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Oscars: What Happened with the Battle of the British Biopics?

Oscars: What Happened with the Battle of the British Biopics?

Way back at the fall film festivals Oscar-watchers proclaimed the duel of the British biopics.
They pitted The Imitation Game,” starring Benedict Cumberbatch as World War II codebreaker Alan Turing and Keira Knightley as his brainy aide Joan Clarke, against The Theory of Everything,” starring Eddie Redmayne as brilliant cosmologist Stephen Hawking and Felicity Jones as the heroic wife who made his life and science possible. 
So who won this match-up? Finally, these two exquisitely crafted period pieces–both soft lobs down the middle for Academy voters–knocked each other out. Each wound up with just one Oscar each on February 22.
(A third Brit biopic, Mike Leigh’s gorgeously precise “Mr. Turner,” from Sony Pictures Classics, which won best actor for Timothy Spall in the title role at Cannes, was shoved to the side as the result of this sexier match-up, even by the UK’s own BAFTAs, though its period visuals are even more sublime–Leigh had to settle for a BAFTA life achievement award and four tech Oscar noms.)
 Both films started out strong but were dogged by criticism, which chipped away at their stature. 
1. Box Office and Reviews. “The Imitation Game” has earned more than $84 million domestic so far (half of its score overseas), with an 89% Tomatometer ranking. “The Theory of Everything” has earned $34 million to date (a third of its foreign total), with a 79% Tomatometer score. 
2. The Campaign. Harvey Weinstein mounted a full court press for “The Imitation Game” on the level of TWC’s Oscar-winning period biopic “The King’s Speech.” Front and center was Cumberbatch, 38, whose performance earned raves as Alan Turing, a complex, brilliant, off-putting, yet vulnerable mathematician who’s always the smartest person in the room–but he doesn’t work well with others. 

Cumberbatch is a respected character actor who thanks to TV series “Sherlock” has built a rabid following (often called Cumberbitches). “He’s phenomenally talented and smart,” director Morten Tyldum told me on the phone. “There’s something enigmatic about him. There’s so much going on, the camera lingers on him forever, behind the eyes are a million things going on that fascinate you that you can’t pinpoint. I wanted Turing to be a layered character, strong and awkward and shy and fragile and uncomfortable. Benedict was perfect, able to portray all of that at the same time.”

From the start Cumberbatch took the role seriously as he talked about it on the awards circuit. “The most daunting thing was his legacy is incredibly important,” he told me at the Academy Governors Awards. “I wanted to do justice to him. The storytelling doesn’t compromise the sense of the man, the era or the moral conundrums, it weaves the logic of the character into the logic of the drama, it’s a marriage of cracking the code and cracking open his character.” 

Sure enough, Cumberbatch did earn his first Oscar nomination, but seemed a tad overwhelmed by the incessant politicking. (He made up for a sour SAG loser’s face with enthusiastic clapping at Redmayne’s BAFTA win.) It’s true that many people didn’t know the compelling, recently revealed history of Enigma code-breaker Turing, who single-handedly saved the Allies by staying ahead of Hitler’s every move in World War II. He also invented the computer along the way and was tragically persecuted and denied recognition for his achievements because of his homosexuality. Weinstein’s campaign consistently played up the heroism of Turing and his significance as a persecuted genius. 

Young producers Nora Grossman and Ido Ostrowsky (who shepherded the Black List script by American rookie Graham Moore, who finally took home the Adapted Screenplay Oscar) and financier Ted Schwarzman brought on new LA resident Tyldum and got the movie made and acquired at a high level. But inside the Oscar universe, they lacked clout. As brainy mathematician Joan Clarke, Keira Knightley earned her second Oscar nomination after “Pride & Prejudice.” She’s a popular actress who dutifully did her rounds while pregnant, but Supporting Actress was designated to go to Patricia Arquette for “Boyhood.” 

Top Brit “The Theory of Everything” producers Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner of Working Title are Oscar perennials (“Les Mis,” “Atonement,” “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy,” “Anna Karenina”) who pushed Universal’s Focus Features to give the Oscar campaign everything they could. Although now run by new chief Peter Schlessel, who is not an awards veteran, Focus Features still boasts the same sophisticated marketing and awards team, although they have new distribution execs.

Both Eddie Redmayne, 32, and Felicity Jones, 31, tirelessly worked the awards circuit for months in Los Angeles, doing countless Q & As and parties. Redmayne, especially, is a witty, self-deprecating charmer, winning over advocates everywhere he went–just as he did in his acceptance speech Oscar night. Also, his role as ALS-afflicted Hawking is more sympathetic than the chillier Turing. And the twists and turns required to channel Hawking as they filmed out of sequence was an impressive feat of preparation and discipline that finally won the day.

