George Clooney fills in for Julia Roberts and Meryl Streep at AFI gala

Posted by · 1:25 pm · November 9th, 2013

HOLLYWOOD – AFI organizers expected some star power on their red carpet when they booked “August: Osage County” for the film festival’s prime Friday night gala, but they probably didn’t expect it to be from the movie’s producer. With Julia Roberts and Meryl Streep officially “unavailable” (the two-time Oscar winner was in London shooting “Into the Woods”), George Clooney was the biggest name at “August’s” LA premiere and – like the pro’s pro he is – he graciously charmed the press on hand with the soundbites and smiles they so desperately wanted.

“August” actually premiered at the 2013 Toronto Film Festival almost two months ago to the day, but that didn’t stop some of the melodrama’s other stars from supporting it in LA as Chris Cooper, Juliette Lewis and Julianne Nicholson were in attendance. Director John Wells and screenwriter Tracy Letts, who earned a Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award for the original play, were also on hand. The film played very well, but certainly to a less “industry” crowd than “Saving Mr. Banks” did the night before. Sadly, most of the attendees at the massive Chinese Theater were unable to hear any of the Q&A afterward because of what appeared to be, um, a lack of microphones or some of the worst in-theater speakers ever (whoopsie).

Having caught “August” in Toronto, I was curious to see whether Wells had made the rumored change to the film’s controversial extra end scene. Newsflash: he has not. While the play ends with the focus on Streep’s blunt Weston family matriarch, the movie instead focuses on Roberts’ character. This has caused some grumbles from the play’s fan base (hello New York AMPAS branch), but the only chatter you hear from the LA crowd is, “Why does the film have three endings?”

The bigger issue, however, is The Weinstein Company’s attempt to pitch Roberts’ work as a supporting performance. After a second time, I still just don’t buy it. Roberts is clearly the co-lead. She arguably has more screen time (cue a studio rep to prove that’s not the case), but the movie positions the events following the death of the Weston patriarch through Roberts’ character’s eyes more than Streep’s. Obviously you can have two female co-leads in a movie, but that doesn’t help when the mission is to land as many Oscar nominations as possible. And when the Oscar race for Best Actress is this competitive? The last thing you want is two former winners going up against each other.

The Weinstein Company may get a supporting nod for Roberts from SAG, but this feels very similar to the Kate Winslet “Revolutionary Road”/”The Reader” situation in 2009 where Weinstein tried to push a supporting turn for the latter while Paramount pushed Best Actress for “Road.” Instead, Winslet surprisingly earned a Best Actress nod for “The Reader” and was snubbed for “Road.” Taking that recent history into consideration, I’m not convinced Roberts in supporting is going to click with the actors branch, no matter how hard TWC tries to push it in their materials. Then again, maybe both actresses can sneak in. Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett and Emma Thompson are locks. Streep is also pretty close to a lock. Could Roberts knock out TWC stablemate Judi Dench (“Philomena”)? Never say never.

As for the rest of the “August” ensemble, you have to feel for Chris Cooper. He gives a fine, fine performance that will likely be overshadowed by the bigger names in supporting actor race. Julianne Nicholson, Margo Martindale and former nominee Juliette Lewis are also superb. Could either of them also sneak into the supporting actress race? Sadly, there would have to be some major snubs for that to happen (although I still think Martindale has a better shot than Roberts — call me crazy).

Of course, the number one question is whether “August” is a Best Picture nominee or not. Critical reaction was mixed at Toronto and it’s unclear whether the consensus will get that much of an uptick once the national and local reviews come in closer to the film’s Christmas Day release. And let’s be clear, noteworthy acting aside, the movie does have its problems. The story drags, there are too many scenes that seem better suited to the stage than the screen and Wells is not the most imaginative or subtle director. He does an adequate job, but oh, to see this material in the hand of Mike Nichols, Steven Soderbergh or even Stephen Daldry. Ah, well

Now, The Weinstein Company is clearly counting on the actors branch to give “August” the first place votes it needs to crack the top 10. Is that enough in a year where not one, but possible two or three great “Oscar” films might not make the cut? Not to put him on the spot, but In Contention’s own Kris Tapley still thinks so while a majority of our peers aren’t so sure. And, we haven’t even considered “August” going up against “Banks” on Christmas Day at the box office yet (at this time the film is still going wide on Dec. 25).  If “August” falters over the holiday frame it could absolutely impact its chances at a nod.

Yes, “August’s” Oscar dance is just about as dramatic as a Weston family dinner. Would we want it any other way?

“August: Osage County” opens nationwide on Dec. 25.

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