NEW YORK -- Ever since Victor Hugo unleashed his five-volume novel on a politically minded France 150 years ago, "Les Miserables" has been generating tears and admirers across several forms of media.
On Friday at Lincoln Center, Oscar winner Tom Hooper ("The King's Speech") and several actors debuted the latest attempt--a splashy, star-driven movie musical that represents both a studio's best hope for a Christmas season and an audience’s wish that the genre, tarnished in recent years, has its luster restored.
The group of talent-heavy screenings held here Friday are both a first and a last of sorts. They kick off a barnstorming tour that Hooper will take to Los Angeles on Saturday with a series of showings for guild members and tastemakers around the city.
"Les Miserables" is, at the same time, one of the last dominoes to fall in this award season, with contenders such as "Lincoln" "Argo," "Silver Linings Playbook" and "Life of Pi" already having dropped into theaters, their virtues scrutinized by critics and audiences.
At a Friday screening (the film was finished Thursday at 2 a.m., Hooper said), the reception to Hooper's sure-handed if methodical interpretation of the stage musical was strong (plenty of hearty clapping throughout), though the movie has a long way to go before becoming the box office-busting award winner its backers hope for.
Produced by British prestige company Working Title and set for a Christmas Day release from Universal Pictures, "Les Miserables" begins with an image of the French flag underwater. It's a parallel shot of sorts to the flying tricolore at the film's end, when the story has become as much about egalitarian politics as its better-known themes of romantic and parental love.
There will be plenty of review takes later, so suffice to say that in-between the movie offers some rousing emotion and vivid set pieces, uneven pacing and the sight of Russell Crowe singing. (He's fine as the law-enforcing Javert but, like Hugh Jackman’s Jean Valjean and the other males in the cast, pales next to the women, Amanda Seyfried’s Cosette and particularly Anne Hathaway’s Fantine, whose single-take, close-up "I Dreamed a Dream" is bound to bring down multiplexes and land her on Oscar ballots.)
Other Kleenex-producing musical numbers include the large-scale “Do You Hear The People Sing?," offered in reprise later in the film. (Samantha Barks' "On My Own” did not have the same effect on this reporter; others may disagree.)
But far more than its particular merits or flaws, the film's premiere was a feat of campaigning. The late-season entrance -- coupled with the fact that this is a movie best seen with a large audience -- has driven Universal to unveil “Les Miserables” all at once, in front of giant crowds over a single 36-hour period.
What the cast and filmmakers will be emphasizing in their post-screening talks, then, provides a rare glimpse into how a campaign lands and then mutates, a kind of Oscar-season version of time-lapse photography.
Judging by the post-screening question-and-answer session, moderated Friday by Lincoln Center veteran Annette Insdorf, the campaign seeks to get out of the gate with an emphasis on physical and formal achievements. With little prodding, Hooper expounded on why he decided to eschew spoken dialogue (it would violate, he said, “a contract with the audience,” per some counsel given him by Baz Luhrmann) as well as opting for actors to sing in real time. There was no lip-synching or voice work supplemented in post-production.
“It’s very important to me that we did it this way,” he said. "Watching other musicals, I always felt the tiny amount of distance I was experiencing between me and the form,” adding that “with the playbacks there’s a slight falsity in the way of expressing yourselves.” He further said (Hooper's not one for short answers) that “acting is all about the pure language and the present tense.”
Seyfried noted that the act of singing meant a general level of physical upkeep she wasn’t accustomed to — and an attention to “gross stuff” having to do with her sinuses.
And Hathaway called the real-time singing a “mixed bag.” It was, she said, “wonderful to have the freedom to turn your brain off and just live it.” But “it was a lot of pressure.”
The actress particularly emphasized technical achievements, offering thoughts about her losses -- hair and weight -- for the role. Then she did the same for Jackman (who was not present), practically seeking to write it into the awards campaign. “Hugh lost 30 pounds," she said. “Media, please start talking about that.”
There were nods throughout the session to Jackman as Wolverine and Crowe's turn in "Gladiator," a subtle tell that the idea of seeing actors in new guises will be a cornerstone of the movie’s campaign. Perhaps anticipating some skepticism, Hooper went to some lengths to describe Crowe’s singing background and why he cast the bearded one. “Who am I going to cast to get the better of Wolverine?” he said. “It's a short list and Russell was right on the top." Then he said that Crowe was “passionate about singing” and had a musical theater background in Sydney.
As for other members of the cast, Sacha Baron Cohen is also in the film, doing his Sacha Baron Cohen thing (audiences will no doubt enjoy seeing him ham it up with “Master of the House," and with "Sweeney Todd" co-star Helena Bonham Carter to boot). A revelation in the room was British theater actor Eddie Redmayne, who plays Cosette love interest Marius; the actor charmed the crowd with a story about how he lied to Hooper about his horseback abilities.
When it wasn’t about technical choices, actors or everyone's relationship to the play (another favorite), the session Friday came back to, well, what it often comes back to with holiday movies: love. Hooper and cast members talked about it several times, echoing a theme that Universal has been hitting hard in its outdoor campaign.“My entire interest in doing this was for its emotion,” the director said. “Doing ‘The King’s Speech’ I was most struck by how it made people feel, and I was most rewarded by that part of the filmmaking experience.” How much emotion audiences feel will also determine the extent to which Universal is rewarded, on Saturday and beyond.
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