Actor Ben Stiller directed and stars in “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” which got a rousing reception Saturday at its world premiere as the Centerpiece Gala Presentation at the New York Film Festival. But how will it be greeted by Oscar voters?
It follows its title character, a daydreaming milquetoast who develops negatives for Life Magazine, as he embarks on an adventure of self-discovery. The warm-hearted comedy has moments of melancholy and is philosophical about art and life, but it lacks the dramatic heft of most Oscar selections.
However, that warm heart may also be its biggest strength on the awards circuit. There’s usually room in the Oscar lineup for one or two feel-good crowd-pleasers, as long as they have indie cool-factor (like “Little Miss Sunshine”), big box office (like “The Blind Side”), an artistic hook (like reviving silent film in “The Artist“) or “important” themes (like mental illness in “Silver Linings Playbook“).
“Walter Mitty” is a studio film (Fox) and thus won’t be greeted as the little-indie-that-could, and it lacks the lofty subject matter that helped “Silver Linings” sell itself as more than a formula romantic comedy. So the most important factors in determining its viability as an awards contender may be box office and critical support. It might need to hit it big in its receipts, reviews, or both to emerge as a serious contender.
It helps that the film has literary cachet: it’s adapted from a famous 1939 short story by James Thurber. The film departs greatly from the source material, but then so did “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” when it was adapted from a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald in 2008, resulting in 13 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture.
It also helps that Oscar voters love actors-turned-directors: Robert Redford, Kevin Costner, Clint Eastwood, Mel Gibson, and Ron Howard are among the on-screen stars who have been awarded for their efforts behind the camera. And though Ben Affleck was famously snubbed in the Best Director race for “Argo” last year, he was still able to pick up a trophy as a producer.
Stiller is already well established as a filmmaker – “Walter Mitty” is his fifth as a director – and he even has a track record at the Oscars, directing his co-star Robert Downey Jr. to a Best Supporting Actor nomination for the Hollywood parody “Tropic Thunder” in 2008.
Then again, most actors who win directing Oscars do so for the kinds of films the Academy usually likes anyway: sweeping epics (like Costner’s “Dances with Wolves”), historical subjects (“Argo,” Howard’s “A Beautiful Mind”), and serious dramas (Eastwood’s “Unforgiven” and “Million Dollar Baby”).
But however it fares in the Best Picture and Best Director races, “Walter Mitty” could still break through in craft categories like Best Cinematography; the story revolves around photography and boasts impressive scenic views of Greenland, Iceland, and beyond. Director of photography Stuart Dryburgh was previously nominated in that category for “The Piano.”
Though the Oscars are a question mark for the film, it’s likely to make an impact at the Golden Globes. It will compete in the less crowded Comedy/Musical categories, and its Christmas release date could be appealing to Globes voters, giving them the chance to honor a film that will still be in theaters when awards are handed out.
Bids for Comedy/Musical Picture and Comedy/Musical Actor are likely. It could even win those races, depending on how the smaller, artsier “Inside Llewyn Davis” is received. “Blue Jasmine” could also be a factor – the Hollywood Foreign Press loves Woody Allen, and he’ll be receiving the Cecil B. DeMille Award that night – though Stiller will luckily not have to go head-to-head with that film’s star, Cate Blanchett.
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