The Chastain Perfecta: Mama and Zero Score While Arnold Stands Down

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Universal Pictures

Two veteran box-office bruisers, Mark Wahlberg and Arnold Schwarzenegger, backed by their Oscar-winning cohorts Russell Crowe and Forest Whitaker, stormed North American movie theaters this weekend. Yet when the smoke cleared, the sheriff of the Martin Luther King holiday was a pale, thin actress virtually unknown two years ago. Jessica Chastain held the top two spots with the PG-rated ghost story Mama, which earned $33 million over the four-day weekend, and her holdover hit Zero Dark Thirty, which took in $18.7 million, according to preliminary studio estimates. Wahlberg’s urban-crime drama Broken City finished out of the top five for the full four days, and Schwarzenegger’s comeback action epic The Last Stand barely made the top 10.

[UPDATE: According to the final four-day figures, released Tuesday, Mama earned $32.1 million, 3% below the estimate but still a total any mother could be proud of. Broken City squeaked into fifth place, its $9.55 million overcoming the actual $9.47 million for A Haunted House. The other movies in the top 10 finished within $250,000 of their Monday predictions.]

With the Mama-Zero parlay, Chastain achieved a rare Perfecta — or, as horse-racing aficionados will tell you, a Quiniella, if you didn’t bet on the order of her films’ finish. Few performers, especially those in Oscar-nominated movies, have occupied both top slots on a box-office weekend. For a similar one-two punch, Tom Brueggemann of the Thompson on Hollywood blog goes back nearly 15 years, to the weekend of March 13-15, 1998, when Leonardo DiCaprio in Titanic (a winner in its 13th week!) narrowly edged DiCaprio in The Man in the Iron Mask; but the actor was not Oscar-nominated for either film.

(READ: Lily Rothman’s Q&A with Zero Dark Thirty star Jessica Chastain)

Skeptics may argue that Chastain, a Best-Actress finalist for Zero Dark Thirty, was not the prime lure for audiences in that hunt-for-bin-Laden docudrama; and that Mama was sold on the horror-film premise of children in mortal peril, not on its leading lady’s questionable level of star quality. But give Chastain and the movie’s marketers some credit: Mama far outpaced the similarly themed The Woman in Black, which starred Harry Potter’s Daniel Radcliffe; it opened at $20.9 million on Super Bowl weekend last year and $22.1 million for its first four days.

(READ: Corliss’s review of The Woman in Black)

Shaped and shepherded by executive producer Guillermo Del Toto (Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy), Mama is the only picture in this weekend’s top seven grossers not rated R, and the only new movie not aimed at really old people — i.e., those old enough to care about knotty political thrillers, or to know who Arnold Schwarzenegger was. The favorably-reviewed movie (read Mary Pols’ review of Mama) attracted its core demographic of 61% female, 64% under the age of 25, which handed it a B-minus rating in the CinemaScore poll of early attendees. That’s a mediocre grade, but since Mama cost just $15 million to produce, and a relative pittance to promote, it’s already close to profit status after one weekend.

Chastain wasn’t the only young woman to manhandle the musclemen. Jennifer Lawrence, who beat out Chastain for the Golden Globe Best Actress award a week ago, took third place at the box office with Silver Linings Playbook, which in its tenth week finally achieved a full release in 1,523 theaters and cadged $13 million. As of today, Silver Linings and Zero Dark Thirty have each earned about $57 million, though ZDT pulled in all but $5.5 million of that since it went wide 10 days ago. The movie is now director Kathryn Bigelow‘s most substantial domestic hit (not factoring inflation), beating the $43.2 million for Point Break in 1991.

(READ: Corliss’s review of Silver Linings Playbook)

The sassy Lawrence, who at the Globes marveled, “I can say I beat Meryl Streep,” semi-amusingly “served” her new Best Actress rival as guest host of this weekend’s Saturday Night Live: “Jessica Chastain? More like ‘Jessica Chas-ain’t-winning-no-Oscar-on-my-watch’!” We’ll wait till Feb, 24, Oscar Night, to see if the Motion Picture Academy shares Lawrence’s impudent sense of humor.

Girl fights aside, pickin’s were slim in the top 10. Broken City, pitting ex-cop Wahlberg against manipulative New York City Mayor Crowe, is a more cynical view of urban corruption than last week’s Gangster Squad, which sent a vigilante force of L.A. cops to break the stranglehold of crime boss Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn, another Oscar winner in a bad-guy role). The Hollywood version won, as Gangster Squad’s four-day haul of $10.3 million, in its second weekend, beat Broken City’s debut number of $9.5 million. That figure was well below industry forecasts of $15-17 million, and barely a third of the $24.3 million Wahlberg amassed this time last year with his action film Contraband. In fact, it’s the actor’s lamest opening in more than a decade, when The Truth About Charlie (a remake of Charade, with the young Wahlberg miscast in the Cary Grant role) The higher-minded but glummer Broken City received an ordinary “B” CinemaScore.

(READ: Corliss’s review of Broken City)

Arnold got a B, too, for The Last Stand, and more love from the critics: 56% to Broken City’s 25% on Rotten Tomatoes. But where it counts, at the box office, Schwarzenegger’s first starring movie role since the third Terminator 10 years ago was a disaster. With industry predictions ranging from $12.6 million to $16 million, The Last Stand earned a puny $6.3 million for the first three days and $7.2 million for the projected full weekend. Though the audience profile — 60% male, a doddering 78% over the age of 25 — was about right for Arnold’s fan base, not nearly enough showed up. At 65, the ex-Governator has a slate of seven movies completed, announced or rumored on the Internet Movie Database. But Schwarzenegger and his backers must wonder whether he was right to make good on his promise-threat, “I’ll be back.”

(READ: Corliss’s review of The Last Stand)

In the Micronesia of indie releases, the French drama Amour capitalized on its five Oscar nominations (Picture, Foreign Film, Director, Screenplay and Actress) to expand from 15 to 36 venues and earn $372,000 in three days, $462,000 in four, to nose out Mama for the weekend’s highest per-screen average ($12,833 to $12,480). Just behind Amour was Quartet, the Dustin Hoffman-directed weepie about aged British musicians, which grossed $375,000 on 32 screens for an $11,719 per-screen average. The theaters where Amour and Quartet were playing must have resembled the setting for both films: old folks’ homes.

(READ: Corliss’s tribute to Amour by subscribing to TIME) 

Here are the Monday estimates of this holiday weekend’s top-grossing pictures in North American theaters, with totals for Friday-to-Sunday (three days) and Friday-to-Monday (four days), as reported by Box Office Mojo:

1. Mama, $28.1 million, first three days; $33 million, first four days
2. Zero Dark Thirty, $17.6 million, three days; $18.7 million, four days; $57 million, fifth week
3. Silver Linings Playbook, $11.4 million, three days; $13 million, four days; $57 million, tenth week
4. Gangster Squad, $9.1 million, three days; $10.3 million, four days; $33.4 million, second week
5. Broken City, $9 million, first three days; $9.5 million, first four days
6. A Haunted House, $8.3 million, three days; $9.7 million, four days; $31.3 million, second week
7. Django Unchained, $8.2 million, three days; $9.2 million, four days; $139.4 million, fourth week
8. Les Misérables, $7.8 million, three days; $9.2 million, four days; $131.8 million, fourth week
9. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, $6.4 million, three days; $7.7 million, four days; $288.7 million, sixth week
10. The Last Stand, $6.3 million, first three days; $7.2 million, first four days

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