Will ‘Les Miserables’ rekindle Oscar’s love affair with musicals?

On paper, “Les Miserables” seems like the perfect Oscar movie. With its prestigious source material, all-star cast, period setting and epic scope, the film looks poised to garner a high number of nominations. Eight of our Experts are predicting it to win Best Picture, giving it odds of 11 to 2, behind frontrunner “Argo.” 

Les Miserables” belongs to one of the academy’s most beloved genres: the movie musical. Well, at times one of their most beloved genres, that is. The academy has had a love/hate relationship with the movie musical over its eighty-five years, either rewarding or ignoring films built on song-and-dance numbers.

Musicals have been winning Oscars since the earliest days of the awardsfest: “The Broadway Melody”(1929) was the second film ever to win Best Picture.  After that came wins for “The Great Ziegfeld” (1936), “An American in Paris” (1951), “Gigi” (1958), “West Side Story” (1961), “My Fair Lady” (1964), “The Sound of Music” (1965) and “Oliver!” (1968). 

During that same period, Best Picture nominations went to: “42nd Street” (1932), “Top Hat” (1935), “The Wizard of Oz” (1939), “Yankee Doodle Dandy” (1942), “Anchors Aweigh” (1945), “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” (1954), “The King and I” (1957), “The Music Man” (1962), “Mary Poppins” (1964), “Doctor Dolittle” (1967) and “Funny Girl” (1968).

Yet after the win for “Oliver!” only a scant six musicals —  “Hello, Dolly!” (1969), “Fiddler on the Roof” (1971), “Cabaret” (1972), “All That Jazz” (1979), “Beauty and the Beast” (1991) and “Moulin Rouge!” (2001) — received nominations for Best Picture before “Chicago” took the top prize in 2002. 

One could easily blame the lack of nominations on a scarcity of product, as the movie musical had fallen out of favor with the public after such big-budget flops as “Star!” (1968), “Paint Your Wagon” (1969) and “Darling Lili” (1970). The win for “Chicago” was seen as a rebirth of the all but dead genre and, with that, Hollywood quickly churned out a number of Broadway adaptations eager to reap similar success.

Unfortunately, such success was not easily wrought. Several high-profile projects such as “Dreamgirls” (2006), “Sweeney Todd” (2007) and “Nine” (2009), all thought to be front-runners early on, came up short with Oscar voters. Indeed, since “Chicago”’s win not a single movie musical has been nominated for Best Picture. This can’t be blamed entirely on the quality of the films being produced, but rather on the ever-changing tastes of the academy.

Yet the academy’s recent resistance to the movie musical may go even deeper than changing tastes. The musical, by its very nature, is a more light-hearted kind of entertainment, and the academy is known to have its limits when it comes to rewarding less serious-minded product.

Looking back on the musicals nominated for Best Picture, one finds such classics of the genre as “Meet Me in St. Louis” (1944), “Singin’ in the Rain” (1952), and “The Band Wagon” (1953) absent from the list. These films lacked the serious subject matter of some of the musicals that gained favor with the academy. It would appear that while the movie musical is considered awards bait because of its genre, it is also disregarded as such for that same reason.

Now comes “Les Miserables,” as serious-minded a movie musical as there ever was. It takes for its subject matter no less than poverty, death, and redemption in 19th century France. The film is based on one of the most acclaimed and beloved shows in history: after its London premiere in 1985, the show came to Broadway in 1987 and played over 7,000 performances, making it the third longest-running show in rialto history (behind “Cats” and “Phantom of the Opera”). That original production won eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical.  A film adaptation has been in the works for over twenty years and, needless to say, expectations are high.

The film itself certainly has a high pedigree of its own: directed by Tom Hooper, fresh off his Oscar win for “The King’s Speech” (2010), starring Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway and Amanda Seyfried, as well as Helena Bonham Carter, Sacha Baron Cohen, Eddie Redmayne and Samantha Barks. The screenplay is by two-time Oscar-nominee William Nicholson (“Shadowlands,”1993 and “Gladiator,” 2000).  The show’s original producer, Cameron Mackintosh, is producing the film, and the below-the-line talents are all top-notch.

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In addition, “Les Miserables” has the distinction of being the first movie musical since the early days of sound to have all of its songs recorded live on set, as opposed to being pre-recorded in a studio.  Obviously the film is being produced at a high level of ambition, and if there’s one thing the academy loves rewarding, it’s films that showcase the best of what Hollywood can do.  

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