It’s been a truism for decades: some movies are made for no reason but to be nominated for an Oscar. The formula of worthy property plus esteemed actors entices the critics, and critical praise gets the attention of voters in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. And all that Oscar buzz is precious free publicity to lure moviegoers to a prestige product. Sometimes the strategy works, sometimes not.
August: Osage County, which opens on Jan. 10 in wide release, must have seemed made for Oscar. In fact, I believe, it was. The film is based on Tracy Letts’ Tony- and Pulitzer-winning play about a rancorous Oklahoma family that airs old and new resentments, and it stars six former Oscar laureates and nominees: Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Chris Cooper, Sam Shepard, Juliette Lewis and Abigail Breslin. Osage launched its awards campaign at the Toronto Film Festival, where each of the past five Best Picture winners debuted on opening weekend, and began its limited theatrical engagement in December, when Academy fever takes hold. Most important for the movie’s chances, its sponsor is the Weinstein Co.’s Harvey Weinstein, a consummate showman whose ingenuity and moxie helped secure the top Oscars for The King’s Speech and The Artist.
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But not everything that looks great on paper plays brilliantly onscreen. August: Osage County earned a middling 64% favorable rating from critics, as gauged by the aggregate review site Rotten Tomatoes, and a more pallid 58% on the Metacritic review site. The movie did not win a Best Film Award from any of the 31 major critics groups, and none of its performers finished in the collective top five of the acting awards. Osage did cop nominations for Streep and Roberts from the Screen Actors Guild, which could mean Oscar nominations for both. But the Academy’s Best Actress Award already has Cate Blanchett’s name on it — she’s that sure a thing for her role in Blue Jasmine — and the Supporting Actress category looks to be a tangle between Lupita Nyong’o of 12 Years a Slave and Jennifer Lawrence of American Hustle, with Roberts an also-ran.
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The other problem for Osage: director John Wells made just a middling movie from a standout play.
Writing the original stage version, Letts turned some of the landmark family dramas of 20th century theater — A Streetcar Named Desire, Death of a Salesman, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, A Raisin in the Sun, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? — into bitter, biting hilarity. He also detonated nearly as many unexpected deaths and sexual surprises as you’d see in a Mexican telenovela; the story has everything but evil twins and amnesia. Truth is, Osage is more superb theater than cathartic tragedy. The play scalds but does not purge; it’s just a monstrously entertaining spectacle.
(MORE: Richard Zoglin on Tracy Letts and August: Osage County)
So maybe the movie adaptation is a suitable showcase for players — or in Streep’s case, monstrous overplaying. As Violet, the cancer-ridden wife of hardscrabble Okie poet Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard), Streep creeps into the first scene, her gray hair sparse from chemo treatments, her face chalk white. The camera closes in to inspect Streep’s getup and attitude; she could be Mary Tyrone, the drug-addled mother in Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, after getting bitten by Nosferatu. She mumbles to Bev through her dope haze, sucking in his perplexity and the viewer’s attention. Later, wearing a black wig and sunglasses, she resembles an ancient pop star — Bob Dylan or Tom Waits — in spectacular late-career desiccation. From beginning to end, Streep acts not to the camera but to the farthest balcony in a huge playhouse. Her performance is as large and loud as a Spinal Tap song turned up to 11.
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What’s telling, though, is that Roberts, Cooper, Lewis, Julianne Nicholson, Margo Martindale and Benedict Cumberbatch manage to nail their roles, to draw all the wit and pain out of their characters, without showboating.
Take Bev, for example: the patriarch of the Weston family and, we infer, for nearly 50 years the endurer and arbiter of venomous sarcasm from Vi. “My wife takes pills. I drink,” Bev explains to Johnna (Misty Upham), the Native American woman he has hired to take care of Vi. “That’s the bargain we struck.” In Shepard’s interpretation, Bev is a figure of such manly grace and weariness after living with Vi and raising their three daughters that the viewer warmly anticipates spending an evening with him. But he gets just one scene and he’s gone — dead, a suicide.
Bev’s funeral gathers the splenetic Weston clan for an emotional summit most of the members would just as soon sit out. From Colorado arrives eldest daughter Barbara (Roberts) with her estranged husband Bill (Ewan McGregor) and their 14-year-old daughter Jean (Breslin). Middle daughter Ivy (Nicholson) had stayed in Oklahoma to tend to her parents and warmed up to Little Charlie (Cumberbatch), the son of Vi’s sister Mattie Fae (Martindale) and her husband Charlie (Cooper). Youngest daughter Karen (Lewis), who arrives from Florida with her raffish fiancé Steve (Dermot Mulroney), is a relentless saleswoman of her own flighty charm, ever seeking the bright side to a dark family. “You gotta tip your hat to a couple who stayed married so long,” she says of her parents — forcing Ivy to whisper, “Karen, he killed himself.”
(MORE: Controversy About the Ending of the Movie August: Osage County)
Like a master accordionist, Letts expands the Bev-Vi duo to 10 family members at a raucous funeral dinner, then gradually strips the party down to a mother and two daughters (Barbara and Ivy) for a session of truth or dare, truth and scare. Vi is the prime, rabid truth teller, reminding her children of their easy lives compared with the travails that she and Bev faced. Her throat cancer affords Vi another link to Bev: the dying get pride of place in mourning the dead.
