Pop Culture

Ray Charles finally gets due in Hollywood

Ray Charles was an international star for five decades, but in Hollywood the complicated piano man was long considered box-office poison.

When director Taylor Hackford started pitching a project about the “genius of soul” more than 15 years ago, no studios were interested. Music-themed pictures are a tough sell, especially when the subject is an old, blind, black man.

“Ray” eventually got made and received an official seal of approval Tuesday with six Academy Award nominations, including best picture, director and actor.

Jamie Foxx’s eerie lead performance made him an Oscar front-runner long before the film was released to commercial and critical acclaim in late October, a few months after Charles died of liver disease.

The film has otherwise been an underdog every step of the way, since 1987 when Hackford met Charles and eventually acquired the rights to his life.

“I must say there’s a little bit of sweet revenge to all those people that turned us down,” Hackford told Reuters after the nominations were announced.

He was far from resentful, recognizing that if the picture had been made a while ago, it would not have starred Foxx, “and no one could have played this role like that.”

Hackford and fellow producer Stuart Benjamin spent more than a decade shopping the concept to uninterested Hollywood studios. Even though Hackford had produced the 1987 moneymaker ”La Bamba,” about the short life of Latino rocker Ritchie Valens, most music-based projects fall flat at the box office.

Denver billionaire Philip Anschutz eventually joined the project, with the intention of bringing a studio on board. There were still no bites. So Anschutz funded the production himself, with the budget coming in at about $35 million.

Full cooperationCharles cooperated with the project every step of the way, even as it touched on his drug abuse and womanizing, Hackford said. That was a pleasant change, he said, from Chuck Berry, ”who did everything possible to inhibit us getting the real picture of the man” in the 1987 documentary “Hail! Hail! Rock ’N’ Roll.”

“With Ray ... there wasn’t anything that I couldn’t delve into,” Hackford said. “There were no limitations that he placed on me, which was an incredible gift.”

Foxx, a classically trained pianist, said the most instructive experience in preparing for the role was in observing Charles during unguarded moments from a distance.

“It was watching him when he was talking to other people, watching his mannerisms, watching how he orders his food, how he talks to his kids, how he conducts business,” Foxx said.

“He made me feel comfortable, but at the same time you feel anxious,” Foxx recounted. “The minute we met each other and started playing the piano to each other, it was a given that he was giving his blessing.”

It wasn’t until after the movie was completed in the middle of 2003 that producers elicited some interest.

Ron Meyer, president of Universal Studios, a unit of General Electric Co.-controlled NBC Universal, said he used to hitchhike across Los Angeles as a young teen to sneak into Charles’ concerts in Hollywood. As a studio boss, he snapped up the rights to the film early last year.

The film grossed $73 million at the North American box office and will come out on DVD Tuesday.

“I can’t tell you how many people said people will never buy tickets to see this movie, and they were wrong and the audience proved them wrong,” Hackford said. “And now this, where your peers -- the people who actually make movies and understand what goes in to making movies -- recognize this, it’s just another vindication.”

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