Pete Hammond’s Notes On The Season: Oscar Host Search Intensifies, Another Affleck Joins The Race, Q&As Flourish

Pete Hammond
Deadline

A column chronicling conversations and events on the awards circuit

Live By Night producer Jennifer Todd stopped by the pre-screening reception Warner Bros threw Wednesday night in the DGA Atrium and not only was she talking about the period gangster movie her production partner Ben Affleck directed and stars in, but also her other new gig announced last week. That would be the one where she is producing the 89th Annual Academy Awards telecast with Michael DeLuca. Sometimes it is enough just to get a new movie finished and released, but taking on the daunting task of Oscar producer is a whole other ballgame.

“I am having fun watching all the older Oscar shows going way back,” Todd said of the homework she has on her plate prepping this year’s task. She said her favorites are the shows produced in 2002 and 2007 by the late Laura Ziskin, as well as the Bill Condon-Larry Mark 2009 show, perhaps the most radically innovative and successful Oscar telecast of recent decades.

As for a host?  Last week when I spoke to her and DeLuca after they were named producers they said they had a very long list. “We are working on whittling it down,” she sighed, signaling they don’t have anyone quite yet to take the gig, but stay tuned.

In their first week they have been working on putting together the show’s technical team. Husband Chris Messina, who is terrific in a key role in Live By Night, was there and told me producing the Oscars has been a lifelong dream of his wife’s. Being ON the Oscars would be a lot of people’s dream I would think, but producing it? I am betting that passion may translate into a very promising night come February 26.

Meanwhile awards bloggers, HFPA and BFCA members showed up at the DGA’s smaller theatre for a relatively low key launch of the much-awaited new film by Affleck, his first directing gig since the Oscar-winning Argo. I had actually gotten a chance to see the film last week and it truly delivers on Affleck’s goal of doing a kind of homage to the great gangster films of the ’30s and ’40s that, ironically, Warner Bros specialized in.

At the reception, Affleck, whose brother Casey is also drawing heavy awards buzz for Manchester By The Sea, told me this actually felt to him like a bigger movie that might have been made in the ’60s or ’70s like a Bonnie and Clyde. I told him of my recent conversation with Warren Beatty who said then-studio head Jack Warner did not want to make Bonnie And Clyde  because he thought no one would want to see it, and that Warners had already been there and done that with gangster movies. Beatty made it anyway and look what happened. “Now I am bringing this kind of movie back again for Warner Bros!” Affleck laughed. He said at one point he had gone on an old movie binge and really latched on to the ’30s Warner Bros actors like Cagney, Muni and Robinson. When Dennis Lehane’s book came around set in the same period and milieu, he jumped on it — it didn’t hurt that he had made a fine film previously out of Lehane’s Gone Baby Gone.

Affleck introduced the intimate screening taking note of co-star Sienna Miller, Messina and editor William Goldenberg who were also there and participated in a Q&A afterwards. Affleck introduced the film by telling of his admiration for epics like Reds or Doctor Zhivago that used to be the definition of a Hollywood blockbuster. “A big crowd-pleasing punchy sexy movie was born with costumes and extras and production design, but now in a blockbuster you have to be wearing a cape — not that I have anything against wearing a cape — but I wanted to make a movie where themes of betrayal and redemption and true love and false love and vengeance, and the idea where in those ’30s Warners movies the protagonists were these broken and corrupt men, and you knew that, and it was OK to explore a story where somebody was walking the fine line of morality in life,” he said. Judging by the results of this exceptionally good-looking movie, he succeeded.

FENCES WINNING STANDING OVATIONS

From the Live By Night reception I made it across town to a packed SAG screening of Fenceswhere I moderated a Q&A with the cast and where once again, as they did at Deadline’s The Contenders event on November 5 and later that night at the first big screening in Westwood, the group received a massive standing ovation particularly this time for Viola Davis and star-director-producer Denzel Washington. There wasn’t a seat to be had Wednesday night at the Arclight in Sherman Oaks for this film, which goes wide on Christmas Day — the same time Live By Night begins its Oscar-qualifying run. Fences looks like a sure thing for a SAG ensemble nomination based on the reaction at this screening. Going down the escalator afterwards the buzz was palpable.

Washington said he was inspired to bring together virtually the entire cast of the original 2010 Tony-winning revival — in which he and Davis also won lead acting Tonys — based on his experience years before in the original production of A Soldier’s Play in 1981 where that wasn’t the case when it became a movie. “Among the stars of that production was a man named Samuel L. Jackson,” he said, making the case for hiring the originals for film versions (Washington, however, did appear in both). Incredibly, Fences is the first August Wilson work to ever make it to the screen, but Washington reiterated to SAG something he announced well over a year ago that he had made a deal with HBO to bring nine other Wilson plays to the pay service. “I for one cannot wait see Ma Rainey and the rest finally get filmed,” he told me.

If it turns into a box office success and awards magnet, Fences will certainly be the spark for this major Wilson revival. By the way, Wilson, who died in 2005, is in line for a posthumous Adapted Screenplay Oscar nomination as he has sole credit for the script which Washington told the audience was 96% Wilson’s words, with the rest just being where Washington said he decided to stage the scenes.

NOVEMBER IS CRAZY SEASON

I have decided November is the single worst month of the entire awards season for one simple reason: Nobody has lost anything yet, and everyone still thinks they can win. That is why the events around town are driving publicists crazy. One rep who has a record (for her) seven clients with films in contention told me she was seriously sleep-deprived. “I don’t know how I can do this. It is 18 hours a day running from one thing to another,” she lamented.

The latest I have noticed is using DVD releases as an excuse to stage an awards event. Hell Or High Water had a DVD-release party with Texas barbecue at Bludsos on La Brea last Friday. Jeff Bridges, Ben Foster, director David Mackenzie and writer Taylor Sheridan were among those digging into the ribs and corn. On Monday night, Warner Bros Home Entertainment threw a Chateau Marmont DVD-release party for War Dogs star Jonah Hill that was hosted by his buddy and Wolf Of Wall Street star Leonardo DiCaprio. Warners is especially interested in trying to land Hill a Golden Globe or Critics Choice nomination to jump-start a possible long shot Oscar campaign for his wild work in the Miami-set true story that came out in late summer.

Another clever way of campaigning are the so-called holiday parties. Yes, they are around the holidays, but A24, Lionsgate, Hulu, Laika and others are flooding my inbox with invites featuring greetings of the season, only I am pretty sure the real season they are greeting is, first and foremost, awards season. Q&As of course are also rampant, even if the Academy has tried to make it more difficult to serve up food and film together for voters looking for a free meal with their screenings. Often the Q&As alone are more than enough: A recent SAG nominating committee screening of La La Land featuring star Emma Stone, who plays a frustrated aspiring actress in the musical, turned into something resembling a 12-step meeting for the SAG members in the crowd who truly identified with the difficulties of finding success as actors in the real La La Land.

I don’t know if it is me or not but the intensity level of this campaign season is higher than it has ever been, and races seem wide open across the board at this point. Like I said it is only November, and everyone still thinks they can win. Of course Hillary Clinton thought that too.

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