“Call Me by Your Name” opened Thanksgiving weekend with stellar reviews and the best limited release numbers of 2017. Sony Pictures Classics acquired the elegiac romantic drama in 2016, and with a finished movie by summer’s end, screened it for Sundance programmers who immediately wanted the film in its lineup.
Now, “Call Me by Your Name” has become a consensus favorite among critics and audiences. It’s simple yet sophisticated, an escapist summer fantasy that feels authentic, and a lovely romance between 17-year-old Elio (Timothée Chalamet) and his professor father’s 24-year-old grad student Oliver (Armie Hammer). And it’s that rare four-quadrant specialty hit: embraced by straights and gays, women and men, young and old.
As classics scholars, Professor Perlman (Michael Stuhlbarg) and Oliver explore the eroticism of Greek statues and fine art; Perlman admires the Grecian ideal of love between two men; he wishes he had experienced what Elio and Oliver share that summer. We don’t know where they will go from here. Their Great Love is preserved in amber. (In the original novel, Oliver winds up with a wife and family.)
This is one reason why so many moviegoers are able to comfortably identify with this gay romance, in which director Luca Guadagnino steers clear of any explicit sex (partly in order to cast his two actors). When the young men finally fall into bed for lovemaking, the camera discreetly pans out the window. Guadagnino is already pondering a follow-up. “Clearly, particularly because this is a first love,” he said, “it goes back to the ideal more than to the practical. It’s interesting to think about what’s going to happen next to these people and their desires. We won’t know until we see the sequels.”
“Call Me by Your Name” led the Independent Spirit Awards nominations, and it has three at Monday’s Gotham Awards including Best Feature, Best Screenplay, and Breakthrough Actor. Here’s why it’s possible the film could see a similar — or better — performance with the Oscar nominations in January.
Photo by Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
1. Best Adapted Screenplay
Producing partners Howard Rosenman and Peter Spears (“John from Cincinnati”) spent a decade developing an adaptation of the 2007 André Aciman novel, with input from director James Ivory (“Howards End”). They called Guadagnino (“A Bigger Splash”) to help them make the movie happen in Italy (it was eventually shot in the director’s Northern hometown of Crema). “James Ivory was part of the team of people pushing to make it happen,” Guadagnino said. “We started making the script at his house in the countryside, moonlighting, not as a job, but for the pleasure of being together in Crema at my kitchen table, and sometimes in New York.”
A year later they had a script, which chopped off the novel’s years-later coda, kept the sex off camera, and moved the setting back from 1988 to 1983. “The novel is told from the voice of Elio and his perspective. You listen to his voice 25 years after the events,” said Guadagnino. “We decided, ‘It’s about now, it’s a third-person point of view.’ I felt it was the last summer we could carry the witness of the powerful freedom of the ’70s, before the deluge of Ronald Reagan.”
Also, the swan song of the punk era permitted him to use The Psychedelic Furs — and sure enough, Hammer’s loopy dance improv went viral on YouTube.
Sony Picture Classics
While the idea of Ivory co-directing with Guadagnino didn’t happen, the project took off after Guadagnino agreed to direct solo. But Ivory stuck around to provide counsel. ’’This movie is blessed by the gods of cinema,” said Guadagnino, who — once he met with Manhattan theater and film actor Timothée Chalamet (“Lady Bird”), at the behest of his UTA agent Brian Swardstrom, never let him go.
2. Best Actor
While the bilingual Chalamet was raised in the New York performing arts world by an American mother and French father, he did have to learn Italian, brush up his piano skills, and learn the guitar. “I studied with a brilliant piano player about hour and half every day,” said Chalamet. “I lived in an apartment underneath Luca’s villa. Armie came out three weeks after I was in Italy. There was a huge pounding on the door, he came in, gave me a bear hug and we were off from there.”
How hard was it to fall in love with Hammer? “Very easy,” said Chalamet. “I never felt anxiety, I never felt I was being too big or not truthful. I was able to try things and if they didn’t work, knew that Luca would call it out. I was safe, knowing he’d push me in the right direction.”
In the last shot over the film’s credits, Guadagnino holds, and holds, on Elio in a devastating closeup. “You see a lot of things happening in his face in the last shot,” he said. “He conveys everything that happens in his soul in that moment.”
For Chalamet, “you can’t do that believably outside the realm of your own experience,” he said. “We had been shooting with one lens, not a ton of setups. One lost the sensation of the camera. There was not a huge video village, not 25 people watching every take. You had the ability to lose oneself. Luca asked for three ‘dry,’ one a little ‘wet,’ and a little more ‘wet.’ He chose the middle one.”
