Given its breakout box-office success, "Juno" is now a heavyweight contender for an Oscar best-pic nomination and star Ellen Page may be emerging as the best-actress frontrunner.
The $3.2 million that "Juno" just earned on Friday in less than 1,000 theaters is the second-biggest haul ever for such an indie flick, falling shy of the $8.2 million record set by "The Blair Witch Project" on 1,101 screens in 1999. "Juno" continued to rack up more than $3 million per day since then, bringing its tally to $25.7 million. Its momentum suggests that it'll soon surpass other notable indies in this derby, including "No Country for Old Men" ($41 million). It's already surpassed "Atonement" ($11 million), but that's in restricted release — on only 310 screens for now.
Fox Searchlight is so juiced by "Juno's" early success that it's upping its rollout to a total of 2,000 screens next weekend. The film being billed as "this year's 'Little Miss Sunshine'" will surely end up outshining last year's best-pic nominee, which earned about $60 million in the U.S.
What makes "Juno" glow are two things: Ellen Page's radiant performance and Diablo Cody's sizzling script. Cody already has the Oscar for original screenplay locked up. Now "Juno's" mega-success presses Page ahead in the actress' derby, too. Up till now she wasn't getting sufficient respect because she portrays an uppity, pregnant 16-year-old who deserves a good slap. But actress Page is really a 20-year-old Serious Thespian deserving serious attention from Oscar voters now that her movie has been endorsed so enthusiastically by film critics (Roger Ebert trumpets "Juno" as the best picture of 2007) and moviegoers. She's also campaigning agressively, by the way. You can catch her on David Letterman 's show on Thursday night, Jan. 3.
Page has recent Oscar history on her side. Look at the best-actress champs over the past 10 years: 6 were first-time nominees. Voters love ingénues, especially if they're sexy — and that's Page, in a quirky kinda way. One of Page's chief rivals is 66-year-old Julie Christie ("Away from Her"), who's still sexy, sure, but not in that winking, come-hither way of Helen Mirren, who won last year at age 61 after unbuttoning her bra on the cover of Los Angeles magazine. Shrewdly, Mirren played up her randiness in a bawdy way last year and managed to appeal to the usual Babe Factor in this race. Recent winners have almost all been hotties coveted by the ole geezers who dominate the motion-picture academy: Charlize Theron, Halle Berry, Hilary Swank, Nicole Kidman, Julia Roberts. Other than Mirren, only one woman past the age of 50 has won an Oscar for acting over the past 15 years (Judi Dench, "Shakespeare in Love").
Christie isn't playing along saucily like Mirren for now, thus hurting her chances. Futhermore, her movie's a big downer, story-wise, since her character suffers from Alzheimer's. Will voters even watch it? I wonder. Every year I continue to be flabbergasted by the huge number of major films that voters don't bother viewing, even though they have the DVD right on top of their TVs.
Pundits who don't put Christie out front in the best-actress derby are mostly betting on Marion Cotillard ("La Vie en Rose"), who, at age 32, is comely and she has the lovely advantage of portraying a real-life famous person, just like four of the past five winners. But Cotillard has disadvantages. Who really cares — let's be honest — about Edith Piaf, eh? And, besides, Cotillard doesn't do the Little Sparrow's singing and that's obvious while watching "La Vie en Rose." Jamie Foxx won best actor despite not crooning Ray Charles' tunes in "Ray," yes, but he played the piano, he portrayed a blind man (disabilities always help, of course) and he and Charles are both popular Yankee showbiz figures.
"Sweeney Todd" continues to be a curious wild card, which means Helena Bonham Carter does, too. Ten days after opening, it's still pulling in more than $2 million per day despite being a bizarre, R-rated musical that invites its audience to cheer on cannibalism and a razor-wielding murderer. It's not catching on as a wild hit, but that may not matter if it continues to hold on in theaters, picking up repeat viewers and word-of-mouth late-comers. Then it'll still be considered a success, "Sweeney" will remain in the best-pic race and Carter will benefit.
It's difficult telling how "Atonement" is playing out, being only in 310 theaters for now. If it wins best picture, Keira Knightley — who certainly fits the Babe Factor profile — can go along for the ride into the lead-actress winner's circle, but she's only in half of the film and her role isn't showy. Nowhere do we see her pleading for morphine like Cotillard or having a mental breakdown like Christie.
Amy Adams could be this year's Oscar Babe, but "Enchanted" is probably too silly. That babe Angelina Jolie is impressive in a real-life role in "A Mighty Heart," but she's won in the supporting race in the past ("Girl, Interrupted," 1999) and now she's sullied by this film's failure at the b.o. and her own life in tabloid headlines.
(Photo: Fox Searchlight)