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Entertainment & Arts

Oscar nominations race to pit power players against underdogs

Imagine, if you will, a Hollywood version of fantasy football pitting the likes of Margaret Thatcher, J. Edgar Hoover, Marilyn Monroe and F. Scott Fitzgerald in a head-to-head battle with, well, a bunch of nobodies.

Daunting, to say the least. Yet these powerful, iconic, often historical figures are likely to be doing just that this film award season, in a competition that squares them off against such characters as a nebbishy lawyer and an illegal immigrant gardener.

It seems evident from the start just who will come out on top: Anecdotally, audiences and voters seem to naturally gravitate toward big-screen portrayals of the powerful, the movers and the shakers, and celebrity types. Last year, both groups were moved to put “The King’s Speech” up on top at the Academy Awards and at the box office, with a $427.3-million worldwide gross.

“‘King’s Speech’ was a double-whammy,” says Chris Weitz, director of “A Better Life,” which features a man on the lower end of the totem pole — that gardener just mentioned (played by Mexican actor Demián Bichir, who did just pull in a SAG lead actor nomination last week, so perhaps the tide is shifting). “Grand stuff with lovely vistas, nice rooms for people to walk through and big historical events, and a guy who’s at a disadvantage. That, as well as Colin [Firth’s] amazing performance. You may ask why did he win for that and not ‘A Single Man’ [the year before]. Well, it has something to do with scale.”

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There are a number of factors that go into the desire to watch the powerful strut their stuff on the screen; Abi Morgan, screenwriter of “The Iron Lady” (the Thatcher story), says there’s a voyeuristic appeal on some levels. “It’s fascinating to see any historical or public figure off-camera, when they don’t know they’re being watched,” she says. “A good film gives us the sense that we’re seeing someone we think we know behind the scenes.”

Actors leap at these kinds of roles too, says “J. Edgar” screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (who won a 2009 Oscar for “Milk,” about another kind of powerful historical figure), because the roles tend to emphasize character over extensive plot: “Any big biopics or stories about great men or great women focus on character rather than story,” he says. “It allows the actor to get incredibly specific — there’s a focus on them that they don’t get in fictional pieces.”

Does that mean the little guy (or girl) in a film that features an original character in ordinary situations has no chance this time? There’s no clear trend: Just two Oscars have gone to films focusing on powerful or real-life individuals since 2000 (“A Beautiful Mind” and “King’s Speech”), while the “little guy” pops up in such winners as “Slumdog Millionaire,” “Crash” and “American Beauty” in recent years. Actors fare about the same — for every “Speech” (Firth) or “Capote” (Philip Seymour Hoffman) biographical performance winner there’s a “Crazy Heart” (Jeff Bridges) and “There Will Be Blood” (Daniel Day-Lewis) fictional role that is honored; actresses do slightly better proportionately in recent years when playing famous or powerful figures, such as “The Queen” (Helen Mirren) and “La Vie en Rose” (Marion Cotillard portraying singer Edith Piaf).

One advantage the little, powerless guy may have this year could come from the headlines, which have made much of the 1% versus the 99% in tough economic times. In this climate, it would seem the doors may widen for an undocumented gardener, the “invisible man in America,” as Weitz puts it — or even for Paul Giamatti’s underdog lawyer in “Win Win.”

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“I think the little guys have a fighting chance more and more,” says “Win” director-writer Thomas McCarthy. “Who are the 99%? What are their stories? But the question now is does anyone want to see them?”

Still, films about the big guys come with advantages that are hard to overcome with sheer earnest storytelling. “My Week With Marilyn” director Simon Curtis says, “Audiences come with expectations to films [like “Marilyn”], feeling they’ve already done the first bit of work by knowing the history behind some of these stories.”

Such a shortcut, hazards Morgan, is actually a potential problem: “People can think they ‘own’ a historical character. You have to be able to allow someone [else] to unpack those assumptions for a while.”

But Letty Aronson, producer of “Midnight in Paris” — which features a bevy of famous literary and artistic greats — points out one reason that could make the whole 99% factor irrelevant: “The people who vote are the 1%,” she says with a chuckle. “People are usually attracted to something they identify with in their own lives.”

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Next year may be different, says Black. “We’re probably lagging behind just a touch; films next year may speak to those issues. But in troubled economic times like these, people are looking for people to grab the reins and create order. Right now, it’s about escapism and finding something larger than us.”

Either way, whatever films end up in the Oscar nomination hopper, they all have a common theme: Finding the big person in the little guy’s story, or the little guy in the big person’s history. Regardless of what history — powerful or insignificant — is being told, a script without that layering isn’t likely to move voters or audiences.

“We’re always going to be interested in the little guy because the little guy is us,” Morgan says. “If you can’t find the little guy in the powerful figure, there’s no point in writing. You have to find some basic human connection. That’s what we’re looking for in a film — everything else is marketing really.”

calendar@latimes.com


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