Is it possible to think of “A Beautiful Mind” and not Russell Crowe, or “The Departed” and forget Jack Nicholson?
Of course not. Both Crowe and Nicholson are A-listers. And they each had large resumes before their respective films took the big prize. In fact, they had each won for best actor — Crowe for “Gladiator” and Nicholson three times: “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “Terms of Endearment” (supporting actor) and “As Good as It Gets.”
They are as much the movie as the movie itself.
That leads us to “Slumdog Millionaire.” The Indian film that began this year’s Oscar campaign as the underdog is now the favorite following wins at the Golden Globes, SAG Awards, BAFTA Awards and Producers Guild Awards, all of which can be considered precursors of an Oscar victory. “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” earned more nominations than any other film but the chatter is clearly all about “Slumdog.”
The little engine that could is now driving the train, and other higher priced and more credentialed movies are being left in its wake.
Yet, do the names Dev Patel, Anil Kapoor and Frieda Pinto mean anything to anyone outside of their publicists, agents or the film’s studio, Fox Searchlight? And does that lack of recognition make a difference at all to Oscar voters?
If “Slumdog” wins, it’ll be the extremely rare best picture to not to feature a high-profile star — or even any actor that audiences would recognize on the street. “Chariots of Fire” in 1981 was the a last best picture with a cast of unknowns (not including supporting actors Sir John Gielgud and Ian Holm).
That just might be part of the movie’s charm, though. After being besieged by studio marketers that actors worth seeing only come in the celebrity profile of Angelina and Brad, movie fans are discovering that it’s nice to find your own stars without them being spoon fed to us.
“Audiences respond in a heartfelt way to ‘Slumdog,’ and to the prevailing media myth: Anyone can become a star via the new kinds of reality and quiz shows,” says longtime film critic and author Molly Haskell, whose newest book, “Frankly My Dear: ‘Gone With the Wind’ Revisited” will be released Feb. 24.
“‘Chariots of Fire’ was British upper class whereas ‘Slumdog’ plugs into the zeitgeist in a big way: The global, egalitarian, internationalizing tendencies of the world and of movies. Still, a movie as flashy as that may be a flash in the pan.”
Will ‘Slumdog’ stand the test of time?
Even with a slew of major stars, some best picture winners feel more unworthy to hold the throne as the years go by. There are many critics of “Crash,” and there might be no other champ that had such a large and eclectic cast in recent years — Don Cheadle, Brendan Fraser, Terrence Howard, Sandra Bullock to name a few.
If “Slumdog” wins, will it turn the young good-looking cast into hot commodities? That’s difficult to predict, especially for non-American actors. Certainly a best picture win didn’t do much for the actors in “The Last Emperor.” Nor did it help handsome Hong Kong born star John Lone, who was a relative unknown when the Bernardo Bertolucci film was released in 1987.
On the other hand, “Rocky” starred unknown Sylvester Stallone — OK, maybe a handful knew of him from “The Lords of Flatbush” — and he propelled that wonderful underdog story to great stardom and wealth. Plus, few had heard of Ernest Borgnine (though they may have remembered him in “From Here to Eternity”) before the 1955 film “Marty” won best picture; Borgnine has now had a career that’s lasted six decades.
A lot will depend on what future projects the “Slumdog” cast take on. Even if the film wins — and, again, that’s by no means a sure thing just yet (ask “Brokeback Mountain”) — they’re probably not going to replace the Denzel Washingtons and Anne Hathaways anytime soon in the public’s consciousness.
Although Patel was seen in the British series “Skins,” before “Slumdog,” he doesn’t carry a whole lot of experience in front of the camera. His first post-“Slumdog” film will be M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Last Airbender.”
Pinto? Her natural beauty led her to a modeling career, and “Slumdog” was her first-ever acting job. So before we refer to her as the next Meryl Streep, let’s see if she’s really got the chops to carry a film on her own. Don’t forget she only had a handful of scenes in “Slumdog.”
If “Slumdog” is announced best picture winner at the Oscars this year, it will mean the story mattered most. And that means writer Simon Beaufoy — who adapted the book from Vikas Swarup — might just turn into the hottest commodity of all.
Stuart Levine is an assistant managing editor at Variety. He can be reached at email@example.com.