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Which Stars Came Out Ahead at Cannes? Who Should Have Stayed Home? From Pitt, Kidman & Mikkelsen to Hardy, Cotillard, Pattinson & Stewart

Which Stars Came Out Ahead at Cannes? Who Should Have Stayed Home? From Pitt, Kidman & Mikkelsen to Hardy, Cotillard, Pattinson & Stewart

Cannes can have a huge impact on careers–as the world media watches. That walk up the red carpet can be dazzling for talent, but boos and reviews can be deadly, too. Ask Lee Daniels, who had to pull out the race card to explain the devastating pans for “The Paperboy,” which Avi Lerner’s Millennium may wind up releasing itself.

Cannes 2012 also highlighted the brutal truth faced by Hollywood talent these days. Actors are on their own if they want to carve out a real career. They can’t rely on the studios to supply them with decent roles to showcase their skills. No, they have to pick and choose indie projects–often assembled by agencies such as CAA– for little pay. “These are what you call art films,” Murray memorably quipped at the “Moonrise Kingdom” press conference. “All we get is a trip to Cannes.” Yet Murray and the rest of Wes Anderson’s goofy ensemble came out ahead by taking that deal.

But do these actors have any choice? Their names can get better mid-budget dramas financed, the kind that can win Oscars. But often without strong producers steering the ship, indie projects get lost in the weeds. “The Paperboy” is a classic case of a follow-up to a major Oscar-winning hit (“Precious”) that pushed everyone to take a risk. That didn’t pay off.

So who came out ahead? And who wishes they hadn’t showed up?

Brad Pitt: He may be seeking an Oscar, but Weinstein Co’s hardboiled gangster flick “Killing Them Softly” is no “The Tree of Life” or “Moneyball.” The star is true-blue loyal to Down Under director Andrew Dominik (“The Assassination of Jesse James”), but watching Pitt maneuver the tricky politics of the “Killing Them Softly” Cannes press conference was painful. On the one hand he didn’t want to espouse the cynical “America isn’t a country, it’s a business” politics of the film, and admitted that he was proud of his country while still a Left-leaning Liberal. On the other, he said he admired Thomas Jefferson as a thinker and architect, who the film dumps on for owning slaves. Roger Ebert’s wife Chaz then challenged Pitt as to whether he admired the architecture of Jefferson’s slave quarters? Pitt dodged the question by saying that he followed the script, and later went out of his way to say that while he had no trouble playing a gangster assassin in this film, he might have trouble playing a racist. Not one of Pitt’s better days–but more people will remember images of Pitt waving from the Palais steps and his quote about no set date for his and Angelina Jolie’s marriage than anything else.

At the top of the Hollywood food chain, Pitt has many other fish to fry: he stars in Marc Forster’s zombie epic “World War Z” (June 2013), and the currently-filming third feature from Steve McQueen (“Twelve Years a Slave,” opposite Michael Fassbender), is more likely to provide him an Oscar vehicle.

Mads Mikkelsen: The Danish star of “After the Wedding,” “Casino Royale” and “Valhalla Rising” won the Best Actor prize for Thomas Vinterberg’s “The Hunt.” He plays a sad-sack divorced kindergarten teacher who is accused of pedophilia and suffers the tortures of losing his friends and being shunned by his community. Mikkelsen is sensitive and brilliant as a passive decent reactive man who is forced to fight back–and become a man. Remember that awful “Clash of the Titans”? Mikkelsen was one of the few actors who emerged unscathed. He’s high-cheek-boned and gorgeous, has an action star’s physique, can be dangerous, sexy or vulnerable. More roles will come to him now: he can do anything, villain, lover or hero–even if this movie, which appears on the surface to be a movie-of-the-week but delves into much more unsettling issues about witch hunts, friendship and loyalty– disappears stateside. Not if Magnolia can help it; the distributor grabbed the movie after his win.

