Will 'The Hobbit' bring more Oscar gold to Middle-earth?
The long-awaited two-part film version of "The Hobbit" is finally being filmed in New Zealand under the direction of Peter Jackson, having triumphed over the financial soap opera surrounding MGM, various union woes and Jackson's health issues.
The story line in "The Hobbit" takes place some six decades before "The Lord of the Rings," whose sprawling cinematic adaptation has taken its place in the Oscar pantheon for a variety of reasons. For example, it is the rare fantasy film to be nominated for best picture, much less win.
Despite the hullabaloo, only one actor from the original trilogy scored an Oscar nod: Ian McKellen as Gandalf in "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring." He is reprising that role in the "Hobbit" films.
Also set to return: Andy Serkis as Gollum, Elijah Wood as Frodo and Cate Blanchett. Since she last appeared on screen as elf queen Galadriel, Blanchett became an Oscar winner (supporting actress of 2004 in "The Aviator") and has expanded her packet of career nominations to five.
Martin Freeman will play the heroic Bilbo Baggins in both films, taking over the role from Ian Holm. Freeman is best known from the U.K. version of "The Office" and the cult films "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" and "Hot Fuzz." He recently played a modern Dr. Watson in the TV series "Sherlock."
Costar Richard Armitage, who'll play Thorin Oakenshield, is known to American viewers from the recent "Robin Hood" TV show and the popular spook series "MI: 5." James Nesbitt will take on the role of Bofur the dwarf; Americans have seen him in the films "Bloody Sunday," "Millions" and "Welcome to Sarajevo" (he's also a regular presence on British television screens).
None of those gents has a relationship with Oscar just yet. For that matter, neither do a mix of Irish, British and New Zealander actors who will play assorted dwarves: Jed Brophy, Adam Brown, John Callen, Mark Hadlow, Peter Hambleton, Stephen Hunter, Rob Kazinsky, William Kircher, Graham McTavish, Mike Mizrahi, Ken Stott, Jeffrey Thomas and Aiden Turner.
Many Oscar forecasters felt Sean Astin was a cinch for a nomination as the endlessly loyal, self-sacrificing Samwise Gamgee in "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King," but it didn't happen. However, he did receive a different Oscar nomination. Astin and his wife, Christine, shared a nod for best live-action short film in 1994.
Even though its actors failed to receive much recognition from Oscar voters, the original "Lord of the Rings" trilogy earned a pile of hardware, enough to rival the mountain of gold guarded by Smaug the Dragon in "The Hobbit."
In 2001, "Fellowship" claimed four wins from a whopping 13 nominations: cinematography, makeup, music (original score) and visual effects.
The following year, "The Two Towers" won for sound editing as well as a second consecutive triumph for visual effects, from six nominations that included best picture. Neither director Jackson nor his co-scriptwriters were nominated.
Then we come to the 2003 sweep: 11 nominations, 11 wins. Not only did "Lord of the Rings: Return of the King" tie the record for most victories held by "Titanic" and "Ben-Hur," but it also surpassed the accomplishment of both by going undefeated. Among the highlights: a third visual effects triumph, songstress Annie Lennox sharing in the music (original song) win, and designer Richard Taylor becoming one of an elite group of multi-Oscar winners with trophies three and four (he won a fifth in 2005 for "King Kong"). Jackson and Walsh each took home three chunks of academy gold that night.
We can expect "The Hobbit" will do as well as its predecessors in the technical categories. But will the academy take a chance on its sprawling cast of performers? Will McKellen become one of only a few actors to earn repeat Oscar nods (or wins) for the same role?
-- Tom O'Neil
Photo: Peter Jackson on the set of "The Hobbit." Credit: Weta / Peter Jackson