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Is Tommy Lee Jones' 'Three Burials' dead and buried?

January 24, 2006 |  3:02 pm

What happened to "Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada" in this year's Oscar derby? Does anyone have a theory? If so, click on the "Comments" link below and share it with all of us, please.

Three Burials

It's worth discussing. Tommy Lee Jones' directorial debut began this kudos season as an early front-runner after becoming a breakout hit at the Cannes Film Festival where it won awards for best actor and screenplay. When savvy kudos seer Pete Hammond saw it on the Croisette, he sounded loud Oscar warning bells and when I caught up with it at the Toronto Film Festival a few months later, I thought Pete was really onto something.

"Three Burials" was such a superb, chilling drama that excited film critics yapped about it all over Toronto with the same intense enthusiasm as those other fest faves, "Capote" and "Brokeback Mountain." But "Three Burials" had something extra going for it. It's something Oscar voters are usually suckers for: "Three Burials" marked the successful crossover of a studly actor to director.

That worked for George Clooney ("Good Night, and Good Luck") this year, but not Jones. Why? A few industry pros I ran into up in Toronto warned me that it might happen. One of them admired "Three Burials” but said, "It won't catch on because half of its script is in Spanish and its title is unpronounceable."

Those were the same reasons blamed for the fact that it arrived in Toronto without a distributor, something that baffled all of us waiting north of the border to see what all of the early hype was about. How could an award-winning Cannes hit that had so much pre-Oscar buzz still not have a distributor as late as September? What's wrong? One much-whispered rumor claimed that Tommy Lee Jones wanted too much money and was making too many demands on courting studios.

Regardless of the reason for the delay, "Three Burials" was scooped up at the fest by Sony Pictures Classics. One snide Oscar marketer told me at the time, "Forget about it. Sony Pictures Classics doesn't do well at the Oscars." But that's not true. Look at the success of its "Capote" this year. It'll probably score lots of Academy Award nominations — maybe even one for best picture — and its star Philip Seymour Hoffman is the one to beat for best actor. Heck, Sony Pictures Classics has even earned Oscars for foreign-language films "All About My Mother," "Talk to Her" and "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." So what's the big deal about Spanish being spoken in some parts of "Three Burials"?

So forget that theory. Perhaps the studio got control of the film too late in the gold derby? Or maybe "Three Burials" had a flawed release schedule? Sony gave it a qualifying run in New York and L.A. for a week in mid-December, then yanked it in favor of going wide after Oscar nominations come out. That's rarely a winning strategy. It worked for "Pollock's" Marcia Gay Harden, but what other films? "Three Burials" will be released nationally on Feb. 3.

"Three Burials" was backed by a hefty blitz of "For Your Consideration" ads in the trade papers. It was screened widely to the industry and critics, receiving rave reviews from the L.A. Times, N.Y. Times, Variety and Hollywood Reporter. The L.A. Times declared: "Incisive yet supple, wrenching yet deeply pleasurable, 'The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada' easily ranks among the year's best pictures."

Are "Three Burials" Oscar chances now dead and buried? Or do you think there's a chance it could pop up among nominees to be announced on Jan. 31? If not, tell us what you think went wrong. Click "Comments" below and pipe in!

Photo: "Three Burials" had lots of full-page "For Your Consideration" ads like this one, which appeared in Variety and The Hollywood Reporter.
(Sony Pictures Classics)

The comments to this entry are closed.


I have been a admirer of Tommy Lee Jones' work for over 30 years; and would have driven much farther than the 50 miles I drove to watch "Three Burials....". I see heart and soul when to see his work. He certainly outshines Clooney in directing and acting talent. The heroes he plays and directed have morals and values. This is something our society needs to see much more of. He weaves beautiful stories that his audience can learn from. These awards are so political, like so much else in life, it's not fair. I think the movie was released too late; the distributor did not release it at enough theatres; and the distributor chose to put much more backing behind "Capote". The acting in "Capote" was excellent; but the movie did not compare to "Three Burials...". Tommy Lee Jones speech at Canes was heartwarming and sincere; but, part the the reason for the lack of backing and awards may he been his. I believe him to be an extremely intellegent man; and for this kind of man, I would expect it to be difficult to show patience for those of us who can not think as fast or understand a subject matter as quickly and easily as Tommy Lee with his high IQ. I read an interview with Tommy Lee by Mike Szymanski. In the interview Tommy Lee susposenly made the comment, "I'm smarter than most of the directors that I work for". During another interview I read which he gave to Lee Grant, supposenly Tommy Lee made a comment to an audience member, during a Q@A session. He was quoted as saying, "Is that the best you can do? Is there an intelligent question out there?" I would think those comments would hurt the audience member's feelings; and I don't think the electorial committee would approve or empathize with is comments either. Regardless of why Tommy Lee was not given enough credit for this outstanding movie, his perforance, the performance of his cast, and his directorial style, said something very meaningful to me, and I'm sure to the hundreds of thousand of other people who watched "Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada" I can't wait for his next project!!!

