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Holiday Biopics: Young Victoria, Creation, Me and Orson Welles

Photo of Anne Thompson By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood December 31, 2009 at 3:10AM

Three period biopics with awards hopes face some tough going over the holidays.
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Thompson on Hollywood

Three period biopics with awards hopes face some tough going over the holidays.

For me, the genial but clunky U.K. historic drama Young Victoria, which was recut to focus on the romance between Victoria (Emily Blunt) and Albert (Rupert Friend), was a guilty pleasure. The costume epic earned a respectable 73% cream-of-the-crop on Rotten Tomatoes and a 63 Metascore (At the Movies dismissed it). Fair to say, the slow-paced drawing room romance plays best to women.

After Apparition platformed the film on Dec 18 on 20 screens, it broadened to 163 over the Christmas break, faring modestly against enormous competition. Blunt nabbed a Golden Globe nomination, but may lose Oscar's fifth actress slot to Sandra Bullock, who is on a roll with the sleeper hit The Blind Side ($189 million and counting). I got a kick out of the behind-the-scenes power plays at Buckingham Palace, and prefer Paul Bettany as conniving Lord Melbourne to his performance in another holiday release, the dreadful Creation.

Oddly, producer Jeremy Thomas insists on promoting this inert Charles Darwin drama (which has so far earned a Tomatometer of 59%) for awards consideration. Newmarket gave it a one-week LA Oscar-qualifying run before it opens limited in January. I doubt that even Thomas's own folks at BAFTA will come through on this flat, dull, painful movie. Creation brings none of the excitement, energy and radical thought that went into The Origin of Species. Director Jon Amiel doesn't give us much exotic exploration or debate about science. Instead Darwin and his wife (played by Bettany's wife Jennifer Connelly) mope around mourning their dead daughter. This movie bears all the earmarks of a group of people trying not to churn out yet another biopic, desperately searching for drama and conjuring up nothing but flapping boredom.

Thompson on Hollywood

A serious box office dud is 30s theater valentine Me and Orson Welles, which failed to catch fire at the Toronto Film Festival over a year ago. Richard Linklater tries to bring to life the early days of the Mercury Theatre; the story is based on a book by a troupe player who was 15 when he first encountered Welles. Brit Christian McKay's impersonation of Welles is uncanny and delightful. Also surprisingly winning is Zac Efron (Hairspray) who shows just the right blend of insecurity and sexy swagger as he plays a role in Julius Caesar and woos Welles' charismatic assistant (Claire Danes). Efron breaks away from his usual youthful femme fan base here; this movie's core audience is a narrow band of showbizphiles.

So I watched with fascination as Cinetic Media powerbroker John Sloss pursued plan B, which more and more films must do these days. Sloss lined up P & A investor Louisville's Hart/Lunsford Pictures, Pandemic marketing whiz Russell Schwartz and service distrib Freestyle Releasing. Pandemic scored more good reviews and publicity than anyone could have foreseen.

But they were spending, too, almost $4 million to get the movie across during a congested period. When Efron wasn't available for an October release, they took a slow rollout after Thanksgiving, and got killed on 125 dates at Christmas. While they didn't book a trade Oscar campaign, they spent heavily on print and TV in NY and LA, aimed at Academy members. When Efron's female fans did not come out, they turned to older art-house patrons, who didn't show up either. The attention on McKay as Welles may have backfired, as people thought the movie was about him. There was little urgency to see this movie. McKay's Oscar prospects are dimming. Prospects are brighter for Warners' DVD release.

This article is related to: Awards, Box Office, Genres, Independents, Oscars, Golden Globes, Winter, Biopics, Apparition


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.