Will 'Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom' Stroll Right Past Oscar's Eyes?
by Joey Magidson
December 6, 2013
Of the many balls that Harvey Weinstein is juggling for Oscar attention this year, none seem to be forgotten about quite as much as Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. While it opened this past weekend in limited release, it just hasn't gotten nearly as much attention as any of his other major contenders like August: Osage County, Fruitvale Station, Lee Daniels' The Butler, and Philomena. In some respects, it's a puzzling decision. After all, it's a biopic of the recently passed away Nelson Mandela (based on his autobiography), starring an exciting actor in Idris Elba, written by a well respected scribe in William Nicholson, and it's coming out in a year that's shaping up to be as diverse as any for the Oscars.
Even when it debuted at the Toronto Film Festival to mixed reviews, it wasn't thought to be out of the race by any stretch. As the weeks passed though, the film seemed to become a bit gun shy, leading to its current situation. Looking at it now, it makes a whole lot more sense why Weinstein has basically cast this film aside in favor of stronger horses, though Nelson Mandela's death this week does make me wonder if Harvey might try and revive this one.
Again, this isn't a disaster like The Counselor (who's remains I picked over here) or Diana (which I gave a postmortem to here), but more the type of prestige picture that just gets lost in the shuffle. Sporting a just barely rotten 58% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, the movie could certainly have been received better, but the reviews it got definitely wouldn't preclude a targets awards campaign. Weinstein clearly won't completely abandon this horse, but he's well aware that Oscar nominations for his studio seem to lay elsewhere.
At one point, there was speculation that Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom could compete for nods like Best Picture, Best Director for Justin Chadwick, Best Actor for Elba, Best Supporting Actress for Naomie Harris, Best Adapted Screenplay for Nicholson, and potentially some tech citations if voters really got on board. Now, basically all the hopes for the flick rest on a long shot nom for either Elba or Harris. That's a far cry from where things started out earlier this year.
So what happened? As is the case with tons of contenders like this one each year, things just didn't click. The festival crowd didn't latch on to it in any notable way, pundits like myself became more infatuated with other contenders, and the buzz just never built. Yes, Elba has received very solid notices and Harris is generally considered to be best in show and worthy of Oscar attention, but when the narrative never shapes up for it, that sort of end result becomes less and less likely.
Another factor obviously is that Weinstein knows how to play the odds. As soon as it appeared like Philomena was their best bet for capturing the hearts and votes of the Academy (as I wrote about here), that's where the money and the stories began to go. Especially now with Harvey having to remind voters that Fruitvale Station exists and make sure that Lee Daniels' The Butler doesn't completely fade from memory either, that doesn't leave a whole lot of room for this biopic. Factor in that he's also got another very Oscar friendly film to market in August: Osage County and the outlook appears even grimmer for Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom.
As I always like to mention, this doesn't mean that the film isn't good, just that the awards chances are closer to nil than a lot of its competition. The members of the Academy will render a decision that only applies to the Oscar race, not the overall quality of the movie. After all, how many of you consider Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close to be a better piece of cinema than The Dark Knight just because the former was nominated for Best Picture and the latter was not?
It's possible that, fueled by the memory of the departed revolutionary, the flick will be able to do just well enough at the box office in the weeks ahead to stay afloat (a rare A+ Cinemascore has shown that those who saw it on opening night likes what they saw, though never pay too much attention to those scores, as they're not the most trustworthy barometer out there). If that happens and audiences ultimately embrace it more so than fellow Weinstein contenders like August: Osage County or Philomena (though in the latter case I find that unlikely), that in turn could lead to Oscar voters giving it the second look they might not otherwise, but that's not the end result to bet money on.
Anything can happen still, so the race could definitely be shaken up due to real life, but I'm here to be as realistic as possible. For Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, despite some available narratives potentially in play, it's looking like a long walk off of a short pier, at least in terms of Oscar recognition.