3. Best Director
Guadagnino moved the story’s setting from the seaside to Crema. “It seemed right,” said Stuhlbarg, who plays Elio’s erudite, embracing father. “It was a character in the film as well.”
For two days at the start, Guadagnino sat down with the cast to read through the script. Stuhlbarg was taken with “Luca’s idea of how he wanted to tell his story, with a great spirit of lightness and humor and buoyancy and fun,” he said. “If you look at the text on the page, it could be taken as onerous, heavy, or sullen in places. I loved his ideas about it being one of those utopian versions of one of those summers you had when, if you were lucky in life, you meet somebody special or fall in love for the first time, or discover something about yourself that is pivotal and true to yourself. That’s where it started, this great sense of laughter and light and love and an immediate affinity with the people I got to play with. Luca knew what he was looking for.”
4. Best Supporting Actor
The scene that locks in Stuhlbarg’s Oscar candidacy is a simple one: A concerned father and weepy son sit on the couch in Professor Perlman’s book-lined study. However, the actor’s performance — with an extensive monologue that reveals a father’s insight as well as longing for what might have been — transcends its setting.
“We had a great ‘lighthouse’ in the book by Aciman,” said Giadagnino. “That scene in particular is almost word by word what was in the book. That scene was happening at the end of the film and the shoot; there was a gravitas coming together. We tailored it when we rewrote in the editing room.”
Guadagnino shot the film in chronological order, so Stuhlbarg was able to watch what his movie son went through right up to his payoff scene. “I had a number of weeks in a row to watch Timothée and Armie get to know each other, get to know each other’s fears,” said Stuhlbarg. “When it came time for that scene to be shot, I had a lot of time to be inspired by what they had been doing, how brave and game they were to tell this beautiful story. As my relationship with them grew over time, getting to say what I got to say became richer as I lived with it and worked on it alone. [The character] says a lot of beautiful things; one in particular resonates: ‘What a shame it is for us as we get older to push away the feelings and experiences we have.’ He’s encouraging his son not to do that, to feel what you’re going through right now. It’s a beautiful sentiment: what a shame it would be to ignore what your feelings are.”
Armie Hammer is also being talked up for a first Supporting Actor nod, as he seemingly effortlessly embodies Oliver and modulates the ins and outs of his relationship with the younger Elio. Hammer has done superb work in “The Social Network” and “J. Edgar,” along with more forgettable studio commercial fare like “The Lone Ranger.” The Academy is more likely to lean into older theater thespian Stuhlbarg for a career prize, after such films as “A Serious Man,” “Trumbo,” and “Steve Jobs” as well as lauded TV series “Fargo” and “Boardwalk Empire.” (This season he also costars in “The Shape of Water” and “The Post.”)
“Call Me by Your Name” is so popular, it’s possible both men could both land nods. In any case, SPC will not miss a trick as they woo voters.
5. Best Original Song
Guadagnino gets bored by movies with voiceover, so he kept trying to find movies where the device worked, along the lines of “Barry Lyndon,” “The Magnificent Ambersons,” or “The Age of Innocence.”
“I kept thinking, maybe we need a voice that functions as a sort of emotional narrator to the film, so I thought of music,” said Guadagnino. “It is less heavy, less present, and more enveloping than a voice and text. The music in the movie in general is coherent with the characters, a lot of piano music and songs off the radio. We needed something that comes from a distance for a story set in the ’80s.”
Finally, he approached Sufjan Stevens to write one song. A week into production, the singer-songwriter emailed the director with one adapted song and two originals. “Mystery of Love” is the Oscar shoo-in. “Sufjan is such a beautiful writer of songs,” said Guadagnino. “He has beautiful lyrics, very pure music, his voice is so evocative.”
The soundtrack also includes music by Ryuichi Sakamoto, Giorgio Moroder and John Adams, along with other classical compositions.
6. Best Editing
Guadagnino has a flair for capturing intimate moments and letting them play out, for listening to buzzing insects and building atmosphere. Even Elio’s memorably erotic peach scene, which almost made the cutting-room floor, takes its time. The final edit came in at two hours, 10 minutes.
“It was a constant conversation between me and my editor [Walter Fasano],” said the director. “I do movies based on the behavior of the characters. To see the interactions between people takes time and attention to what they do and why, more than being driven by the drama of the text. We had many scenes we removed from the movie and ended up at 130 minutes, and we felt satisfied there.”
7. Best Picture
Add these all up — plus an outside shot at cinematography for Indie Spirit nominee Sayombhu Mukdeeprom in a very competitive category — and the movie is a robust Best Picture contender with plenty of support from both the mainstream branches and the crafts, and enough strength to be a threat to win.