Wells, who wrote and directed the excellent job-loss drama The Company Men in 2010, opens and closes his new movie with the landscapes of Pawhuska, Okla., where the play is set. The on-location shooting gives the film an arid, sprawling visual correlative to Barbara’s observation that Osage County isn’t the Midwest, as Bill believes. “This is the Plains,” she says, “a state of mind, right? Some spiritual affliction, like the blues.” Roberts and Lewis sport the parched, weathered skin of women who grew up on the Plains and, though they moved away years ago, still carry its brand on their faces.
(MORE: TIME’s Review of John Wells’ The Company Men)
In The Company Men, Wells was the auteur; here he’s the director of the script that Letts adapted from his play. As he said at the Toronto premiere, bursting with a kid’s astonished pride, “I got to work on Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County.” Wells didn’t set out to transform the piece but to translate it, with delicacy and vigor, to film. So although the characters occasionally have conversations in the yard of the Weston home, most of the movie takes place inside, with the window shades drawn to shelter Vi from knowing whether it’s night or day.
In the play, the family was essentially locked inside that haunted house; the stage announced, by the confines of its proscenium, that there was no escape from the dirty secrets to be revealed. Watching the second act’s explosive dinner scene, the playgoer could choose which of the Westons to watch. Wells might have tried the huge challenge of shooting this long sequence in a single extended take, as Alfonso Cuarón did in the 13-minute opening shot of Gravity or director Steve McQueen did in a couple of 10-minute shots in 12 Years a Slave. Instead, he follows the Hollywood norm of reaction shots, cutting from speaker to listener. This formula allows for more narrative and behavioral information to reach the viewer, but it dices and dilutes some of the crackling tension among 10 family members who are metaphorically chained to their seats.
(MORE: TIME’s Reviews of Gravity and 12 Years a Slave)
Then again, Wells had all those stars to photograph and please. The Broadway production, which originated at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Co., was bereft of marquee names (though Amy Morton, who played Barbara, returned last year as Martha to Letts’ George in the Tony-winning revival of Virginia Woolf). Among Wells’ actors, six have earned Oscars or Oscar nominations and most of the others deserved to somewhere along the line. As a company, they’re swell here. (Only McGregor, submerging his natural charisma in a cramped character with a peculiar multiregional accent, seems miscast and ill-used.)
Cooper plays a man so gentle as to be considered weak, until he explodes to defend Little Charlie against a mother who constantly demeans him. Cumberbatch, who rose from his Sherlock Holmes TV role to play the supervillain in Star Trek Into Darkness, appeared in three films that premiered at Toronto. Sweet, sad Little Charlie is far removed from Cumberbatch’s Julian Assange in The Fifth Estate and from his plantation owner in 12 Years a Slave — both are masters, while Little Charlie dwells in family servitude, the unfair butt of almost everyone’s jokes — but the actor invests the role with pathetic dignity.
(MORE: Corliss on Benedict Cumberbatch in The Fifth Estate)
Nicholson, from Law & Order: Criminal Intent and indie films like Brief Encounters With Hideous Men, plays Little Charlie’s soul mate and equivalent in the Weston family: a plain Jane whose goodness is ignored or taken for granted. If there is a heroine among Vi’s daughters, she’s it, and Nicholson gives full emotional value through the subtlest glances and silences — up to and including her big blow-up scene. (Practically every character gets one.) You can also see Ivy’s kinship to Barbara, for Nicholson and Roberts complement each other as siblings who took different routes to maturity: one by dutifully staying home, the other by bolting to hoped-for liberation.
In her Oscar-winning performance as Erin Brockovich, Roberts was a little too strutting, too sure of her superiority to her adversaries (as the film was). Her Barbara is a victim who uncomfortably returns to the scene of the crime — Vi being the perpetrator — and tries not to acknowledge how much she may have in common with her hated mother. It’s Roberts’ deepest, strongest, liveliest film work.
(MORE: Julia Roberts Calls August: Osage County Her ‘Best Acting Experience’)
So who should have played Vi? I’d start with Melissa Leo, an Oscar nominee for Frozen River (in which she was paired with Upham, the Osage County maid) and a winner for The Fighter (in which she presided over another contentious family). Leo, who snuck in and took over the crime drama Prisoners last year, could have been great as Vi, spitting out her curses without getting everyone wet. But in a film that was one long Oscar campaign from the moment of casting, Wells may have figured he needed Dame Meryl to preside over a family of prestige stars.
That casting put a dent in the quality of August: Osage County. It may be irrelevant to the members of the Academy, who will be occupied with deciding whether their votes for Best Picture should go to a scalding indictment of antebellum slavery or to American Hustle, a zesty depiction of 1970s scam artists. They might even travel to outer space, for Gravity. But they’ll probably steer clear of Letts’ Oklahoma. For all the best-laid plans of Wells and Weinstein, there’ll likely be no Oscar for Osage.