Notes On The Season: Bill Murray ‘Rocks’ Oscar Season, And Personal Memories Of Christopher Plummer

Pete Hammond
·15 min read

A column chronicling conversations and events on the awards circuit.

When I glanced at a headline Thursday saying that Donald Trump had resigned from SAG-AFTRA in a huff, the very same morning SAG announced its awards nominations, I thought to myself, “Is Trump really that upset about Zendaya getting snubbed?” — only to realize after reading the story that he was quitting before the union met to kick him out. That unfortunately is how deep in the weeds awards season makes me go. With the world crumbling around us, the pandemic seeming to never have an end in sight, and Marjorie Taylor Greene telling us the media lies more than QAnon, I like many other pundits am obsessed how this week’s Golden Globe and SAG nominations are likely to affect the Oscars.

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It is a weird year indeed, but to answer the latter question I would say that with the usual awards party and screening circuit shut down it is hard to get a real bead on any of its impact. So I just have to discern what I can get in phone conversations or email chains. One Oscar-nominated and multi-award-winning member of the actors branch actually left me a voicemail Monday because they were killing time while waiting in a long line “near Normandie” for a Covid shot. It was a continuation of a previous chat we had about which movies to see before voting time comes.

The longtime Academy member reported seeing The Prom, Nomadland (“which I loved”), Last Night In Miami (wrong title but “which I loved”) and News of the World (“which I loved”). The member listed a number still to get to including Hillbilly Elegy, Promising Young Woman (“which I really want to see”), Pieces of a Woman (“which I really want to see”) and “on my little list ready to go, The Life Ahead with Sophia.” They also pulled out their list asking me to clarify other performances I mentioned last time we talked.

This is only to say that although Oscar voters are trying to be diligent about seeing potential contenders, most of them are nowhere near the end game in seeing the films most talked about this season before nomination balloting starts exactly one month from today. There is a long way to go, but if the Globes, SAG, Monday’s upcoming Critics Choice list and others make any impact at all, it will be in raising certain titles to the top of voters’ must-see lists. And as I have said before, I am more than willing to be of help in filling out your ballots.

THE UNITED NATIONS OF OSCAR

Speaking of Oscar voting deadlines, the race for the Academy Awards is going to get a little clearer, at least in some categories, when the shortlists for several of them are released Tuesday. AMPAS will narrow contenders for Documentary Features and Shorts, Live Action and Animated Shorts, Song, Music Score, Make Up and Hairstyling, Visual Effect and Best International Film.

Regarding the International race, voters who opt in to the process across all Academy branches have to have ballots in by 5 p.m. PT today, and they mean it. One voter who has religiously been watching their required 12 movies (of a total 93 countries that entered) but has seen double that got a stern warning earlier today: “Preliminary online voting will close today, FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 5, 2021 at 5pm PT. The system will shut down at exactly 5 p.m. PT even if you’re in the middle of completing your ballot. We advise you to log in early and allow yourself plenty of time to submit. We cannot accept ballots after voting closes.” Well OK then!

If you haven’t voted yet for the expanded shortlist in that category, do it (15 titles will make the preliminary cut for the first time, up from 10 but with no additions to be made from the secretive executive committee, who in the past few years have gathered in person to rectify any glaring errors by adding three titles of their own choosing). By the way, I have seen a few of the entries but chief among them I just saw the French film Two of Us last night. It opens today and is a must-see, with two exceptional performances from Germany’s sublime Barbara Sukowa (she would be in the Best Actress race in a just world) and Comédie Française vet Martine Chevallier. It is directed and co-written by Italian filmmaker Filippo Meneghetti and is, in a word, unforgettable, one of the year’s finest in any language. And what could define “international film” better than a French movie starring a German actress directed by an Italian?

DOCUMENTARIES MAKING A DIFFERENCE

In terms of the Documentary race, what shows up on the shortlist there is anyone’s guess since this year blasted all existing records in terms of entries, ballooning into the stratosphere with 238 vying for one of the 15 slots on the shortlist and eventual five nominees. That is about 70 more than last year, so the Docu branch really had its work cut out for them. Being stuck largely at home in a pandemic may have helped, but this is a big number to weed through, folks.

There are many exceptional movies to choose from, but I hope one of them is All In: The Fight For Democracy, which details Stacey Abrams’ efforts to even the voting playing field especially in Georgia, where voter suppression has run rampant. She is a national hero who delivered the state not only to Joe Biden, but even more impressively to two new U.S. senators both Democrats. Another movie vying for one of those slots is the very important The Dissident, which was directed by Oscar winner Bryan Fogel and chronicles the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Distribution veteran Tom Ortenberg picked up the controversial film out of Sundance 2020 and has made a bit of history with it, as he tells me.

