One of the most bittersweet moments of last night’s Golden Globes occurred during the deployment of the Best Actress – Drama prize. Requisite shots of each nominee accompanied Mickey Rourke’s reading of their names: Emily Blunt, grinning in rather extreme close-up; Sandra Bullock, the favorite, perched and ready to rise; Helen Mirren, the distinguished elder; Gabourey Sidibe, the gleeful neophyte… and just prior to Sidibe, Carey Mulligan, the one-time favorite for this prize and perhaps every other in 2009, meekly clapping, dwarfed in the back of the room, all but invisible with the tiny entourage from her breakthrough An Education. The viewer knew just as well as Mulligan did: She didn’t have a chance. But why?
After all, it was almost a year ago when An Education’s Sundance premiere sparked instant Oscar chatter for Mulligan, not to mention a lightning-quick, seven-figure distribution deal with awards-savvy distributors Sony Pictures Classics. The 24-year-old ingenue’s performance as Jenny Miller — faltering at the fork in the road leading to either bohemian early-’60s living or a conservative Oxford education — yielded just the right class, brass and vulnerability to dazzle critics and Oscar voters. Assuming Sony Classics could strategically cultivate Mulligan’s It-Girl status in the months to come, the general public would fall in line behind them. Apart from Mo’Nique’s own towering performance in Precious, she was the closest thing to an Oscar lock Sundance had.
That remained the conventional wisdom throughout spring and early summer, when SPC and Lionsgate (which had bought Precious after a bit of saber-rattling with Harvey Weinstein) each clamped down on their stars’ and their movies’ visibility, carefully controlling against overexposure. But while Lionsgate secured a Cannes berth, a Toronto Film Festival gala and a prestigious centerpiece slot at the New York Film Festival for Precious, SPC went only so far as to drop An Education into Berlin and Toronto. It seemed a perfect fit for the NYFF’s opening-night selection (the programmers instead went for Alain Resnais’s Wild Grass, another SPC release), but Mulligan and her film remained hidden almost entirely from view as its Oct. 9 release date approached.
While that approach never stopped An Education from remaining near the front of the Oscar pack for much of 2009, you don’t need hindsight to conclude it was an overreaction against peaking too soon. That might work if you’re Mo’Nique, a brilliantly self-promoting, pay-to-play diva with whom Mulligan once shared an almost equivalent level of Oscar certitude. It isn’t working so well for Team Mulligan, however, which utterly failed to build any public image or brand for their awards hopeful. Any number of unknowable internal factors contributed to this, from Mulligan’s personal reluctance to play the game (especially after she started dating Shia LaBeouf) to SPC’s institutional thriftiness to simply taking an awards nod for granted, thus planning to regroup in February — after the Oscar nominations are announced — for a legitimate campaign.
All of those dynamics may have been workable four or five years ago, before the Oscars started drawing fire (and crummy ratings) for its seeming insularity. But in 2009, Team Mulligan most severely miscalculated where her real competition would come from. While Gabourey Sidibe was dancing with Ellen DeGeneres, for example, Mulligan wowed exactly no one on The Late Show with David Letterman (just one day before An Education opened in New York and Los Angeles, by the way). While Meryl Streep was dominating August as Julia Child, Mulligan was dolled up in the NYT talking about the “insane” people she encounters in Los Angeles while riding the bus to meetings. And while Sandra Bullock scored the biggest hit — and the most awards traction by far — of her career in The Blind Side, Mulligan idled inconspicuously the art house, where An Education never expanded beyond 317 theaters. On the one hand, sure: You don’t want it to turn out like Nine, overextended and flailing in medium-wide release. On the other, at least the Weinstein Company would wheedle and pester their actresses to nominations — or die trying, maybe even literally.
The consequences will come in waves. We witnessed the first in that sad scene at the Globes, with its lone shot of Mulligan as neither an underdog nor even a dark horse but — Heaven forbid — a slouching, cheek-biting also-ran. The next will arrive this week during Sundance, when some other budding actress will be coronated “this year’s Carey Mulligan,” possibly restoring a bit of late, insider luster to Mulligan’s awards-season standing. The last wave will come Feb. 2, when the Oscar nominations could snub her entirely in favor of a Weinstein special (Marion Cotillard, Melanie Laurent) or a late-coming ingenue (Blunt, Abbie Cornish — both of whom have Cotillard’s one-time Oscar guru Bob Berney working their cases behind the scenes). Despite myself, as one who was in that first Sundance audience and enjoyed the rare privilege of seeing a star born in person, I fear the worst.
Though Mulligan’s Oscar chances are flagging, they’re not unsalvageable. That said, what do you do if you’re Sony Classics? As noted above, Mulligan has been a cinch for a nomination for nearly 12 months; a new round of press or for-your-consideration ads probably just seems like a waste of money with that kind of myth and momentum behind you. Moreover, it seems like panic — such a Harvey move. Still, this is a young woman who was once expected to win this award, not just be satisfied with a nomination. (Surely SPC didn’t spend $4 million on this at Sundance to merely be nominated.) If ever there were a time to repeal this doctrine of underexposure — to get Mulligan in front of a few smart, Academy-concentrated audiences where her Oscar trajectory can find a boost before it’s too late — now is the hour. Suggestions?