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Pete Hammond’s Notes On The Season: Oscars Hope To Be Inspirational; ‘Kubo’ Breaks New Ground; Octavia Spencer Is ‘Hidden’ No More

Deadline logo Deadline 2/4/2017 Pete Hammond
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A column chronicling conversations and events on the awards circuit. 

Although not many automatically think “Oscar” when you mention Fifty Shades of Grey, it perhaps should be remembered that the 2016 film of the E L James uber-bestselling novel nabbed an Academy Award nomination for its song “Earned It,” performed on last year’s Oscarcast by The Weeknd, who also was one of its nominated writers. The sequel — which had its raucous premiere, complete with masked ball before it rolled, last night at the United Artists Theatre in downtown L.A. — might not scream awards either, but Fifty Shades Darker has another killer soundtrack (reviews are embargoed until next week).

Michael De Luca — who produced Fifty Shades Darker with author James, Dana Brunetti and Marcus Viscidi — not only has this film coming out in the heart of February (on the 10th) but also producing this year’s Academy Awards with Jennifer Todd. It’s set for February 26, just three weeks from now, if you can believe it. When I spoke to him at the Fifty Shades premiere afterparty high atop the Los Angeles skyline at the restaurant 71 Above, he sounded like he was a kid in a candy store as he is deep into producing the Oscars. Although he couldn’t talk specifics, so as not to spoil any surprises, he didn’t deny something I had heard about this year’s presenters. A theme running through the show will be inspirations and presenter pairings will reflect that, with younger actors teamed with more veteran performers who might have influenced their career or life in some way. Great idea if it happens and totally respectful not only of the history of movies but also the Oscar shows, where some of the greats have gotten their due in the past.

Can anyone forget the year Charlie Chaplin got a special Oscar in 1972, or when John Wayne presented the Best Picture prize to The Deer Hunter just two months before he died? Those are moments we remember. That particular show with Wayne in 1979 was hosted by Johnny Carson, someone De Luca holds up as a prime example of the kind of host he thinks of as ideal for the Oscars. “I am thrilled we have Jimmy Kimmel this year because I think he is in that tradition,” De Luca told me, adding that he hopes the show is a respectful mix of a number of things, including increased use of clips to reflect the movies that the show is all about and, yes, even politics, which they are not going to shy away from if it happens. He is especially excited to bring back Oscar-winning filmmaker Chuck Workman, who has put together another one of his film-centric short films to salute the movies, though De Luca is keeping secret exactly what Workman has worked up. He’s not ready to spill the beans on much of their plans for the show yet. There will also be musical numbers from the nominated songs, though all of that is still being worked out. So stay tuned, as it were.

So far the Academy has officially announced only that all four of last year’s acting winners — Leonardo DiCaprio, Brie Larson, Mark Rylance and Alicia Vikander — will be following in the tradition of presenting to their successors. My suggested dream pairing of presenters would be seeing Kirk Douglas and Olivia de Havilland do Best Picture since both Hollywood legends turned 100 since last year’s Oscar show. What a moment that would be, eh? OK, back to reality. On Monday, De Luca and Todd will appear before the gathered throng at the annual Oscar Nominees Luncheon, and even there the new producers have had an impact. He said that when one of his movies was up for Best Picture — his nommed pics include The Social Network, Moneyball and Captain Phillips — he really liked the short film about being a nominee that Tom Hanks filmed for the luncheon. In that spirit, he has contributed to this year’s version with a different star (whom he wouldn’t mention) doing something similar.

De Luca, a real film — and Oscars — fan, is genuinely enthused about producing the show, even to the point he is thinking it would be nice if the Academy asks him and Todd to return next year for the big 90th. He has some great ideas for that one already, just in case the opportunity arises. But let’s just get through the 89th first. By the way, among those at Thursday night’s Fifty Shades Darker preem was  Bill Condon who, with Larry Mark, produced one of the most memorable Oscar shows in history in 2009. Both he and Mark also aren’t ruling out the possibility of doing it all again someday, but both are so busy with Condon’s live-action Beauty and the Beast opening in March — and tipped to be terrific — and Mark currently in production on Fox’s musical Showman starring Hugh Jackman with music from La La Land’s lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul.

GUILD SHOWS IN FULL FORCE

On top of last weekend’s lineup of early guild awards shows — the ACE Eddies, PGAs and, of course, SAG — we have another threesome crammed into a very busy Saturday, since no one wants to compete against the Super Bowl on Sunday. Thus we have the unusual situation of both the DGA and ASC Cinematographers events clashing, along with the Animation Guild’s Annie Awards. At last weekend’s PGA Awards, I talked to Travis Knight, director of the 10-time Annie-nominated Kubo and the Two Strings. He was thrilled, and quite astounded, that his stop-motion film not only got a Animated Feature nom from the Oscars, but that it is also the very rare movie to be nominated in the Best Special Visual Effects category. (The most recent was Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas in 1994.) “And on top of all that we got a Costume Designers Guild nomination too,”

Knight enthused about the unheard-of costume design recognition for a toon. Never happens. Knight said he is extraordinarily proud, not only for his directorial debut on Kubo and for Laika, the Portland, OR-based company he owns and runs, but also for the fact that Laika now enjoys a unique place in Oscar history, having been nominated for Best Animated Feature for each of its first four films, following Coraline, ParaNorman and The Boxtrolls. That’s the kind of 100% track record people would kill for, but it might be also due to Knight’s devotion to keeping the almost-lost art of stop motion animation alive and well. Still, with wins at the Golden Globes and PGA, Disney’s Zootopia likely is the one to beat. Hard to overtake a juggernaut but Kubo is definitely in the dark-horse position to try.