The Dissident is the first documentary to go the Premium VOD route and the results have been terrific,” he said. “We originally planned a traditional theatrical platform release of the film but that plan was KO’d by the pandemic. We pivoted to a small theatrical over Christmas and then to PVOD on January 8.” He added that in its first two weeks of PVOD release priced at $19.99 the film grossed $2 million and has been going strong since.

“We have had amazing support from both the entertainment and political worlds, with public shows of support from folks like Judd Apatow, Mark Ruffalo, Bill Browder (head of The Global Magnitsky Justice Campaign), Yashar Ali, Preet Bharara, Norm Ornstein, former CIA director John Brennan and Hillary Clinton among many, many others. The film will be repriced down to $5.99 VOD rental on February 9 and we will continue to fight for Justice for Jamal Khashoggi long after the current Awards season is in the rearview mirror.”

Good luck with it, Tom, who has rebooted his Open Road label with the current release of Liam Neeson’s The Marksman but is releasing Dissident through his Briarcliff label.

BILL MURRAY ON HIS REUNION WITH SOFIA COPPOLA

One actor whose Oscar fortunes got a boost this week is Bill Murray, just nominated for Best Supporting Actor by the Golden Globes for his priceless turn as the bon vivant playboy father of the character played by Rashida Jones in Sofia Coppola’s sparkling comedy On the Rocks. Murray is now a seven-time Globe nominee, having been previously lauded by the HFPA for a collection of disparate performances including in Ghostbusters, Rushmore, Hyde Park On Hudson, Olive Kitteredge and Coppola’s Lost In Translation for which he won Best Actor in a Comedy or Musical in 2003.

Can the Murray-Coppola screen magic pay off again at the Globes? Time will tell, but he also should have grabbed a SAG nomination as well if you ask me (he was overlooked there this week). Still he has a good shot at an Oscar nomination, particularly if voters realize pulling of a three-dimensional portrayal in a comedy is much harder than it looks. Murray is just brilliant. and now at 70 better than ever.

I am still upset he lost the Oscar to Sean Penn for Mystic River, but Murray is a guy who just inhabits the characters he plays in subtle ways and sometimes flashier performances win out. It is time he got recognized by the Academy. Just don’t ask him to campaign for it: Murray is notoriously difficult to nail down for interviews, so I was pleased to host a rare conversation (I am told just about the only one he is doing this season) with him (along with Coppola, Jones and co-star Marlon Wayans) recently, and it was lots of fun. Asked how the reteaming with the writer-director came about after 17 years between films, Murray explained that Coppola had directed him and Jones in Netflix’s special A Very Murray Christmas when she told him she thought the chemistry between them was good and said she had a movie script for the two of them to do.

“I said ‘great.’ I was thinking it was going to be a romantic comedy, and then I was told I was going to be her father. It was heartbreaking. Crushing. I had to go into rehab after that because I drank hard and heavy. It was very hard to take,” he said, laughing. “But I thought it was going to be easy to do it in New York and it was fun. We had a wonderful time making the first movie, and Sofia makes it an adventure to do the film.”

The plot of On the Rocks has Murray convincing his married daughter to join him in sleuthing around her husband, played by Wayans, when he is suspected of cheating on her. It turns a little bit into something like the William Powell-Myrna Loy dynamic of The Thin Man, one of the cinematic inspirations Coppola had when writing it. One scene allowed Murray to get behind the wheel of a flashy red sports car with Jones in the passenger seat, and take off through the streets of the Big Apple, and Murray says he did almost all the driving.

“There may be some shots that weren’t dangerous that I wasn’t driving the car. But all the ones that look like Rashida is truly frightened for her life I was driving,” he assured me with that very Murray twinkle in his eyes. “We just kept catching green lights. What are you gonna do? It was a souped-up car. Once you get rolling you hate to turn it off because you think maybe the camera will be ready before you are so we took every chance we could and took kind of the scenic route. Sofia’s brother Roman was shooting the action sequences from the car seat because he is a car guy and loves to do that stuff. And I know that I owed it to him to just be as daring as I could be, that he would want someone, in lieu of Steve McQueen, to actually be told by the police to turn that damn car off which is actually what happened one night. Because we got shut down when I accelerated to a slippery spot, a wet spot of brick. The car just moved a bit in one direction — nothing I wasn’t handling, but the police officer didn’t like it and told us that would be it for the day.”

