Off the Carpet: Harvey’s victory lap

“The Artist” is indeed a runaway train. Here is lightning, here is a bottle, and that’s the 2011 Oscar season. Really, that’s the Oscar season in general, capturing a feeling, an emotion, a vibe, and riding it as hard and as definitively as you can.

Last year, The Weinstein Company turned on the gas at just the right moment with its “Find Your Voice” campaign for “The King’s Speech” in the wake of critics’ circuit dominance by “The Social Network.” This year, with no real uncertainty about it, they’re cranking up the heat again with ads featuring the phrase, “You don’t have to say anything to feel everything.”

“Find Your Voice” was great, because it worked organically with the season. In addition to tying in with the speech impediment thing, it also said, succinctly, “Don’t let the critics tell you what to think.” And the subsequent “Some Movies You Feel” sealed the deal in phase two. This one (and the one I’ve seen on TV spots: “Speak With Your Heart”) feels a bit more forced, though no less brilliant because it again aims squarely at what guides most voters this time of year: the heart.

Elsewhere, the most important talking point on “The Artist” has been let loose at just the right moment, as articles are being written about the fact that it is the only Best Picture nominee shot entirely in Los Angeles. That ought to stifle some of the “Frenchness” of everything, which some may have seen as a liability. And on that score, there’s Michel Hazanavicius’s nomination acceptance speech at the DGA Awards last week, during which he noted, “I’m not an American. I’m not French. I’m a filmmaker.”

Harvey Weinstein and his team are playing this thing like a harp. And I have to say, I tip my hat off to them. No, I’m not saying they’re marketing their way to an Oscar. It’s incredibly difficult if not outright impossible to do that. You have to, at the very least, have inherent and genuine love and affection for the product if you’re going to usher it to those heights. A stellar Oscar campaign, though, plays to the product’s strengths and makes the choice an easier one, if not an obvious one. And this has been a clinic.

In 2005, when Weinstein was forced to abandon the sterling company of his creation, Miramax Films (itself a saga unto itself), he dipped his toes into the awards waters that brought him his initial glory as he and brother Bob embarked upon a new venture: The Weinstein Company. A Best Actor campaign for Johnny Depp in “The Libertine” found no traction, while a Best Actress push for Felicity Huffman in “Transamerica” did. There was even more love to be found for Stephen Frears’s “Mrs. Henderson Presents” along the circuit, for lead actress Judi Dench and supporting actor Bob Hoskins. It was a modest but promising start.

The next year wasn’t quite as fruitful, though. Emilio Estevez’s “Bobby” was a film reviled by many, though I actually quite liked it and thought it had a shot in the season. It ended up with a SAG ensemble nomination, as well as a Best Picture (Drama) Golden Globe bid from the always Harvey-faithful HFPA. Nothing doing for Oscar, however. But the company started expanding its reach, finding unique venues, playing to old strategies, like ferreting out foreign films worth hawking on the circuit (such as “Days of Glory”).

2007 saw another expansion of considerations, with pushes for quality films like Anton Corbijn’s “Control” added to college tries for dubious contenders like “The Great Debators” (which, again, the HFPA backed) and “Grace is Gone.” Weinstein even went back into business with Woody Allen (“Cassandra’s Dream”) and Michael Moore (“Sicko”), looking for that old spark. Oscar nominations came for Moore (Best Documentary Feature) and Cate Blanchett (Best Supporting Actress in “I’m Not There”), but the glory days were still elusive.

Then everything changed with “The Reader” in 2008. It was a battle of wills that spilled into the press. Producer Scott Rudin and director Stephen Daldry wanted to hold the film’s release until it was in better shape, while Weinstein was adamant that it land by the end of the year (an insistence that has been reportedly owed as much to craven awards season appetites as to fiscal necessities.)

In an e-mail to Weinstein from Daldry that was leaked to the press, the director stated, “I cannot be party to a process that strips me of my ability to make my work good.” Rudin accused Weinstein of riding “the coattails of the deaths of two beloved guys” when it was revealed that Weinstein had supposedly invoked the names of the film’s late producers, Sydney Pollack and Anthony Minghella, claiming that a 2008 release is what they would have wanted.

