Angelina Jolie is under a lot of pressure from the awards season anticipation for "Unbroken" http://t.co/0eY2td43JS
— The New York Times (@nytimes) December 10, 2014
"It suddenly became the film of great expectation” Angelina Jolie to me (pre Rudin leak) re "Unbroken" hype http://t.co/JWm0euVtMR
— Cara Buckley (@caraNYT) December 10, 2014
Awards Season | The Carpetbagger
This column won’t often focus on one person, but this week is different, for royalty was in town.
No, not the Windsors: Angelina Jolie.
Feted last week at a luncheon in the soaring gilt and velvet-draped ballroom of the Metropolitan Club, where she was eagerly awaited by New York’s media elite, Angelina Jolie swept into the city, and the awards season, on a tsunami of anticipation.
Hopes were high that Ms. Jolie’s “Unbroken,” about an Olympian turned World War II prisoner of war, would ride to the fore and inject sizzle into a leaderless Oscar race. It spent months hovering at or near the top of many prognosticators’ best picture lists, never mind that no one had seen it: All the tantalizing ingredients were there. The film is based on a best-selling true story and directed by a very famous Academy Award-winning woman who, as it happens, was recently named a dame — the female equivalent of being knighted — by Queen Elizabeth.
And, as the opulent lunch, with its Versailles-like setting, made clear, Universal Pictures is giving “Unbroken” a full-court press.
All of which amounts to a lot of pressure for a second-time feature filmmaker.
“I was very, very nervous to get it right,” Ms. Jolie said, tucked into a corner booth at an “Unbroken” event at the Porter House last week, as a publicist stood guard, warding off the ardent throngs.
“What was strange to me is: This is a film that took 60 years and wasn’t a hot property and didn’t have a known cast,” she added. “It was kind of the little film that could, and suddenly became the film of great expectation. I just wanted to make sure I didn’t fail. I wasn’t expecting anything.”
The studio had arranged for her to have some one-on-one time with the Bagger a few hours after Ms. Jolie appeared on “The Daily Show,” and right before she held court at the Porter House party, where she would chat with Barbara Walters, among many others. The interview also preceded, by days, the leaked Sony emails wherein the producer Scott Rudin would excoriate Ms. Jolie and her film; on Wednesday, the studio said Ms. Jolie “would never ever comment on such a thing.”
The restaurant was extremely crowded, and Ms. Jolie suddenly appeared in the middle of it, presumably via a back door. As delicately boned as a bird, and as extraordinary looking in person as you might imagine, she was at once easygoing and poised, and spoke passionately yet concisely about the film, and its subject, Louis Zamperini.
“Unbroken” opens Dec. 25, and early reviewers generally applauded it, while others suggested it was overly conventional. There is a question of how wider audiences, and Academy voters, will respond to the repeated brutal beatings endured by Mr. Zamperini, played by the British actor Jack O’Connell.
Early expectations for the film proved impossible to meet, and since initial screenings late last month, the picture has tumbled some in the so-called experts rankings, making the lavish luncheon seem less like a victory lap.
Still, as of now, many of those same experts project that the film will yet nab a nomination for best picture, along with “Selma,” a turn that would make history because both were directed by women.
And though the best director race is much tighter, some project that both women will also get nods.
Award tea-leaves reading aside, the film is in its own right a career milestone for a woman whose work has routinely been eclipsed by rabid fascination with her supra-human physicality, personal life and quirky antics of yore, be it wearing one of those infamous blood vials, or bussing her brother, or, in 2012, flashing a meme-bound right leg.
“This is the first time I’ve attempted anything on this kind of scale,” Ms. Jolie said, adding that the one review that mattered most to her was that of Mr. Zamperini.
He died at 97 in July and did not see the finished film, but watched unedited footage in 20-minute increments on Ms. Jolie’s laptop in his hospital bed.
“He loved it,” said Cynthia Zamperini, his daughter, who was also at the Porter House along with her brother, Luke. “He just put all of his faith in her.”
For decades, Mr. Zamperini’s astounding life story — he raced in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, joined the Army Air Corps, survived a plane crash, was lost at sea for 47 days and then held, and tortured, at a Japanese internment camp — seemed destined to remain untold, at least on the big screen, even though Universal Pictures bought his life rights in 1957. The studio later bought rights to the top-selling 2010 book by Laura Hillenbrand, author of “Seabiscuit.”
Various male directors had been loosely attached to the project, but Ms. Jolie gunned hard to land it herself. Her years of work with refugees drove her interest; her first feature, “In the Land of Blood and Honey” (2011), explored the vicious personal fallout for lovers caught in the Bosnian war. “It’s definitely something I’m questioning in life,” she said, “man’s inhumanity to man, and the human condition, and what the effects are of war.”
But Mr. Zamperini’s tale had a happy ending: After the war he went on to visit and forgive his former Japanese captors, and, in 1998, run a leg of the Olympic torch relay there.
“I didn’t want to put a movie out where people are just reminded of the struggles of human nature,” Ms. Jolie continued. “I wanted them to be reminded of that thing inside of all of us, that rises up against these obstacles. That’s what Louie preached, to help in those dark hours to remember.”
Donna Langley, the chairwoman of Universal and a fan of “In the Land of Blood and Honey,” said that Mr. Zamperini’s story needed to be told in a way that transcended a catalog of his life. Ms. Jolie, Ms. Langley said, was the one who could do that. “She did,” she said, “though she’s too humble to say it.”
Mr. Zamperini happened to live very close to the Los Angeles home of Ms. Jolie and her husband Brad Pitt. For their first meeting, Ms. Jolie arrived at his house carrying an enormous basket laden with Italian delicacies, Mr. Pitt in tow.
“She wouldn’t let Brad carry it,” Ms. Zamperini recalled. “I see this slender, very fragile-looking, beautiful woman, and I could hear her saying, “No honey, I’m carrying this, I’m giving this to Louis.’ “
Ms. Zamperini said Ms. Jolie and Mr. Zamperini, whose wife of 55 years, Cynthia, died in 2001, both lit up upon meeting each other. “He got to fall in love again, at the end of his life,” Ms. Zamperini said.
For Ms. Jolie, the bond felt just as strong. She knew she admired him, she said, and hoped that she would like him. “I didn’t know I would fall in love with him,” she said, “and then he would become like a father to me, but he did.”
All of which made it painful to edit the film, Ms. Jolie said, especially after Mr. Zamperini’s death (which helps explain the film’s long running time of 137 minutes). After he died, she said, she holed up in her office with the lights off, cowered under a jacket and wept, wondering, “How could I trim a moment of his life when it had become so sacred?” She still has a hard time getting through some interviews, and teared up talking about Mr. Zamperini in our chat.
And, asked how she felt about a history-in-the-making shot at an Oscar nod, Ms. Jolie said that while she did not approach the film as a female director, she was nonetheless shocked at how few other female directors were working in Hollywood.
“I think that regardless of a nomination, it’s changing,” Ms. Jolie said. “We’re getting our work out there, and supporting each other, and it’s time.”