Natalie Portman is entering Oscar season from a surprising direction: Her jarring turn as a loathsome pop star in “Vox Lux,” writer-director Brady Corbet’s dark, unconventional saga about a woman propelled into the media spotlight after a national tragedy, landed one of the Toronto International Film Festival’s biggest sales even as it divided critics and audiences. Chic distributor Neon beat out other offers for the movie in a seven-figure deal almost exactly a year after it picked up “I, Tonya” at TIFF and rushed into awards season with a successful campaign for Alison Janney as Best Supporting Actress. Now, sources say the company has similar plans for Natalie Portman, and will release the movie before the end of the year — but this time, it faces a more crowded field, and dicier odds.
Last September, Neon was an ambitious newcomer to the distribution landscape with a last-minute Oscar contender on its hands. The company spent a reported $5 million on “I, Tonya,” Craig Gillespie’s dark comedic take on the Tonya Harding saga, in the immediate aftermath of its Toronto premiere — and cobbled together an awards campaign before the festival ended. It paid off in three nominations for the movie — Margot Robbie in the Best Actress category for her turn as Harding, a Best Editing nomination, and Janney as Harding’s mother. At the time, Neon was less than a year old, and the company sustained by investment outfit 30West had already launched several edgy titles to solid figures, including Sundance hit “Ingrid Goes West,” which pulled in $2.7 million in limited release.
Neon’s ambition has continued to expand since then. The company bought the subversive teen comedy-thriller “Assassination Nation” out of Sundance for $10 million, marking the biggest deal of the festival for another divisive movie designed to stir up conversations about America’s destructive media obsessions, in this case through a group of young women targeted by online trolls and forced to fight for their lives. That movie, which is screening in TIFF’s Midnight Madness section and opens September 21, reflects the company’s aggressive interest in cracking the millennial-focused market dominated by A24. “Vox Lux,” which Corbet dubs “a 21st-century portrait” in the end credits, falls into a similar category with more highbrow ambitions.
The movie, which begins in the late ‘90s and careens through 9/11 as the pop star’s loss of innocence comes to embody the national mood, suggests aspects of the unsettling allegorical storytelling found in Lars Von Trier’s movies (Corbet, originally an actor, appeared in Von Trier’s “Melancholia”), while Portman’s unnerving turn has generated instant recollections of her ambitious role as a disturbed ballerina in “Black Swan,” which scored her a Best Actress win seven years ago. “Vox Lux” finds the actress returning to similar territory on several fronts: The climax of the movie once again revolves around a dramatic stage performance under bright lights and flamboyant costumes. As Celeste, Portman’s dance moves were choreographed by her husband Benjamin Millepied, and the pair re-teamed for the new role, which was modeled on several pop stars’ moves. Portman also did all her own singing for the role.
If Portman remains in the conversation throughout the season, the campaign will harken back to Sony Pictures Classics’ last-minute TIFF deal for “Still Alice” in 2014, which ultimately scored Julianne Moore a Best Actress Oscar. This year, however, the field is already crowded, with buzz centering on Lady Gaga for Warner Bros.’ “A Star is Born,” Olivia Colman in Fox Searchlight entry “The Favourite” (the Venice and Telluride hit skipped TIFF and will open New York Film Festival), and Melissa McCarthy as a literary forger in “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”, also from Searchlight.
Other contenders include two from Annapurna Pictures: Nicole Kidman in a similarly disturbing turn as a no-nonsense L.A. detective in Karyn Kusama’s “Destroyer” and newcomer KiKi Layne in Barry Jenkins’ “If Beale Street Could Talk.” A24, which won one of its first Oscars for Brie Larson in “Room” in 2015, is not expected to be a big player this fall — but the company is planning a best actress campaign for Toni Collette in horror sensation “Hereditary,” which garnered $78 million worldwide earlier this year. And they’re gauging positive TIFF reaction to Julianne Moore’s performance in Sebastian Leilo’s English language remake “Gloria Bell.” (So far they’re keeping it in 2019.)
As for “Vox Lux,” it remains unclear in which category Neon will submit the actress, since Portman doesn’t even surface in the movie until the halfway mark; the teen version of her character is played by Raffey Cassidy. The surprising newcomer remains onscreen in the second half to play her own daughter, in tense scenes with Portman’s character that underscore an ongoing cycle of estrangement. Last seen in Yorgos Lanthimos’ similarly disturbing and otherworldly “The Killing of a Sacred Deer,” Cassidy herself may be an awards candidate if the movie gains significant traction among younger voters, though it will continue to alienate audiences with more conservative sensibilities. Of course, that could be a blessing in disguise — whipping up controversy could mean free publicity.
“Vox Lux” is also bound to generate further conversations this fall around its opening sequence, a high school shooting that propels Celeste into sudden fame when the teen performs at a televised memorial service. That queasy hook scared off some buyers from the outset, with some wondering how the movie could even be released if a shooting took place around its opening date.
Regardless of how the “Vox Lux” campaign comes together, it will make for another unconventional awards movie on Neon’s docket this season. The company is already campaigning for “Border,” the so-called “troll sex” movie that won the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes in May. Iranian-born filmmaker Ali Abbasi’s imaginative fairy tale was a surprise hit out of that festival, and later became the Swedish Oscar submission, screening at Telluride and TIFF this fall.
The company will next screen that movie at Austin’s Fantastic Fest, with an awards push planned not only for the foreign-language category but for its complex prosthetic makeup. 30West/Neon also has another TIFF 2018 acquisition, musical “Wild Rose,” starring breakout Jessie Buckley, and is releasing Sundance carryover “Monsters and Men,” Reinaldo Marcus Green’s tough ensemble piece about police brutality. Over the summer, the company released Sundance acquisition “Three Identical Strangers,” the conspiratorial documentary about triplets separated at birth, which grossed over $11 million at the box office and is considered a significant contender in the Best Documentary race.
The “Vox Lux” pickup marks the latest update in a rather surprising set of acquisitions this fall. Focus Features bought Neil Jordan’s campy Isabelle Huppert vehicle “Greta” early in the festival, while WellGo USA spent a reported $2 million on cheap sci-fi thriller “Freaks.” Magnolia Pictures picked up the documentary “Divide and Conquer: The Story Of Roger Ailes” as well as the futuristic Swedish space drama “Aniara.”