The 2013 Oscars – a theaterlover’s guide

Normally the Academy Award nominations are an annual opportunity for film fans to gripe about how out-of-touch the Hollywood establishment is with quality filmmaking. But something strange happened on the way to the red carpet this year: The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences actually produced a decent and diverse crop of contenders. And theatre fans will find a fair amount to root for – or, depending on your taste in these mostly mass-appeal, stage-inspired nominees, against – come Feb. 24th.

Les Miserables

Les Miserables
– Best Picture

Of course, there’s Tom Hooper’s sweeping, thundering “Les Miserables” adaptation (reviewed for us by Jeffrey Walker), which picked up eight nominations, including one for Best Picture. Stars Hugh Jackman, as Jean Valjean, and Anne Hathaway, as Fantine, must be grateful for their gratuitous tightly framed close-ups, as they’ve respectively snagged nominations for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress.

And from the minute a teary-eyed, buzzcut Hathaway first choked through the words “I dreamed…” in the film’s first trailer, there was never any doubt she would be the favorite in her category.

Four of the movie’s five remaining nominations – for Production Design, Costume Design, Makeup and Sound Mixing – can be attributed to “fancy period piece with monumental technical challenges,” and it stands likely to pick up at least Production and Costume for its troubles. What about “Suddenly,” the song penned by the original musical’s songwriters Claude-Michel Schonberg, Alain Boublil and Herbert Kretzmer? Well, do you even remember how it goes? Exactly.



Beasts of the Southern Wild – Best Picture

“Les Mis” is the big awards story for stage fans this year, but there’s another one every admirer of quality artistry should know and love just as much: Four-time nominee “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” a wondrously inventive independent film about a small girl named Hushpuppy who lives with her father in an off-the-grid bayou community, has its roots in the theatre as well.

Writer-director Benh Zeitlin adapted his script from friend Lucy Alibar’s one-act play Juicy and Delicious (Alibar, who also penned 2012 Capital Fringe entry Gorgeous Raptors, shares script credit). You can buy the play on Amazon, though good luck finding a performance of it – rights to it reverted back to Alibar this past summer, and there’s been no sign of any touring productions being mounted. But did you know that on stage, Hushpuppy is a boy?

Sadly, the chances of “Beasts” winning any of its four nominations are slim to none. It’s too out-there to walk away with Best Picture; Zeitlin is too youthful to beat his much more accomplished Best Director competition; and there is no way nine-year-old first-timer Quvenzhane Wallis is getting a Best Actress statuette. She’ll just have to be satisfied with being the youngest nominee in the history of that category, which isn’t a bad consolation prize.

“Beasts” would have a better shot at Best Adapted Screenplay if Zeitlin and Alibar weren’t going up against one of the most acclaimed stage writers of all time.


Lincoln - most nominated film

Lincoln – most nominated film

Pulitzer Prize-winning Angels in America playwright Tony Kushner, a giant among mortals, is the heavy hitter for “Lincoln,” his screenplay about that other giant among mortals, Abraham Lincoln. Kushner’s been here before, for his script for Steven Spielberg’s “Munich” in 2005, and while that earlier work was a more nuanced and challenging piece of writing, Kushner’s take on the relentless politicking Lincoln engaged in to eradicate slavery from the Union is nevertheless a gripping yarn. It’s easy to see why Spielberg wants to keep working with the guy.

“Lincoln,” by the way, is the most-nominated film of the year. It’s got a whopping 12 mentions, including a guaranteed win for Irish actor extraordinaire Daniel Day-Lewis — an alum of the Royal Shakespeare Company, though he doesn’t speak very fondly of those days.


The Life of Pi

The Life of Pi

The film with the second-most nominations is Ang Lee’s fantasy epic “Life of Pi,” with 11. The movie is an adaptation of Yann Martel’s bestselling 2001 novel, and the story of the Indian boy adrift in the open ocean with a Bengal tiger has attained near-legendary status as a modern fable.

It was also adapted for the stage twice, by Keith Robinson, who heads a small theatre company in Bradford, England and has shown no interest in bringing his adaptations to a wider audience.


What of nominated films that merely feel like theatrical adaptations?

Anna Karenina

Anna Karenina

Look at Joe Wright’s luscious take on Leo Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina,” which takes a rather unique approach to its staging – the smoldering infidelities of the Russian aristocracy are presented as a literal work of theatre, with stars Kiera Knightly and Jude Law stepping onto an actual stage to act out their affairs in front of an audience. This boldness earned the film four nominations, for Original Score, Cinematography, Production Design and Costume Design.

[DC area playwright Jackie Lawton adapted the novel for Anna K, seen here at theHegira in 2009.]


But for those theatre fans truly in the know, the category to watch the most closely is Best Documentary. David France’s “How to Survive a Plague,” the true story of the founding of AIDS activist organization ACT UP and the intense pressure it put on the U.S. government in the late ’80s and early ’90s to research better treatments for HIV, is a favorite, not to mention a truly astonishing piece of filmmaking in its own right.

How to Survive a Plauge - Best Documentary

How to Survive a Plauge – Best Documentary

It’s also a story in which gay members of the theatre community played a large role. The rhetoric of The Normal Heart writer Larry Kramer helped galvanize the organization, while prominent activists like playwright Jim Eigo and actor/amateur pharmaceutical researcher Spencer Cox (whose death this January triggered an outpouring of sympathy from human-rights communities) are featured prominently in the film as well.

And so is Washington (though for the wrong reasons): Watch ACT UP petition outside FDA headquarters in Rockville and National Institute of Health meetings in Bethesda for their inaction in researching the HIV virus.


Want to catch up before the big night? Of course you do.

– “Les Miserables,” “Lincoln,” “Life of Pi ” and “Beasts of the Southern Wild” are all currently playing in local theaters.

– “Beasts” and “How To Survive a Plague” are now on DVD and through online rental services like Amazon and iTunes, with “Anna Karenina” set to join them on Feb. 19.

– “Plague” is available to watch on Netflix I.

The 84th Academy Awards will be aired on ABC, Sunday, February 26, 2012 starting at 8:30pm ET, red carpet coverage begins at 7pm.

Vote your Oscar choices on The Guardian
Once again, The Guardian lets everyone in on the game of picking the winners, and seeing how your choices match up against the experts’ and readers from around the world. Ready? Head on over to The Guardian’s Oscar’s 2013  to cast your vote.


Andrew Lapin About Andrew Lapin

Andrew graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in English -- always the telltale sign of a life steeped in the arts. An editorial fellow at Government Executive magazine, he also writes film criticism for NPR and a sports column for The A.V. Club. Though a native of metro Detroit, he now resides in Washington D.C. and continues to devote an unhealthy portion of his brain to esoteric film trivia.



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