Searchlight on taking the ‘Shame’ out of NC-17

“Oscar prospects, before anyone asks: probably nil. And yay for that.”

So I commented immediately after posting my review of Steve McQueen’s “Shame” following its unveiling at the Venice Film Festival, hoping to pre-emptively defuse a natural line of questioning on this site, without suggesting the film in any way fell short. Regular readers will know that I can be a bit snippy when quizzed about the future awards outlook for festival films, partly because I’m loath to think like a pundit at a world-cinema carnival, and partly because there are often too many unknowns for such speculation to be at all meaningful: critical approval only counts for so much with films with no distributor and no proven real-world audience.

For every festival sensation whose Oscar potential is immediately apparent (think Mo’Nique, whose recent Best Supporting Actress win seemed sewn up at Sundance a year before she even netted the nomination), there’s another that has to feel its way into the season. Certainly, nobody screamed “Best Picture!” when “The Hurt Locker” premiered at Venice a full 18 months before its Oscar-night triumph.

My instant ruling-out of “Shame” from the awards discussion wasn’t unconsidered: the film seemed at once too explicit and too internalized to speak to middlebrow awards voters, with McQueen’s rigid fine-art formalism the kind of reach even the Academy’s more adventurous directors’ branch hadn’t been making lately. (Hey, remember all that Oscar attention for McQueen and Fassbender’s even better first collaboration, “Hunger?” No?)

Then, of course, there was the question of the film’s NC-17 rating: what season-practised distributor was going to take a chance on a severe auteur piece with that marketing millstone around his neck? As a fellow critic and I spotted Harvey Weinstein hurriedly exiting the screening hall, we both puzzled over the notion that the film could even be within spitting distance of a deal with the mogul’s outfit.

Of course, we’ll never know how close it came. Days later came the news that the film had been courageously picked up by Fox Searchlight: an acquisition that, together with the studio’s purchase of Terrence Malick’s divisive tone poem “The Tree of Life” and chilly Sundance art-horror “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” suggested a conscious move away from the heart-led, crowdpleasing fare on which they built their reputation. (That said, Searchlight also have Alexander Payne’s cosy laughing-through-the-tears dramedy “The Descendants,” so perhaps they’re just smartly covering their bases.) 

Searchlight’s adoption of “Shame” didn’t quite prompt me to reverse my diagnosis: the studio has enough arrows in its quiver that it can afford to take on a few hard-sell prestige items for the principal purpose of classing up their brand, not necessarily earning awards attention. (I’m aware, of course, of a certain previous risky Searchlight purchase out of Venice, whose Oscar chances I also shrugged off initially — but given the impossibility of “Shame” matching “Black Swan”‘s astonishing box-office tally of $107 million, you’ll forgive me if I don’t draw a parallel just yet.) 

But this intriguing Hollywood Reporter piece on the studio’s planned campaign for the film — in which they bullishly announce that they’re going not only for a Best Actor nod for current It-guy Michael Fassbender, but Best Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Supporting Actress and Cinematography too — has given me some pause.

Obviously, scoring all those nominations must be regarded as something of a pipe dream — I’ll believe in the Academy’s across-the-board enthusiasm for NC-17-rated erotic character studies when I see it — but the seriousness with which the studio is taking this challenge does make me wonder if Fassbender could be the beneficiary of the film’s growing upscale buzz, particularly in a year when he could hardly have been more ubiquitous. (Michael Shannon has held the passion-vote indie spot in my predicted Best Actor list for months now; he may well cede his spot to another Michael next week.)

Whether or not Searchlight’s gutsy campaign pays off, the most exciting thing about it is the unusual way they’re embracing the film’s NC-17 rating — using it as a springboard to generate audience curiosity about the film and its tricky subject matter. Says Searchlight president Steve Gilula to the Reporter:

“I think NC-17 is a badge of honor, not a scarlet letter. We believe it is time for the rating to become usable in a serious manner. The sheer talent of the actors and the vision of the filmmaker are extraordinary. It’s not a film that everyone will take easily, but it certainly breaks through the clutter and is distinctive and original. It’s a game changer… I think Shame’s profile will pique people’s curiosity. I’m optimistic this will be a significant film and change the attitude of people toward this kind of subject matter.”

This, of course, is the mature approach that more in the industry — and indeed, the public — need to take toward this rating. The commercial stigma attached to the NC-17 rating speaks to a curiously antiquated prudishness in the US market: it’s hardly a social or moral transgression to suggest that certain sights and subjects are unsuitable for children, accompanied or otherwise. The UK’s equivalent 18 rating (which “Shame” will surely get, denying access to all minors with or without a guardian) is handed out with relative frequency to mainstream and arthouse films without anyone raising an eyebrow. 

It’ll be a long road to that level of acceptance for the blighted NC-17 rating, but a Best Picture Oscar nominee that wears it proudly would go some way towards bringing it into the light. I remain sceptical that Searchlight will clear that particular hurdle this year, but it’s good to see them making a run at it.