So will there be more to come after this latest collaboration with Coppola and Jones? Murray said he had an announcement to make. “We had so much fun doing the detective stuff, like The Thin Man, we started talking about doing like 15 Thin Man-type detective movies because we are an unlikely pair of detectives,” he said, not exactly convincingly. But with Murray you never know.

MEMORIES OF CHRISTOPHER PLUMMER

Finally, I was so sad to hear of the passing of the great Christopher Plummer today. Even at 91 years old, this man was so vital, constantly working and enjoying a renaissance all through his 80s like few others have. I got to know him very well over my past decade working at Deadline, and the various Oscar seasons I got to share with him in one way or another. I last talked to him at the 2019 Toronto Film Festival party following the premiere of Knives Out, in which he so deliciously played the patriarch at the center of his own murder mystery, another smash hit in an extraordinary career that criss-crossed through so many performances in so many mediums that he won numerous awards for all them including Tonys, Emmys and an Oscar.

He did it all, from Hamlet to Lear to Othello to Cyrano, to Barrymore and on and on, but you can probably bet the farm that the grand majority of obits that will appear most likely will have The Sound of Music somewhere in their headline, or as he affectionately refers to it in In Spite of Myself, his terrific 2008 memoir: S&M.

In past decade I got to interview or spend some time with him at various intervals including having a blast moderating his two-hour Modern Master tribute at the 2011 Santa Barbara Film Festival. There had been for years the perception that you don’t ask Plummer about Sound of Music, that he thought it was treacly stuff, but that couldn’t have been further from the truth. He was fond of it, at least looking back at it, even in his memoir calling it the best of movie musicals. When I asked him onstage to talk about it in front of 2,000 people (who would have killed me if I didn’t), he could not have been more complimentary but always deferred to Julie Andrews saying the film belonged to her.

The same year that S&M came out (1965), so did a personal Plummer favorite of mine, Inside Daisy Clover with Natalie Wood and a young Robert Redford. But movie-wise he had such a rich variety that you can discover if you want to hold a Christopher Plummer film festival in his memory this weekend: Beginning with his 1958 film debut Stage Struck opposite Henry Fonda, to the likes of The Night of the Generals (1967), The Man Who Would Be King (1975) opposite Connery and Caine in which he memorably played Rudyard Kipling, the unsung but brilliant and gaining-in-cultdom The Silent Partner (1978), Murder By Decree (1979) and on through the decades to Spike Lee’s Inside Man and Malcolm X, A Beautiful Mind, Syriana and Michael Mann’s 1999 film The Insider in which he played Mike Wallace and should have won his first Oscar nomination but didn’t. He also has done terrific voice-over work in animated delights like Up and the wonderful My Dog Tulip. And 2007’s indie Man in the Chair is a little-seen but true gem.

But I met Plummer in his 80s, and it may well have been his finest decade. He had just finally joined the Motion Picture Academy when he got his first-ever Oscar nomination opposite Helen Mirren for Best Supporting Actor in 2009’s The Last Station. The next year he won that category playing a family man coming out of the closet in his 70s in Mike Mills’ great Beginners. In fact he won every award imaginable for that touching turn, putting him in the record books as the oldest winner ever.

However his most unexpected Oscar nomination, his third and final, came for a movie he wasn’t even in until after it was finished. Playing J. Paul Getty in Ridley Scott’s 2017 All The Money in the World he was brilliant, but the backstory was even better. After Kevin Spacey filmed the role he was embroiled in scandal and the studio and Scott made the bold decision to go back and recast and reshoot the entire role, with Plummer stepping in with less that a week to even prepare. Now that is one for the ages, and he represents the film’s sole Oscar nomination — to be sure the only time any actor got one under those incredible circumstances.

I got on the phone with him to talk about it after he was nominated and he laughed at the irony of it all and told me of the category that “with those guys I don’t have a chance” (Sam Rockwell would go on to win). But it is just amazing that Plummer, who wasn’t even in the film a short while before, was there at the Dolby Theatre climbing the steps, once again an Oscar nominee, in fact now the oldest ever nominee in Oscar history.

I ran into him and his wife of 50 years, Elaine, right there at the top of those stairs and wished him luck. He just smiled knowing the whole thing was surreal. That along with my first Q&A with him at Pacific Design Center for The Last Station, when he told me he was exhausted shooting this small independent movie that was to be called Beginners; our Santa Barbara tribute; lunch with a select group of his friends and colleagues at Musso & Frank in Hollywood following his hand-and-footprint ceremony at the Chinese Theatre are just some of the moments I remember spending with this icon of acting. Fortunately we have all those performances to remember him by too.

So long, farewell, auf wiedersehen, goodbye, Mr. Plummer. See you at the movies.

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