Oscar Moment: “The Ghost Writer”

28 11 2010

Back in June, I wrote a polarizing piece suggesting that “Shutter Island” could be a legitimate player in the Best Picture race.  In the poll, most people thought that was a big pot of croc.  But what if the February release that we should be looking out for is Roman Polanski’s “The Ghost Writer?”

For many of the same reasons “Shutter Island” is being considered, we should consider this movie.  It has the name of high-prestige director on its masthead who has been rewarded by the Academy in the past decade (2002 for “The Pianist”).  It has critical support; both movies received identical BFCA scores of 81.  It is an audience-pleasing thriller that keeps you closely tied into the action until the conclusion.

But unlike “Shutter Island,” there is an aura of controversy surrounding “The Ghost Writer.”  Timed almost simultaneously with the movie’s stateside release was Roman Polanski’s arrest overseas for the statutory rape he fled the United States for decades ago.  The director instantly became a topic of heated conversation.  Should he face justice, or be pardoned after all these years?  No matter what you think, the debate put Polanski into a very present mainstream consciousness.  As Sasha Stone put it in her excellent piece Cinema Paranoia, “there was no room, nor any invitation, to look at ‘The Ghost Writer’ [after the hysteria].”

The Hollywood community flocked to Polanski’s side, and it will be interesting to see where this support goes in Oscar season.  The movie took an unexpected resonance in the face of the controversy, and I think it added a different dimension to the experience.  It certainly brought out a great deal of passion in certain people, and as Guy Lodge of In Contention pondered, “progressive media loyalty to Polanski may have gone into overdrive … [I] wonder whether the director’s band of supporters in the Academy might show up for the film come nomination time — despite its low profile and early release date.”

“The Ghost Writer” has already racked up several impressive feats this year that could bode well for it during the long season ahead.  Back in February, Polanski won Best Director at the Berlin Film Festival.  Over the summer, FIPRESCI, the international critics’ association, named it their best movie of 2010; their previous choices have included art-house favorites “Magnolia” and Best Picture nominee “There Will Be Blood.”  At the beginning of November, it received seven nominations for the European Film Awards, more than any other movie.

It remains to be seen whether these accomplishments or the controversy will amount to anything substantial in terms of Oscars.  What happens in Europe doesn’t necessarily reflect American tastes.  I think if the movie can get some support from critics groups, which isn’t too far-fetched given its 83% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes and 77 on Metacritic, “The Ghost Writer” could gain some significant traction for one of the bottom 5 Best Picture nominations and perhaps even an out-of-nowhere Best Director nomination.  Some have even speculated that Olivia Williams, who plays the wife of the former Prime Minister, could play into the Best Supporting Actress race.  Given the volatile field there, I wouldn’t discount her if the film starts to catch on.

Worth nothing as well: a below-the-line nomination could also be in store for composer Alexandre Desplat, who was recently awarded Composer of the Year at the World Soundtrack Awards.  However, he also has scores in play for “The King’s Speech” and “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” the former of which is probably much more Academy friendly than “The Ghost Writer.”  I haven’t listened to the score from the ultra-baity English flick, but I will say that Desplat’s score was one of my favorite parts of the movie and is very deserving of a nomination.

The general consensus is that this isn’t one of Polanski’s best, but is “not his best” better than “really good” from lesser filmmakers?  We’ll find out.

BEST BETS FOR NOMINATIONS: Best Supporting Actress (Williams), Best Original Score

OTHER POSSIBLE NOMINATIONS: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay