The Golden Globes has long been heralded as one of the most glamorous nights of the year with its phalanx of household names and celebrity-driven pics vying for statuettes. But judging from this year’s batch of best picture nominees, vision trumped over cast with high-wattage vehicles largely yielding to high-concept stories.
With the exception of the Brad Pitt starrer “Moneyball” and the George Clooney-toplined “The Descendants,” the 2012 best picture wannabes were carried by unknowns, little knowns and stars in the making.
“We don’t go after the big names necessarily,” says Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. prexy Aida Takla-O’Reilly. “We target what’s best. The big names are usually there because they are also good actors. But there are always great movies that no one is paying attention to, and we also recognize those movies and bring them to light. Every year the crop is different.”
In recent years, Hollywood’s big-event pictures have begun to reflect the importance of concept, not cast. Given the cream of 2011, that also appears to be true for mid-range dramas and comedies.
From Steven Spielberg’s “War Horse” to Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo” to Michel Hazanavicius’ “The Artist,” the best drama and comedy/musical hopefuls lack the kind of name-recognition leads typical of Golden Globes past.
Spielberg opted for newcomer Jeremy Irvine to pilot his World War I epic. Scorsese cast Brit teen Asa Butterfield in the titular role. And Hazanavicius tapped his frequent collaborators Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo, who is the helmer’s wife — both box office draws in France but unknowns elsewhere.
“We could have gone for American stars, but the way we did it made sense,” says “Artist” producer Thomas Langmann of the film’s two leads. “But if you look at the history of cinema, there are so many successes with actors that were unknown. Look at ‘Star Wars,’ they weren’t stars before that movie. Or the ‘Godfather,’ Pacino was not a star. Sometimes you have to take risks.”
Though drama nominee “The Help” became both a commercial hit and awards-season heavyweight, few could credit the box office pedigree of the film’s ensemble cast, which includes Emma Stone, Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer.
“So many people were saying, ‘This will never work. People won’t see this movie,'” recalls producer Chris Columbus.
Even the Clooney-helmed “The Ides of March” features its biggest name — Clooney — in a supporting role. The film belongs to Ryan Gosling, who is best known for turning down such high-profile films as “The Lovely Bones” and “Green Lantern” in favor of little-seen but critically hailed indies like “Half Nelson” and “Blue Valentine.”
The same could be said for Gosling’s “Blue Valentine” co-star Michelle Williams, who plays the eponymous Marilyn Monroe in the best comedy/musical nominee “My Week With Marilyn.” The two-time Oscar nominee largely eschews studio tentpole offers in favor of such edgy indies as the upcoming Sarah Polley drama “Take This Waltz.”
With nearly every starlet interested in taking on the iconic blonde, “Marilyn” director Simon Curtis and producer David Parfitt could have opted for a higher-profile star. But the filmmakers say Williams was their first and only choice.
“Michelle was also a major part of this — the acting community hugely respect her work,” says Parfitt. “The casting was a natural, organic process. We always knew that we wanted to come at this from an acting perspective — we never wanted to cast a Marilyn lookalike, and we weren’t trying to make a biopic. The film is about a particular moment in Marilyn’s life from one subjective viewpoint.”
Likewise, fellow comedy nominee “50/50” features a thesp who hadn’t carried a film before in its protag role.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt took on the role of a 27-year-old NPR producer battling cancer, while the more bankable comedian Seth Rogen, who also produced the film, took on a supporting role.
“It would have been hard to make this movie at a studio,” says “50/50” producer Evan Goldberg of the unlikely comedy, whose under-$10 million budget was footed by Mandate Pictures, the company behind the low-wattage hit “Juno.” “No matter how kind or unkind the studio, it would have been hard for them to justify a cancer-themed movie with our cast.”
Meanwhile, “Bridesmaids” star Kristen Wiig seems poised to take a run at Tina Fey’s crown as most in-demand “Saturday Night Live” female alum. But prior to her star-making turn in the wedding party romp, which she co-wrote, Wiig had never toplined a film, let alone a box office success.
And though Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” featured a well-known quantity with male lead Owen Wilson, the film — like most of the writer-helmer’s — owes its appeal to an ensemble cast that featured such character actors like Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy.
Ultimately, this year’s top pic nominees offer little evidence of the type of calculated casting that seems packaged for box office reward and awards-season recognition.
“The casting in all of these movies seems like it was motivated by the right reasons,” says Goldberg of the 11 best picture nominees. “They weren’t simply money grabs.”
Tales trump top talents | Globes embrace TV’s new, offbeat shows
Drama: Picture | Drama: Actor | Drama: Actress | Comedy: Picture | Comedy: Actor | Comedy: Actress
The Cecil B. DeMille Award: Morgan Freeman