Watch: Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones reveal Terrors Filming ‘Theory of Everything’

Director Marsh gave the actors room to inhabit their characters as they saw them. “Working with Eddie and Felicity to make this work, if one overshadowed the other, Felicity fought for her character as do all actors on set, wanting to express the research she brought back,” he told me in a phone interview. “Stephen is an optimistic character; he has to be a witty and mischievous man and expose that humor. Eddie has to work without vanity to look so strange, so disfigured.”

Veteran New Zealand screenwriter Anthony McCarten also had a compelling narrative. He was obsessed with Hawking (as Moore was with Turing), but the physicist resisted having his personal story told. Only when Jane Hawking published her memoir “Traveling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen Hawking” did McCarten take heart, stalking her to her door in Cambridge in the hope that he could talk her into letting him adapt a movie. She waited to see his script and it took eight years before she and her children were ready to make the film. For McCarten and filmmaker James Marsh it was crucial that this was a balanced relationship drama with both Hawkings represented equally. Eventually Hawking also opened up and met with the filmmakers and cast, granting permission to read his unpublished autobiography, and use of his iconic mechanical voice. After the first screening, the scientist had tears on his cheeks.

3. Destructive Memes. “The Theory of Everything” was hit with criticism that the film should have included more Great Man science and less kitchen sink drama. “My way into it was to enjoy a strong female character and perspective,” said Marsh. “The illness marks time and puts pressure on that relationship. It isn’t a conventional biopic, as we’re allowed to explore both sides very fully with a female voice. Errol Morris made a great film you can see and engage with (“A Brief History of Time”). Jane is an equally fascinating character, she’s a strong resourceful woman with a sense of how to get things done practically. She enables so much of his scientific career with her emotional support and practical help. I was intrigued by this female character behind the public figure we all knew who made a pretty much unacknowledged contribution to his public life.” 

Both “The Theory of Everything” and “The Imitation Game” were considered more constructed, manipulative mainstream entertainment than some of their rivals. The most destructive assault on “The Imitation Game”– that it neglected to show Turing in the act of having sex with another man– put the filmmakers and actors on the defense from the start. “Well, if it had been deemed appropriate for the greater drama I would have performed any scene,” Cumberbatch told me. “He was an active homosexual. I don’t think the movie lacks anything in a cynical way, like he’s not still a gay man. I say the words ‘touch another man’s penis,’ that’s pretty graphic. Do we have to illustrate sexuality through sex? It’s not so much about sexuality as about his young love, the tragedy is that he never again experiences love in the same way. That was the key to his suicide.”

Turing’s unfulfilled love for Christopher was the key, Tyldum agreed. “His gay identity is the core of everything. That’s what shaped and influenced the rest of his life. A random sex scene felt distracting. At Bletchley Park he was in a sexual desert as a closeted gay man, he was engaged for six months to Joan Clarke. They had an incredibly important deep friendship… People like to nitpick. They want it to be about him being gay. Gay people want more. This did not come from a studio or producer’s wish to make it commercial, it was nothing like that. It didn’t fit the story.”

4. The Accolades. “The Imitation Game” racked up audience awards at Toronto and many other festivals, and went on to score multiple Golden Globe, BAFTA and Guild nominations and eight Oscar nominations including Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Actor, Supporting Actress, Editing, Production Design and Score.

But it didn’t chalked up many wins: while the movie did collect the USC Scripter and WGA awards for Adapted Screenplay (where “Theory” wasn’t eligible), “Birdman” won the SAG Ensemble Award, PGA and DGA, and Redmayne beat out Cumberbatch for Dramatic Actor Globe, SAG and BAFTA awards, where “The Theory of Everything” also took home Best British Film. Shockingly, “The Imitation Game” won not one BAFTA. 

“The Theory of Everything” nabbed five Oscar noms: Picture, Adapted Screenplay, Actor, Actress and Score. Not landing documentary Oscar-winner James Marsh (“Man on Wire”) for director was a significant blow, while Norwegian helmer Tyldum did land a slot for “The Imitation Game.”

5. Likely Wins. “The Imitation Game” won Adapted Screenplay for Moore. McCarten had to settle for the BAFTA –he is well-known and based in London–and “Theory” wasn’t eligible at the WGA. Alexandre Desplat’s score for popular “The Grand Budapest Hotel” was expected to win over his “The Imitation Game.” In the end, voters did not split their Desplat scores and “The Theory of Everything”‘s classical score by Johann Johannson did not slip through. 

Redmayne was the frontrunner for Best Actor, given that most SAG winners do go on to win–as do physically demanding performances with a high degree of difficulty (see Daniel Day Lewis in “My Left Foot”). Finally that’s why he beat out “Birdman”‘s Michael Keaton, who sadly slipped his acceptance speech back into his coat pocket as the jubilant Redmayne skipped up to the stage. 

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