Will 'Harry Potter' finally get some respect from Oscar voters?
I hate to ask a question that I already know the answer to, but if you've been wondering whether "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2" is going to win a best picture award next spring, the simple answer is: No. On paper, you'd think the movie would have a real shot at Oscar glory. After all, it's a box-office phenomenon, easily on its way to being one of the biggest blockbusters in recent memory. It's also perhaps the best-reviewed movie of the year so far, having notched a sky-high 97% fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes, with nearly all the top critics gushing with praise.
Being the last, and arguably the best, in a long series of respected films, you'd think that the academy would let its emotions run wild, as they often do when a similarly beloved old actor--think Peter O'Toole in "Venus," Christopher Plummer in "The Last Station" or Hal Holbrook in "Into the Wild"--has one last shot at the Oscar brass ring.
But sentiment will only get you so far with the academy. Even though this looks like an especially weak year for Oscar contenders, it's hard to imagine the academy suddenly changing its tune when it comes to "Potter" mania. After all, it has shown precious little love for the "Potter" series. Even though the first seven films all scored highly with critics, ranging from a 79% for "Deathly Hallows 1" to a 91% for "The Prisoner of Azkaban," the academy doled out only nine nominations for the first seven films combined--and even then only in the technical categories, such as cinematography, art direction, costumes and visual effects.
Even though the Warner Bros.-produced films have been populated with a murderer's row of stellar British actors and all but one of the movies in the series was written by the noted screenwriter Steve Kloves, the "Potter" series has never earned a major acting, writing or directing nomination. And the films' batting average, when it comes to actual Oscar wins? 0 for 9.
This is why it's wrong-headed to compare "Potter" with the seemingly similar "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy, which racked up all sorts of Oscar nominations during its run, earning three straight best picture nominations and going 11 for 11 in its final outing, including a best picture victory. "Lord of the Rings" had more cachet with the academy, perhaps because it wasn't seen as a kid's delight, perhaps because its stories were loaded with what voters viewed as weightier mythic significance.
The "Potter" series has also been burdened, in terms of Oscardom, by its first two movies, which were directed by Chris Columbus, who was viewed as a middlebrow filmmaker, not someone whose work could be taken seriously.
If the academy were still playing by its 2009-10 rules, in which 10 movies would qualify as best picture nominees, you could probably reserve a slot for "Deathly Hallows 2." But the academy's new rules require that a film receive at least 5% of first-place votes during the first round of balloting to earn a best picture nomination. That translates into roughly 300 votes from the 6,000-plus member academy.
It's easy to imagine 300 academy voters viewing "Deathly Hallows 2" as a worthy best picture candidate. But would 300 academy voters make the film their first choice? That might be an insurmountable obstacle, even in a not especially competitive year, where the leading early contenders include Clint Eastwood's "J. Edgar," Alexander Payne's "The Descendants," the George Clooney-directed political drama "Ides of March" and, ahem, the prospect of something classy from the Harvey Weinstein Oscar hit factory.
When it comes to best picture nods, the "Harry Potter" films are in essentially the same category with Oscar voters as Pixar films. They are great examples of filmmaking craft, even if, for my money, they've never quite displayed the humanity or magic of J.K. Rowling's books. But as Pixar's creative team has discovered, best picture voters don't really reward craft anymore, certainly not craft as practiced by films that are geared to youthful moviegoers.
The academy is far more appreciative of weighty historical drama ("The King's Speech"), searing antiwar broadsides ("The Hurt Locker") or broad social statements ("Crash") than films that can be dismissed as pure entertainment, like the Pixar offerings or the "Potter" series. That doesn't mean that Warners will give up without a fight. Having made untold hundreds of millions on the series, Warners can surely afford to throw away a little bit of that loot on a classy Oscar campaign.
But will it be money wisely spent? I doubt it. In Hollywood, stereotypes die hard. Once the academy has written your film off as light entertainment, even the most powerful sorcerer in the world would have trouble persuading Oscar voters to change their minds.
Photo: Fans at opening night of "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2" at Grauman's Chinese Theater in Los Angeles. Credit: David Livingston/Getty Images