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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)


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