It's such a great film, I actually believe it is Tommy Lee Jones' best performance ever, I thought Barry Pepper was oscar worthy. The screenplay was exemplary as usual since Guillermo Arriaga delivers another great filming experience after the great original scripts of AMORES PEROS & 21 GRAMS.

The film's most powerful point comes from the great friendship between Tommy Lee Jones and the dead Mexican guy. And how similar they really are...

Great FIlm. My # 3 Film of the year, just after BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN & CRASH

I guess I don't have a habit of listening to the critics. I've found that I disagree with them on all counts. I've never liked a movie that they raved about and liked movies they disliked.
I'd see the movie and make my own decision.
From watching the trailers of 3B, there is enough English in the movie to follow it. Other movies have dubbed in English without a problem.
I don't see superbowl weekend as being a problem. A person can always tape it. Unless they plan to go in person to see it.
Maybe the person/persons making the film isn't concerned with whether or not it "WINS".
I believe there will be some surprises at the oscars.

Never heard of this movie!
Why do they wait so late in the year to release movies? None of us get a chance to see them before the awards season. I had many week-ends through out the year where I WANTED to go see a good movie and there were none out there for months.

I think the reason it hasn't been generating any Oscar buzz is because it hasn't been playing in very many theaters. I'll bet it's only showing in LA, NY and San Francisco so ordinary folks like myself won't see it until it comes out on DVD 6 months from now. Same can be said for Terrence Malick's The New World no sees it, no buzz at all.

Iwan ko ba at puro kayo sat sat. Panoorin niyona lang ang palikula at marami kayong matutunan. ..espanis nga lang.

'wag kalimutan, manood ng "Bona".

Not having seen "Three Burials...", I can't comment on Tommy Lee Jones' performance or the movie itself. But my guess is that many would consider Mr. Jones' performance as the biggest strength of the movie. At least on the drama side of things, Heath Ledger and Philip Seymour Hoffman have been getting all the attention and I believe without fail either has won every major late season best actor award. Other actors like Joachin Phoenix or Jeff Daniels even have had some kudos bestowed upon their work this past year, but only because their movies are classified as musical or comedy category, and thus there seems to be more buzz around their chances of nabbing a nomination on January 31. Back to "Three Burials...", there doesn't seem to be any other aspect of the movie that has been able to drag either Tommy Lee Jones or the movie into Oscar buzz talk. Perhaps if the Best Actor talk was not solely such a "Heath v. Philip" match-up with everyone else being an also-ran, Tommy Lee Jones' performance may have been enough to bring the movie into that Oscar talk. That seems to be what's happened to "Capote".

Obvious gay theme? Loneliness, heartbreak, closeness to animals, bad food(?)- the entire lexicon of brokeback symbology? Obvious clues to its not too well buried impulses?

In the penultimate scene, no less?


I said it's because none of the characters were gay.


I thought LPB's comment about the film not having any gay characters was meant to be funny ... It certainly made me laugh.

There's not necessarily any valid artistic reason why Three Burials has been excluded. Sometimes the reasons are silly. Everyone wondered why Cinderella Man wasn't the huge success it was supposed to be. To me the answer was obvious and had nothing to do with the quality of the movie (for the record, the quality WAS mediocre). The reason was -- no one wanted to see another boxing movie. We had all just seen Million Dollar Baby. 99% of the population is not that interested in boxing as a subject for a movie or as a sport. I know many people (including me) who went to Million Dollar Baby under duress because of the hype, and they all said there was no way, three months later, that they were gonna sit through ANOTHER movie full of fight scenes. It's as simple as that.

