Awards Profile: Southpaw

southpaw_imageWelcome to the 2015 Awards Profiles series.  For the next two months, every day (except for Saturday), we will bring you a run down of a future 2015 film that we see as a potential awards vehicle for next year’s Academy Awards.  This is all speculative since with just about all these films, we haven’t seen a frame yet.  Nonetheless, we venture on.  If you miss a film, then click on the tag “2015 Awards Profile.”

SOUTHPAW 

Directed by: Antoine Fuqua
Written by: Kurt Sutter
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rachel McAdams, Naomie Harris, Forest Whitaker, Victor Ortiz, Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, Tyrese Gibson, Rita Ora
Synopsis (courtesy of IMDb): “A boxer fights his way to the top, only to find his life falling apart around him.”

THE STORY OF SOUTHPAW:

Gestating back to 2010, Southpaw began as a long awaited second motion picture, looking to star rap legend and Oscar winner Eminem (Marshall Mathers). Mathers was drawn to the concept of the film and screenwriter Kurt Sutter (“Sons of Anarchy”) cultivated much of the story based on additional elements drawn from the rapper’s life, separate from the material Mathers approved for use in 2002’s semi-autobiographical 8 Mile.

Sutter even at one point described the film as something of a de facto sequel to 8 Mile, building upon Eminem’s Rocky-esque rapper story. Mathers, however, has a notorious reputation inside Hollywood for turning down many opportunities to return to the big screen. He famously turned down the lead role in Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium and balked at the chance to play Mickey Ward in David O. Russell’s Oscar-winning The Fighter. With Matt Damon and Mark Wahlberg assuming Eminem’s discarded roles, he seemed committed to Southpaw until rumors starting swirling in November 2013 that he may bail on the project. Those rumors were confirmed in March 2014, when Eminem was out and Jake Gyllenhaal was the man tapped to replace him.

With the man the script was written off out of the production, Southpaw seemed down for the count. The arrival of Gyllenhaal invigorated the project and the timing could not have been better. Gyllenhaal was, and is, in the height of a remarkable reinvention of his career. When news broke of his appearance in Southpaw, he was on the eve of delivering two of his most critically acclaimed performances in Enemy and Nightcrawler.

Gyllenhaal gave himself over to the process and director Antoine Fuqua. Fuqua required the 33-year-old actor to train twice a day for seven days a week. “I took him to almost every fight. I had him train at Floyd Mayweather’s gym in Vegas and we watched Floyd’s fights, and the Manny Pacquiao fight. He trained in New York at Church Gym with real fighters. We literally turned him into a beast,” Fuqua told The Huffington Post last December. “Jake, my God, he’s a very electric, powerful fighter in this movie, and a guy who fights for his daughter. I’m confident that this will change how people see Jake, as a leading man.”

In Southpaw, Gyllenhaal plays Billy Hope, a boxer who loses everything and has to not only prove to himself he can be a fighter in the ring, but outside of it as well, with a young daughter hanging in the balance of each and every life decision he makes.

With a mix of talented, seasoned actors and musicians-turned-actors in the ensemble, Harvey Weinstein is starting to beat the drum for British pop/dance singer Rita Ora’s performance, portraying a junkie from Billy’s past. Boxer Victor Ortiz joins the cast, alongside rapper 50 Cent, R&B singer/actor Tyrese, and Oscar winner Forest Whitaker and Rachel McAdams and Naomie Harris.

WHY IT MAY SUCCEED:

The list of boxing movies that Oscar has fallen in love with is significant. Most recently, 2010’s The Fighter earned two Oscar wins for Supporting Actor Christian Bale and Supporting Actress Melissa Leo, while the film garnered seven nominations in total. Other boxing pictures like Million Dollar Baby, From Here To Eternity, On The Waterfront and Rocky all came home with Best Picture wins, while The Champ, Here Comes Mr. Jordan, the aforementioned The Fighter, and still somewhat shockingly, Raging Bull, each came up short.

Bull is an intriguing comparison because Gyllenhaal’s transformation into the role of Billy Hope, essentially a 63-pound swing from his turn as Lou Bloom in Nightcrawler (the actor lost 30 pounds for Nightcrawler and put on 33 pounds for Southpaw) is the type of transformation that rivals Robert De Niro’s in his Oscar-winning performance. Fuqua is not a filmmaker who shies away from telling tough stories in a gritty and uncompromising manner and 2001’s Training Day put Denzel Washington in the winner’s circle for Best Actor. And Gyllenhaal is an actor who has delivered four stunning and vastly different performances in each of his last four films – End of Watch, Prisoners, Enemy and Nightcrawler. He had huge support for Oscar nominations in all of those performances and the fact that he missed out on nominations for each one, especially last year for Nightcrawler, makes people feel, and perhaps rightfully so, that he is long overdue for a second acting nomination, following 2005’s Supporting Actor nod for Brokeback Mountain.

One nomination to keep an eye could come in Cinematography, as Oscar winner Mauro Fiore (Avatar) reportedly gives us a feeling of being directly in the fight with Billy, not just in the ring but outside of it as well.

WHY IT MIGHT NOT SUCCEED:

Antoine Fuqua is also the man who directed the astonishingly bad Olympus Has Fallen and the disappointing reunion with Denzel that was last year’s The Equalizer. In fact, Fuqua has not really delivered a terrific film since Training Day, a film which has some detractors all these years later.

This is also difficult to analyze and not wonder out loud if Southpaw is a film with one shot at an Oscar in the form of Gyllenhaal for Best Actor. The release date does no favors – July 31 sets the film up as something The Weinstein Company feels can catch some late-summer box office attention, but can it hold on through the end of a year that already has 40-45 other films jockeying for Best Picture consideration? If the Academy reverts back to a list of five nominees for Best Picture, is this thing sunk?

No film released in July has ever won Best Picture (Boyhood being the latest to validate that statistic) and since 1990, just six sports-themed films have been nominated for Best Picture.

Will Eminem be a part of the film’s marketing, even if the story is based on his real life, or will he ignore the film and even worse, speak out against it? Will Kurt Sutter’s distinctive writing style serve well as a screenplay? Can Fuqua find past glory again albeit within the confines of a boxing ring? Can Gyllenhaal pull off what he calls “the most demanding work of his entire career?”

OSCAR POTENTIAL:

Best Picture (in a field of 10 or up to ten)
Best Actor (Jake Gyllenhaal)
Best Supporting Actress (Rita Ora, based on Harvey Weinstein’s exuberant PR)
Best Original Screenplay (Kurt Sutter)
Best Cinematography (Mauro Fiore)
Best Film Editing (John Refoua)
Best Makeup & Hairstyling
Best Original Score (James Horner)

Purely speculative: Best Original Song (perhaps Eminem can come through with something new?)