Nicole Kidman: While Lee Daniels’ low-budget “The Paperboy” did not play as well as the actress might have hoped, she delivers a memorable turn as a boldy sexual woman infatuated with incarcerated killer John Cusack (also chillingly excellent). Daniels draws great performances out of his actors, that’s not the issue–but the movie itself is as chaotic and messy as its swampy setting. Daniels added homosexuality to McConnaughey’s character, turns the housekeeper (Macy Gray) into the narrator, and cast David Oyelowo  as a fish-out-of-water journalist who was written in the original novel as white. At the press conference Kidman admitted that when she commits to a role she goes all the way, and in this case stayed in character on set. She created her own hair and makeup and assembled her provocative wardrobe out of her own closet. She’s a trooper.

But while Kidman looked classy and glam on the red carpet, the film did not serve to counteract such recent duds as “Just Go With It” and “Trespass.” She fared better in her second Cannes film, Philip Kaufman’s HBO biopic “Hemingway & Gellhorn,” opposite Clive Owen. And still to come is the role of Grace Kelly in Olivier Dahan’s “Grace of Monaco.”

Matthew McConaughey: On the comeback trail after William Friedkin’s “Killer Joe” (SXSW), Richard Linklater’s “Bernie” and “The Lincoln Lawyer,” McConnaughey’s two films playing Cannes–Daniels’ “The Paperboy” and Jeff Nichols’ “Mud”–proved to be let-downs for most critics, although he emerged unscathed. Next up is Steven Soderbergh’s “Magic Mike” (June 29) and a cable series with chum Woody Harrelson. At least McConnaughey has drunk the indie Kool-Aid and turned skeptical about studio fare.

Zac Efron:  “The Paperboy” did not do much to help Efron, 24, shed his light pretty boy image, as openly gay Daniels lavished long lingering shots on his often naked physique. Still to come is Josh Radnor’s Sundance pick-up “Liberal Arts,” in which he stars with Elizabeth Olsen, Richard Jenkins and Allison Janney.

Tom Hardy: While “Warrior” proved that Hardy (“Bronson,” “Inception,” “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”) is not yet a marquee draw, the resourceful Brit’s time will come. He dominates John Hillcoat and Nick Cave’s southern gothic “Lawless” as a ruthless and powerful Prohibition era rural Virginia bootlegger who looks out for his family and their moonshine business and yet is utterly incapable of dealing with a powerful city woman (Jessica Chastain) who applies for a job at his tavern. While he was inarticulate at the press conference, doing press at Cannes boosted both his and the film’s international profile. (When I turned up at the press suite at the Martinez, he ran over and gave me a bear hug. Could have knocked me over. I wasn’t even interviewing him! I had to settle for Hillcoat and Cave.)

Coming up is Hardy’s return to working with Christopher Nolan (as villain Bane) in summer tentpole “The Dark Knight Rises.” And down the road is the still-in-the-works “Mad Max” reboot. Hardy is also linked to a biker project and may play Al Capone in “Cicero.”

Shia LaBeouf: Trying to transition to more mature roles, LaBeouf had come to Cannes before with “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” and “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.” This time he held his own opposite Hardy, Gary Oldman and Mia Wasikowska in “Lawless,” but the film–while a huge step up from “Transformers” territory– didn’t give him a real boost on the acting side. He’s still a young charmer mooning over a girl and afraid to grow up. Next up: Robert Redford’s “The Company You Keep” (alongside Redford, Julie Christie, Sam Elliot, Richard Jenkins, Anna Kendrick and Terrence Howard).

Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson, with Cannes competition entries from Walter Salles (“On the Road”) and David Cronenberg (“Cosmopolis”) respectively, both proved their acting skills outside of the “Twilight” franchise. Yes they were top-draws on the red carpet, but both earned respectful if not rave reviews. Stewart was earthily sexy in “On the Road,” in a way we have not seen her before, while Pattinson nabbed praise for playing a cold and unlikeable Wall Street master of the universe. Both came out ahead and earned needed gravitas by coming to Cannes starring in films by notable directors.