OCTAVIA SPENCER IS ANYTHING BUT ‘HIDDEN’

Oscar winner Octavia Spencer, now a nominee for the second time for Hidden Figures, is on a roll — and loving it. At Sunday night’s SAG Awards, you could see the pure joy on her face, as well as her co-stars, when the surprise box office smash upset the favorites to win the marquee Outstanding Cast prize. This was one jazzed bunch of actors. “We were elated, as you saw, and hopeful, as you saw,” Spencer told me when I chatted with her on the phone earlier this week. “I don’t think any of us see it as a win for us but as a win for the women that we portrayed.” She was especially happy for those groundbreaking and previously unheralded women who worked at NASA and were integral in making those early space explorations so successful. “That’s why we were so elated because these women were so long overdue in their recognition,” she said. “And to be recognized by an industry that they had nothing to do with except to inspire is just so humbling. It really is.”

Spencer won the 2011 Oscar for The Help and now is nominated again against her good friend and Help co-star Viola Davis of Fences. “It’s really wonderful. I’m happy for her,” Spencer said. “She’s having a spectacular career year, and it’s very earned. I mean, we all suspect that she’s going to take the gold home, and I’m thrilled for her. I’m thrilled for Michelle Williams and Naomie Harris, and I’m glad to see Nicole Kidman recognized for her work in Lion, another inspirational movie.” Spencer noted that after two years of criticism aimed at the Academy for nominating only white actors, this Supporting category alone has three black actresses competing. “I want to stress that if #OscarsSoWhite was the hashtag for last year, this year is monochromatic in a way, and for me, diversity happens in gender. [Hidden Figures co-writer] Allison Schroeder is the only woman in the writer category, and that there are no women directors and there were so many of them. But we do have a lot of female producers being nominated this year, but our only Asian is Dev Patel, and Latino is [Best Song nominee] Lin-Manuel Miranda. So there’s a lot more that needs to happen. But I’m not griping about it. I’m happy. Don’t get me wrong. To me the issue was never #OscarsSoWhite, because I don’t believe in diminishing anyone’s achievement because I know how difficult it is to get nominated.” Spencer added that, in any given year, it always comes down to the movies themselves and feels the Academy should not be blamed. “I’m not going to be a sound bite. This is a conversation that requires a lot more discussion, and I’m not going to bastardize the Academy when they are not the ones who greenlight films.”

Spencer is just as happy being back in the Oscar mix as she was the first time five years ago. “It’s strange because my first [Oscar-nominated] role was of a woman in the 1960 who had limited options, and now this role is of a woman from 1960. Varied socioeconomic and educational levels, but they both still had limited options,” she said of the maid she played in The Help and now as NASA supervisor Dorothy Vaughan in Hidden Figures. “It’s strange that I feel that it’s come full circle and to be mentioned with all of these great performances this year. There are many, and the fact that I was able to break through that crowd, especially for my own movie, is nice. I would have loved to have seen Kevin [Costner] and Taraji P. Henson and Janelle Monae make the cut because their roles warranted Oscar nominations, but I’m going to take mine and be real happy about it.” Winning that Oscar didn’t change the way she lives her life, but it did change her career. “My life stayed the same. I still have the same friends. I like my little bungalow of a house, but my career went on a completely different trajectory. I’m now getting offered parts like Dorothy Vaughan, and God in The Shack, whereas this wouldn’t have happened had things not transpired on my behalf. So my career is wonderful and I’m grateful, but I love my very small manageable life,” she said.

Having this kind of success has put her in a position to give back, and she’s proud that the film is leading to many philanthropic programs — scholarships like STEM, which helps young women of all backgrounds and races. She and her co-stars also have been buying out theaters around the country so that those without the means to go to a movie can go to see this one for free. She bought out one in Los Angeles and soon it started a sort of movement, she says. Henson, Monae, Jim Parsons, Ted Melfi and Pharrell Williams are among those who also are buying out theaters that playing the movie, which has already grossed $109M and counting. “It’s just one of those projects that comes along once in a lifetime that makes a difference in such a profound way,” she said. “And I have to tell you, even though it’s my movie, I think had it been anyone else’s movie, it would have moved me in the same way because whatever side you sit on ideologically with what’s going on in the world, in our country, specifically you either feel good or bad or sadly indifferent. And for me, just knowing this movie is putting out hope into the world, it really is just more than anything I could have dreamed of right now.”

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