy and Tony host’s casting in the role of Desi raised fevered speculation that it would be the role to land him his first nomination, while others familiar with the source material expressed skepticism that his role was large or impactful enough to stand out in the Supporting Actor field. If the third act of the film, which is where his character is most prominent in the source material, has been re-written, then a key possibility is that the re-writes give the character of Desi and his illicit relationship with Amy even more prominence than the novel, suggesting that a Supporting Actor push for Harris will factor strongly into the campaign for the film. Prominence in the third act of a Fincher thriller has not been much of a recipe for Oscar success in the past-see Kevin Spacey being recognized for his performance in The Usual Suspects instead of Se7en in 1995, or the complete non-factor that was Stellan Skarsgård for The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, but if Harris is memorable and showy in the role, he would be strongly positioned to break this pattern.
The final piece of the puzzle for the film is the distributor, 20th Fox. Forays into awards season have been rare for the studio of late, as it has left the Oscar contenders largely to its arthouse division, Fox Searchlight. Since 2000, the studio has only had four Best Picture nominees (Moulin Rouge! in 2001, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World in 2003, Avatar in 2009, and Life of Pi in 2012), with none of them taking the top prize. Looking at the studio’s released films during this period, 20th Century Fox appears to have moved away from prestige and awards-tailored fare in favor of more popcorn, blockbuster films (as have the other major studios, to varying degrees). The contenders that Fox has had have tended towards being tentpole productions that happened to be popular and acclaimed enough to factor into awards races. However, all of Fox’s contenders were able to either make it into Best Picture in the era of five films, or were without a doubt in the top 5 under the current system. Its two most recent contenders, Avatar and Life of Pi, were both the likely runners-up in their years, with Life of Pi taking home Best Director for Ang Lee. While Fox does not play the awards game often, when they do they seem capable enough of maximizing nomination totals for their films, though they do not seem to be the great campaign asset of a Weinstein or a Searchlight.
Overall, the Academy’s historic resistance to Fincher when in thriller mode is the biggest obstacle for Gone Girl’s chances across the board. It was only when he moved into the genres of historical fantasy and drama, respectively, that he became a member of the club, so to speak, and when he returned to thriller territory AMPAS reception was mild. However, the bizarre underperformance of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo seemed to have been more due to its embargo and last-minute release, a clearly botched strategy by its distributor. With a better release date and equally strong source material, if not more so, Fincher should be poised to enjoy widespread Oscar success again. If Gone Girl should fail, then the Academy’s aversion to Fincher’s thriller will be confirmed beyond a doubt, but until then the smart money should bet on one of America’s foremost filmmakers of today to deliver the goods and for Academy voters to follow suit, for the film and Pike’s performance at least, with Fincher’s direction and Harris more risky propositions.
For Affleck or other players from the film such as Carrie Coon to factor in, the film would need to be a knockout, runaway success with Oscar, which, while certainly within the realm of possibility, would be a much longer shot indeed.
Rosamund Pike: Contender
Ben Affleck: Pretender
Neil Patrick Harris: Contender
[author image=”http://img.photobucket.com/albums/v193/erikdean/0341151b-3137-4134-9de4-84a1560d6736_zps040dc936.jpg” ]Peter has been on the Awardswatch forums since the start of 2012. He’s a student in the real world and a student of pop culture, and he enjoys predicting who will win awards because it combines his love of pop culture with his love of competition and speculating about the future. His prediction prowess makes him a member of both the Emmy Experts and the Gold Rush Gang.[/author]