Could “The Lady in the Van” be a sleeping giant at the Oscars? It bears a striking resemblance to another film that snuck up on its rivals and landed a Best Picture nomination in 2013: “Philomena.” As of this writing, the Oscar Experts we’ve polled aren’t anticipating a bid in the top category for “Lady in the Van,” but they weren’t predicting “Philomena” this time two years ago either.
“The Lady in the Van” tells the true story of Mary Shepherd (Maggie Smith), a homeless woman who moved her van into the driveway of writer Alan Bennett and stayed there for 15 years. Bennett first told this story as a stage play in 1999, which earned Smith an Olivier Award nomination for Best Actress, and he has adapted it for the screen.
“Philomena” was also a British true story about the unlikely friendship between an older woman and a cantankerous writer (journalist Martin Sixsmith, played by Steve Coogan), and it was also a performance showcase for a beloved acting veteran (Judi Dench, whose performance earned her a seventh Oscar nomination). If “The Lady in the Van” has the same feel-good appeal, it could go just as far with the academy.
It told the story of the title character’s search for her long-lost son, whom the Catholic church forced into adoption, and had darker emotions than “The Lady in the Van.” This is more a slice of life about a needy woman’s uncomfortable relationship with her neighbors, though it does eventually reveal its own emotional secrets about her past anguish and crisis of faith.
“Philomena” also had the benefit of director Stephen Frears, who came to the project having already been nominated for two Best Director Oscars (“The Grifters” in 1990, “The Queen” in 2006).
“The Lady in the Van” is helmed by Nicholas Hytner, who himself has an impressive pedigree, having directed the Oscar-contending films “The Madness of King George” (1994) and “The Crucible” (1996). “Madness” earned him a BAFTA Award for Best British Film. However, most of his work has been on stage so he may not be as familiar to Oscar voters as Frears, especially since as this is Hytner’s first film in nine years.
Smith has also been out of the Oscar game for a while. She’s won a pair of Oscars from six nominations (Best Actress for “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” in 1969, Best Supporting Actress for “California Suite” in 1978), but hasn’t contended since “Gosford Park” in 2001.
However, Dame Maggie has hardly faded into obscurity. In the years since “Gosford” she has appeared in the “Harry Potter” films as Professor McGonagall as well as the popular hit “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” and the period TV series “Downton Abbey,” which has earned her two Emmys, three SAG Awards and a Golden Globe. She is as popular as ever, so the academy may be eager for the opportunity to welcome her back.
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“Lady in the Van” photo credit: Moviestore Collection/REX
“Philomena” photo credit: Snap Stills/REX