Garrett Hedlund waited for years for “On the Road” to get made in the hopes that this would be his star-making role. In the meantime he shot “Tron: Legacy” and “Country strong,” but playing the juicy role of Dean Moriarty was supposed to be his breakout. As strong as Hedlund is in the film–he feels right in the role–the reviews weren’t unanimous raves. And Sam Riley (“Control”) as writer Sal Paradise has the thankless passive observer writer role. Both young actors raised their profiles in an admirably serious Cannes entry. But they still have miles to go before hitting their stride as movie stars.

Jean Louis Trintgnant and Emmanuelle Riva: While they did not win best actor or actress for their moving roles in Michael Haneke’s Palme d’Or-winning “Amour,” playing a loving couple at the end of their lives, the competition jury did cite their huge contribution to the film. Sony Pictures Classics knows well that senior Academy members will recall these iconic French stars with affection. Will the film be too close to the bone for Oscar voters? An Austrian submission and likely foreign nomination are achievable, but whether SPC can push for bigger major nominations with an intimate two-hander — picture, director, actor and actress– is the question. It depends on the competition, of course, and how well it does at the box office (they’re opening December 19 at the height of Oscar season). Foreign films rarely make it to major categories. “The Artist” was French, but its silence was golden.

Marion Cotillard: This world-class Oscar-winner delivers yet another award-worthy performance as a depressed whale trainer who loses her legs in a terrible accident in Jacques Audiard’s follow-up to “A Prophet,””Rust and Bone.” “Bullhead” star Matthias Schoenaerts is heartbreaking as an incommunicative, powerful muscle man who knows how to fight but has no handle on his emotions. The man and the woman help each other to survive and grow up emotionally.

This strong, powerful, disturbing film didn’t play well across the board–failing to earn any Cannes prizes– and will prove a commercial challenge for Sony Pictures Classics. Cotillard lost Best Actress to the young unknowns in Cristian Mungiu’s “Beyond the Hills.” Schoenaerts stars in the upcoming “Blood Ties” remake from Guillaume Canet. And Cotillard joins Hardy in “The Dark Knight Rises” (she also has James Gray’s “Lowlife” upcoming).

Gael Garcia Bernal: This fine Mexican actor has shined in movies by Michel Gondry (“The Science of Sleep”), Walter Salles (“The Motorcycle Diaries”), Pedro Almodovar (“A Bad Education”) and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (“Amores Perros”). In Pablo Larrain’s “No” he dons a Chilean accent playing a brilliant ad executive who pushes through the 1988  “No” campaign to oust Chilean dictator Pinochet from power. London-educated Garcia Bernal is handsome and gifted and speaks fluent English; he could have an even better career than Antonio Banderas–but as he says in this interview, “it’s not like I have to choose between amazing projects.” He and his “Y Tu Mama Tambien” costar Diego Luna’s Canana Films has already produced 19 films, including the terrifying “Miss Bala.”

Quvenzane Wallis: One of the hits of Cannes was Benh Zeitlin’s Sundance jury prize-winner “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” which won the Camera d’Or. At Fox Searchlight’s beach party for the film, young Quvenzane Wallis easily charmed the guests, and could be a longshot to score a Best Actress Oscar slot.

Chris O’Dowd: Yes this lanky Irishman is funny, as we already found out in “Bridesmaids” and “Friends with Kids.” But in the Aussie musical comedy “The Sapphires,” based on the stage play, we discover that he’s leading man material. While Harvey Weinstein overhyped this last-minute pick-up in Cannes, comparing it to “The Artist,” this rollicking musical biopic is quite satisfying. Not high art by any means, Wayne Blair’s film brings depth and authenticity. As a hard-drinking manager who teams up with Aboriginal girl group The Sapphires, teaching them how to sing soul instead of country, and shepherding them on a tour of Vietnam, falling for prickly lead singer (Deb Mailman) in the process, O’Dowd is especially strong.

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