Awards Profile: Freeheld

Moore and Page make for a cute couple, no?

Freeheld Featured

Welcome 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.”

FREEHELD

Directed by: Peter Sollett
Written by: Ron Nyswaner
Cast: Julianne Moore, Ellen Page, Luke Grimes, Steve Carell, Michael Shannon, Mary Birdsong and Dennis Boutsikaris

Synopsis: New Jersey car mechanic Stacie Andree and her police detective girlfriend Laurel Hester both battle to secure Hester’s pension benefits after she is diagnosed with a terminal illness.

Why it might succeed:

During awards season campaigns, it’s not uncommon to hear actors muse on what a “transformative” experience making a certain movie was; how it changed them or caused them to see things differently. After a while those kinds of declarations become hard to take without a grain of salt, but in the case of Freeheld, the upcoming drama about a dying police detective’s battle with the New Jersey Board of Chosen Freeholders to transfer her pension benefits to her partner, it is absolutely true for at least one of its stars.

The story of Laurel Hester and Stacie Andree was first told just one year after Laurel’s death in February 2006 in the Academy Award-winning documentary short of the same title. The film itself is a touching, appropriately enraging account of the mental gymnastics bureaucracies will engage in to deny treating certain people with a base level of modern decency. Here’s the big million-dollar question at the heart of Freeheld’s driving conflict: should federal employees be able to transfer their pension benefits to their domestic partners the way they would be able to with spouses? Oooh, oooh, I know the answer to that one: yes. Okay, let’s move on and…oh, what’s that? We’re going to debate this and couch the issue as something other than veiled bigotry? Awesome. Thanks a lot, New Jersey!

Three years later, Ron Nyswaner, the Oscar-nominated screenwriter of Philadelphia and The Painted Veil, got the idea to turning this documentary into a full-length feature, and very shortly after attracted the attention of Ellen Page, who has made it her passion project ever since, which ended up being a real test of her persistence. It took years to secure financing from Incognito Pictures, Endgame Entertainment, Vie Entertainment, Double Feature Films, and the director of the Freeheld documentary short to finally get enough money to complete, and rumored directors ranged from Nyswaner himself to thirteen director Catherine Hardwicke before finally tapping Peter Sollett of Raising Victor Vargas and Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist in 2013.

I cannot imagine how much longer it would have taken to get this project off the ground without two Academy Award-nominated figures pushing for it, but as soon as the reality of it became apparent, Freeheld quickly became a hot-ticket item. It snagged recently Oscar-nominated Steve Carell to play civil rights attorney Steven Goldstein (replacing Zach Galifianakis) and Oscar nominee winner Julianne Moore was cast has Stacie’s terminally ill partner. While still in post-production, the film ignited an aggressive bidding war from only a 12-minute “sizzle reel” shown to distributors at the Berlin Film Festival (Lionsgate ended up winning).

But perhaps the most significant development related to Freeheld came in February 2014 at the Las Vegas at the Human Rights Campaign’s THRIVE conference, where Page made this announcement:

It is impossible to conceive of her decision to come out as not being at least partially inspired by Freeheld, and having to promote it while staying in the closet was likely, understandably, an unendurable prospect for her. Her years-long attachment to getting this film made has positioned her as the movie’s figurehead, and her efforts stand a good chance of paying off in a big way this year. Setting aside the buzz it gathered in Berlin, the story of Freeheld is already ripe for a poignant, beautiful depiction of love overcoming prejudice, with two main characters more than compelling enough for seriously impressive performances from both Page and Moore.

But there are many supporting roles with the potential to stand out as well. In particular, Carell’s turn as the Garden State Equality founder should be a nice reprieve from his creepy turn in Foxcatcher last year. Michael Shannon will be playing Dane Wells, Hester’s partner on the force who was unaware of her homosexuality and eventually became one of her biggest supporters.

Truth be told, I don’t see a whole lot of reasons not to look forward to this either as an awards hound or just a general movie lover, but there are some potential pitfalls…

Why it might not:

Moore and Page make for a cute couple, no?
Moore and Page make for a cute couple, no?

Peter Sollett, whose last film was film was…fine, but hardly anything special enough to lead anyone to believe he has the chops to make this far more ambitious movie sing. Raising Victor Vargas does happen to be an excellent movie, but that was twelve years ago. Ron Nyswaner is also a question mark for me. Yes, yes, I know he was nominated for Philadelphia, but that script has not aged well and almost certainly wouldn’t have cut it in the eyes of today’s audiences and critics. If he doesn’t understand that, Freeheld might be a letdown.

This is also not exactly the kind of movie that attracts a lot of attention below-the-line citations. That’s not to imply Maryse Alberti’s cinematography, Jane Musky’s production design or Stacey Battat’s costumes won’t be worthy of recognition, the reality of what the Academy nominates doesn’t look good for their chances.

And while this doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with Freeheld’s award prospects, but a sticking point nonetheless: don’t you just know that Lionsgate is going to try to push one of these two obvious main characters as a “supporting” part? Hell, I’m sure several dittohead Oscar pundits will buy into it, too, because we all seem to have accepted the tortured heteronormative Oscar logic that there can only be one of each gender considered as the lead role. Hey, sometimes a publicist has to do what they have to do to get their clients recognized. Trust me, I get it. But for the sake of our own integrity (and, frankly, our intelligence) let’s not pretend that such a move is anything less than an underhanded ploy, okay?

Oscar Potential:
Picture (Kelly Bush, Richard Fischoff, Duncan Montgomery, Jack Selby, Michael Shamberg, Stacey Sher, James D. Stern, Scott G. Stone and/or Cynthia Wade)
Director (Peter Sollett)
Adapted Screenplay (Ron Nyswaner)
Lead Actress (Julianne Moore and/or Ellen Page)
Supporting Actor (Steve Carell and/or Michael Shannon)
Supporting Actress (Mary Birdsong)
Film Editing (Andrew Mondshein)
Makeup & Hairstyling (Therese Ducey and Jeremy Selenfriend)