Movie Article

Anatomy of an Upset

How ''The Pianist'' scored its surprising Oscar wins -- Politics, a low-key campaign, and Miramax backlash may have contributed to the Polanski picture's mini-sweep

Adrien Brody, Roman Polanski, ... | UP-SCALES Since his fugitive status kept director Polanski (below) from campaigning, star Brody was ''The Pianist'''s champion
Image credit: Brody, Polanski: Guy Ferrandis
UP-SCALES Since his fugitive status kept director Polanski (below) from campaigning, star Brody was ''The Pianist'''s champion

It's called ''The Pianist,'' but its Oscar campaign was so quiet it might have been titled ''The Pianissimo.'' In the juiciest upset since ''Shakespeare in Love'' beat ''Saving Private Ryan'' for Best Picture in 1999, the Holocaust drama (nominated in seven categories) clinched Adrien Brody a Best Actor victory over favorite Daniel Day-Lewis. Then it grabbed two more major awards, for Ronald Harwood's script and Roman Polanski's direction, trumping presumed front-runners David Hare (''The Hours'') and Rob Marshall (''Chicago''), respectively. What made the Academy change its tune?

In retrospect, ''The Pianist'' -- acquired by Focus Features at Cannes, where it won the Palme d'Or last May -- had more momentum than pundits recognized. It swept the National Society of Film Critics awards in January, then captured top prizes at France's Césars and Britain's BAFTAs. Meanwhile, a backlash seemed to be forming against Miramax's politicking for ''Chicago'' and ''Gangs of New York'' -- and studio cochief Harvey Weinstein may have inadvertently handed Polanski his award by splitting the votes for Marshall (the DGA winner) and Martin Scorsese (Harvey's choice); a controversial print endorsement for Scorsese, ghostwritten by a publicist and credited to director Robert Wise, may have been one arm twist too many. In what became a welcome contrast to such boosterism, Focus took a low-key approach -- partly because it had to.

''Roman [Polanski] has not done interviews anywhere,'' says Focus copresident David Linde. ''Not even in Cannes...Adrien has been the spokesperson for the movie.'' That's because Polanski has given up trying to talk about his work without being questioned about fleeing the U.S. in 1978 after pleading guilty to statutory rape. In fact, the story resurfaced in the thick of campaign season. First, the underage girl Polanski had sex with at Jack Nicholson's house 26 years ago emerged in late February (she's now 39) to say the director should be judged on his work, not his life. Then a lurid transcript of grand jury testimony from the case showed up on thesmokinggun.com. Academy members evidently grew suspicious of the timing, and what looked to be a smear campaign backfired -- though not before accusations and counteraccusations flew, including speculation that Focus had engineered the whole thing. ''Why would we do that?'' Linde asks. ''Ridiculous.... It's an unfortunate part of the way the game is played these days. But we will not participate in that part of the game.''

What Focus will do is expand ''The Pianist'''s run by roughly 200 screens this weekend (to a still-modest 740 or so), expecting to significantly improve on the film's $20 million gross to date. Its newfound marketability has surprised the filmmakers as much as anyone. Screenwriter Harwood literally stumbled through the postshow Governors Ball. ''I was so confused -- and deeply in shock,'' he says. It wasn't until the morning after that he was able to phone Polanski. Says Harwood, ''His voice was full of bubbles.''

(Reporting by Allison Hope Weiner)

Originally posted Mar 27, 2003 Published in issue #703 Apr 04, 2003 Order article reprints
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