It was ugly. But obviously, Harvey wanted back in the game. And boy did he get there.

Despite category confusion over the film’s central performance, and despite impressive guild dominance by Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight,” it was “The Reader” that was nominated for Best Picture that year over Warners’ money-magnet superhero installment, and Kate Winslet indeed found her way to the Kodak’s stage as the Best Actress Oscar winner of the year. Additionally, the continued partnership with Woody Allen found a lot of love on the circuit for “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” including a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Penélope Cruz.

Harvey was back. And he wasn’t about to let off the gas.

The next year was all about Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds,” which initially appeared to be a questionable Best Picture contender after its Cannes bow, but quickly asserted itself as one of the top-tier awards films of 2009 (one that obviously would have been one of five Best Picture nominees had the Academy not decided to expand the field to 10 that year). But there was also Tom Ford’s “A Single Man,” which yielded plenty of kudos for Colin Firth (laying the foundation for 2010), as well as “Nine,” which, despite being an absolute dog, managed four Oscar nominations (including a second-straight supporting bid for Cruz).

“The Road” and “Nowhere Boy” were very much in the conversation, too, but most of the focus was on Tarantino, reliving the “Pulp Fiction” days (and bringing about a new perspective on the awards season, which the director discussed with me that year). And while the golden boy missed out on a statue for Best Original Screenplay, Christoph Waltz burst onto the scene in a big way and lapped up a Best Supporting Actor win, marking three performance Oscars in two years for Weinstein films.

A year later: “The King’s Speech.” And how ironic, the film was pitted against Scott Rudin, as craven as ever on behalf of, certainly, a better film in “The Social Network.” But Weinstein was chugging along now, well-oiled once again. Twelve nominations for the film and four wins, for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor and Best Original Screenplay, made a statement.

It was a homecoming for Colin Firth, who noted numerous times along the circuit how happy he was to receive these laurels under a Weinstein banner, after all those years working on Miramax productions and really seeing his career bloom alongside Harvey. There was also a nomination in store for Michelle Williams in “Blue Valentine,” but it was all about getting the top prize off a smart acquisition and using that hallmark to push box office: the old Miramax way.

And now, “The Artist,” yet another acquisition looking to do the same. The film netted 10 nominations and is pulling in for a likely second-straight Best Picture win for Weinstein and his team. Feeble attempts to take it down, whether it be Kim Novak’s shrieking about the use of the “Vertigo” score in the film or, most recently, nonsense concerning supposedly racy posters of Jean Dujardin’s latest film causing a stir in France, have failed utterly. (And really, if you’re going to try, try harder than that.) “The Iron Lady,” “My Week with Marilyn,” “W.E.”  and the documentary “Undefeated” add some golden sheen to the year, but yet again, it’s all about “the film.” Bring out the dog, turn up the charm and walk away with it.

2012 will bring Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master” (should it release this year), another excursion with Tarantino (the western “Django Unchained”), the already acquired (and dreadful) “Lay the Favorite” — staying in business with Stephen Frears, as well as films from Andrew Dominik (“Cogan’s Trade”), David O. Russell (“The Silver Linings Playbook”) and John Hillcoat (“Wettest County”). And who knows what idle acquisition is lurking on the festival circuit, waiting to be primped into a thoroughbred? But there are certainly no signs of Weinstein easing up on circuit dominance if the sight-unseen expectations of that role call of filmmakers are any indication.

You really have to hand it to the guy. Despite my well-documented irritation over “The Artist” and its consistent charming of awards-giving bodies this season, I can’t help but admire Weinstein for tapping what he knows works and rebuilding something from the ashes of former glory. To date for the company: 57 Oscar nominations and seven statues (with a few more on the way). That’s the real takeaway for me this year.

So with a little less than three weeks to go this season, I just have one thing left to say on all this: Bravo, sir.

The Contenders section has been tweaked throughout.

For year-round entertainment news and awards season commentary follow @kristapley on Twitter.

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