Woody Harrelson’s tough luck with Oscar will continue with ‘Rampart’

Sometimes lady luck is clearly on your side and sometimes it really isn’t.  In terms of Oscar, Woody Harrelson has consistently struck out with the mercurial lady twice already and this year it appears he won’t even make it to the party.  Harrelson gives another impressive and strong performance as Dave Brown, an LAPD cop who can’t break his corrupt habits in Owen Moverman’s “Rampart.”  Harrelson’s performance has drawn raves since the film debuted at the Toronto Film Festival in September (this pundit screened it at the AFI Fest on Saturday night). After Toronto, Millennium Entertainment came on board to give the film a pre-release Oscar qualifying run in December and a platform release in 2012. In hindsight, the Toronto and fall release strategy may not have been the best strategy for “Ramparts” producers.

A previous best actor nominee for “The People vs. Larry Flynt” in 1997 and a supporting nominee for Moverman’s debut, “The Messenger, Harrelson has done exemplary work in films such as “Natural Born Killers,” “No Country For Old Men,” “North Country” and “Transsiberian.”  This year, the 51-year-old actor will find himself behind a long list of contenders including George Clooney, Gary Oldman, Michael Shannon, Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt and Jean Dujardin among others.  More disconcerting, Harrelson’s Brown goes through a similar bender and crash as Fassbender’s character does in Steve McQueen’s “Shame.” It’s arguably less memorable in “Rampart” even if both films take different perspectives and narratives. Luck has also not helped Harrelson in the distribution department.

Millennium, which has released films such as “Trespass” and co-produced features including “The Expendables,” appears to be going all out to push Harrelson’s nomination knowing it could help the film in limited release.  In theory, that’s not a bad plan.  However, the company has little experience during awards season and while there is a first time for every fledgling distributor to conquer the awards season marketing formula this feels like a significant reach.  The distributor is giving “Rampart” a qualifying run which rarely succeeds in landing a nomination these days.  “The Last Station” (nominations for Helen Mirren and Christopher Plummer) and “Venus” (a sole nod for Peter O’Toole) are two rare occasions of the qualifying run resulting in major nominations over the past decade. Without the marketing and publicity push of even a sustained limited release (which provides a wealth of awareness in industry-friendly Los Angeles and New York) the qualifying run strategy is highly questionable these days.

What’s more disheartening for Harrelson is that “Rampart” (a misleading title by the way) could have flourished under a Searchlight, Weinstein Company or Focus Features release.  Unfortunately all those companies already have one or two major players in the best actor race.  “Rampart” was also overshadowed by too many studio and highly anticipated premieres at Toronto.  It could have benefited from a premiere slot at Sundance before a spring release.  And it likely would have found a better distributor out of a Park City premiere.

As for, Harrelson, he could still easily snag an independent spirit award nod (he won for “The Messenger” in 2010), but anything more? Likely not this year.

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