I haven't seen Three Burials. My theory is the title. As soon as I heard that title during the Cannes Festival, my thought was, eeeuuuuwwww, change the ugly title or it's gonna tank.

I mean that half-facetiously, but only HALF.

Politics, it's all politics. Tommy Lee Jones is a far better actor than George Clooney. George Cloony is too into himself. Jones is a great actor and the picture is outstanding.

Politics, it's all politics. Tommy Lee Jones is a far better actor than George Clooney. George Cloony is too into himself. Jones is a great actor and the picture is outstanding.

I saw The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada at the Los Angeles AFI Fest, and believe me, it's one of the best films I've ever seen this year, its complexity and ideology go far beyond Giant. It's mostly about friendship and humanity, placing away borders and ideologies. This film is about redemption. Its cinematic craft is magnificent.

It's totally opposite of pretentious movies like Crash (a critics pleaser), The Constant Gardener (an academy voters pleaser), or Good Night and Good Luck (a media pleaser). The Three Burials is more honest and it's on my list of great movies this year, like Brokeback Mountain, The New World, Capote, Match Point, Walk the Line, or even The Producers. Burials has everything against its own, not only its long title or the amount of Spanish the characters speak, it's mostly the political events that are coming to American in February in a congrest near DC. Plus to open on a Superbowl weekend is an other disastrous move from the distributors that they got not other space avialable, so they're forced to do it agains their will so they must open on the worst weekend of the year for a movie. Maybe it will be better to keep it that way and not to go directly to a DVD distribution. Sensorship can be done in many different ways and in this case economically. The film is there, for us to take the decision and watch it.

For me, the Oscar nominations are for best actor, Tommy Lee Jones, best actor on a suporting role, Barry Papper, and best original screenplay, Guillermo Arriaga. But to talk about Estrada now, it could be too late for the members of the academy to see its qualities. At least Cannes, the most prestigious film festival in the world recognized the talent of its actor and its writer with the Palm d'or at the Film Festival. Congratulations to the filmmakers and actors for this extraodinary cinamatic achievement.

Nonsense. Burials had an obvious gay theme - one rough guy gets revenge for the death of another rough guy and in the process becomes really close withanother rough guy. Loneliness, heartbreak, closeness to animals, bad food - the entire lexicon of brokeback symbology. If you're paying attention in the penultimate scene there are such obvious clues to its not too well buried impulses as to make B. Mountain seem positively main stream red state macho.

Umh. Like selling Fords, Chevy's and Nissans the best award often goes to he or she who markets best. In Toronto, Capote was hyped as a great film. Great performance maybe, I remember see Mr. Seymour on stage in jeans talking about the movie. The film I don’t remember much of it but then again it was September.

I didn't understand the film Capote. Aeon Flux I understood for its subtle themes were revealed through pretext. The critics hated Aeon and loved Capote. Capote I wanted to go to sleep on after spending $20. For a $1.50 I stayed awake for Aeon.

Why would I go see a film with a long title? Do I really want to hear Spanish on film when I have Univision? Perhaps as a writer I would venture to see this film Feb 3, but then again it’s Super bowl weekend in Detroit. So I will pass until when and if it makes it to the discount theater. This is another example of Hollywood taking a great film, trashing it then complaining about box office receipts. I hope it gets nominated, but then again when was the last time Ford won a design award. Ciao.

I think it was the distribution assuming it would automatically get some Oscar attention. Seems the nominees have pretty much been chosen; I'm sure they'll be a surprise or two but this movie doesn't seem to be on anybody's radar. There was no heat on his project so I don't think you can compare it to "Million Dollar Baby". Then there's the matter of no (or very few) critics awards. Why didn't it get any of those? Did the critics see it? If they didn't, don't you have to look to the distributors?

LPB - your observation is priceless !!

My offering: a pretentious'd put me off

Idon't believe it has anything to do with a lack of gay characters. I believe there must be some amount of dislike for Mr. Jones. Does he maybe have a little bit too much of that Old Hollywood persona-arrogance and all?

Let's see, Caapote, Brokeback....

Hmmm, maybe it's because none of the characters are gay?

I mean, Mr Jones does well to wear that cowboy (sheepherder?) hat in the poster, but that's not really enough.



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