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Critic's Notebook: Passion projects pay off at Golden Globes and at box office

In movieland, passion plus quality can pay, as this year's crop of award contenders proves.

January 18, 2011|By Betsy Sharkey, Los Angeles Times Film Critic
  • Christian Bale as Dicky Eklund and Mark Wahlberg as Micky Ward star in "The Fighter."
Christian Bale as Dicky Eklund and Mark Wahlberg as Micky Ward star in "The… (JoJo Whilden, Fighter,…)

What struck me in watching the Golden Globes on Sunday night — other than wondering whether the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. had actually meant to ask that other British comic to host, you know, the brilliant one? Eddie Izzard? — was that in film, the results, while predictable, turned out to also be quite hopeful.

Golden Globes: A critic's notebook on the Golden Globes in the Jan. 18 Calendar, about how passion and quality can pay off in the movie business, described "Barney's Version" as "a $3-million adaptation of Mordecai Richler's acerbic novel and largely backed by Canadian interests." In fact, the budget was $30 million. —

Beyond the glitter and glam, the winners en masse represented cinema's true soul — that idealized one in which passion and art really do trump payoff when critical decisions are being made.

There are always the under-funded, indie exceptions; last year's major one was "The Hurt Locker." But this year, it's becoming the dominant trend as one Hollywood guild after another, one critic's group after another, announces their chosen ones. The traction is such that the passion projects are sure to define next Tuesday's Oscar nominations as well.

Since the relative value of movies is so often tied to money, consider this: With the exception of "Toy Story 3," which was both excellent and expensive at around $200 million, the Globes winners were all cases of great ambition, extraordinary craft and relatively little financial means. While this creative collective wasn't financed by mom and dad's credit cards, several came close. The kicker, and what gives me hope for the future, is that the films have all paid off at the box office as well (studio execs, please take note).

Here's the basic math: The six films that took every one of the top categories (again, animation excepted) cost about $100 million combined to make. Let's begin with "The Kids Are All Right" — with a $4-million budget, this independently financed project about what binds a family took the comedy category and Annette Bening won lead actress/comedy.

"The Fighter" had a $25-million budget and years of actor Mark Wahlberg's unflagging devotion, with Christian Bale and Melissa Leo snagging the supporting actor wins for their performances in this uplifting but edgy boxing saga. "Black Swan," at $13 million and loosely tied to a conversation between a director and a star a decade ago about a shared love of the world of ballet, brought a lead dramatic actress win for Natalie Portman.

Meanwhile, "The King's Speech," with $12 million to tell its story of how a friendship changed history, and in part funded by a British film group that presenter Helen Mirren lamented no longer exists, won Colin Firth a Globe for lead actor in a drama. The surprise of "Barney's Version," a $3-million adaptation of Mordecai Richler's acerbic novel and largely backed by Canadian interests, brought a lead actor in a comedy win for Paul Giamatti.

And on the high end, a still modest $40 million was spent on "The Social Network" to capture the beginnings of a cultural juggernaut. That film, which comes closest to being a product of the studio system, took home four wins including best drama, director and screenwriter.

The message is a simple one: Passion plus quality can pay. By making film personal again, the invention of an artistic vision rather than a pile of studio notes and marketing concerns, there is at least the chance that the result will be distinctive, memorable, possibly even a classic. That sense of sacrifice to ensure quality ran like a current through the night's emotional acceptance speeches. Or as "The Social Network" screenwriter Aaron Sorkin put it, elite (as in smart) is not a dirty word.

Hollywood was once a place that recognized the power of a singular vision, where true auteurs were nurtured, their voices heard, their opinions carried weight. What, I wonder, are the industry powerbrokers doing to ensure the art form is truly advancing? What sort of future are the giants with the deep pockets investing in?

I'm not advocating that we lose the popcorn thrillers, the Milk Dud comedies, the blockbusters and the rest — life wouldn't be the same without them. But merely that we take serious note of the current crop of critical darlings, the ones whose praises everyone will be singing for the next few months. Their success would argue for a future that seeks out and supports more of the voices that sound different, that are often prickly and difficult, that resist easy compromise. Their success would attest to the idea that with great risk there can be great reward. A different, but perhaps better, bottom line.

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