The secret is out. “Walter Mitty” has now been seen by industry insiders and it’s a real Oscar contender. Expect to find “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” on the list of Best Picture nominees.
At its New York Film Festival debut, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” got a whooping standing ovation. Out in Los Angeles where I viewed it at a simultaneous media screening on the Fox lot, response was split, but predictable. Anyone with a warm heart and a Walter Mitty-blessed imagination adored it and the Too Cool for the Room Film Critics scoffed in horror at its fearless sentimentality. But pay no mind to the latter. This year Oscar voters are on the hunt for warm fuzzies, the kind that delivered a surprise Best Picture nomination for “The Blind Side” when it was under nuclear attack by film critics in 2009. “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” is an expertly made film with a joyous spirit and it is going to be a box office mega-hit.
The huge, bursting heart of “Secret Life of Walter Mitty” is its secret Oscar weapon in a year with few rivals. Academy members are notorious saps who love to crown Best Picture champs like “The King’s Speech” and “The Artist.” Despite being based upon a James Thurber short story, “Walter Mitty” doesn’t have much artistic pretension, so it probably can’t win, but it doesn’t have much competition in the Warm Fuzzies Department. Look at the Experts’ predictions at Gold Derby – mostly gritty fare like “12 Years a Slave,” “American Hustle” and “The Wolf of Wall Street.” There are just a few heart-tuggers like “The Butler” and “Saving Mr. Banks” – maybe “Gravity” can be defined a bit like that.
Hollywood insiders will love the fact that “Walter Mitty” is directed and stars one of their own, Ben Stiller. All Oscarologists know how well movies do when created by actors-turned-directors (“Braveheart,” “Dances with Wolves”). Ben Affleck‘s “Argo” won last year even though the directors’ branch refused to let him in. However, Stiller did not employ an academy-friendly crew well known to the branches. Cinematographer Stuart Drybuge was nominated for “The Piano” (1993), but there were no past bids for its film editor, music composer, etc. That may be a problem, but Stiller smartly obscured all that by casting past Oscar victors Shirley MacLaine and Sean Penn. And Stiller is Hollywood royalty himself, of course, being the son of Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara. What’s more: he directed Robert Downey Jr. to an Oscar nomination in “Tropic Thunder” (2009).
Opening this film at Christmastime is a shrewd move by Fox. If the snarl-puss film critics manage to tamp down its Cool Quotient, the movie-going public will lift “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” in raptuous celebration just when Oscar voters are deciding their ballots. Meantime, it will certainly do well a week or so earlier when Golden Globe nominations come out. The HFPA isn’t burdened with such absurd snobbery and they’ll lavish it with bids.
These days Oscar voters are trying hard to include commercial studio films – it’s the whole reason they expanded the Best Picture list beyond five nominees. Since then they’ve included such popcorn pix as “Inception,” “Toy Story 3,” “Moneyball” and, of course, “The Blind Side.” Next they will cheerfully embrace “Walter Mitty.” One key reason: It’s got a strong Rooting Factor, which usually decides the Best Picture lineup. “Walter Mitty” feels like the combination of two popcorn pix that were both nominated years ago, and one won: “Jerry Maguire” (1996) and “Forrest Gump” (1994).
In addition to Best Picture, “Walter Mitty” will probably be nominated for Best Visual Effects and perhaps a few other categories. But … hmmm … which ones? Best Director? Best Actor? “Walter Mitty’s” Ben Stiller can dream, can’t he?