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Peter Bart: ‘Poor Things’ Oscar Wins Prove Voters’ New-Found Appetite For Dark Horses

The Greek provocateur seemed to be smiling throughout Oscar night. In the past he’d delivered films with titles like Dogtooth and The Lobster, and his newest, Poor Things, was now stockpiling the statuary even as Hollywood’s filmmaking elite looked on, perplexed.

Yorgos Lanthimos’ code-busting Poor Things was winning not only successive awards (four in all) Sunday but also the exuberant applause from an audience that seemed to welcome change. Even chaotic change.

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Oppenheimer won the big prize on Oscar night, of course, but Oscar voters once again demonstrated their support for the product of the filmmaking underclass. The Scorsese-Spielberg-Ridley Scott fraternity looked on while dark horses like Lanthimos, or, a year earlier, the Daniels (Kwan and Scheinert) from Everything Everywhere All at Once, stole the action. CODA from Sian Heder was the surprise of 2022.

Does all this reflect a restive mood? “The power of Poor Things stems from its unique ability to polarize filmgoers – they urgently love it or hate it all at once,” observes marketing guru Kevin Goetz, CEO of Screen Engine/ASI. “Fortunately more loved it.” All in all, Poor Things may stand the potential this year of enjoying a substantial “Oscar bump” worldwide.

An unabashed art film, Poor Things played 40 film festivals last year amid the talent constraints imposed by the strike. It’s poised to bust past the $100 million milestone in worldwide gross (Barbie will pass $1.4 billion).

Like Oppenheimer, the plot of Poor Things is focused on a scientist – albeit a more erratic one who contrives to bring Emma Stone back to life, her woman’s body governed by an infant’s brain. Her stumbling misadventures would initially delight a Disney audience but ultimately prompt a nervous breakdown among code enforcers.

Stone’s ever-changing persona is ultimately served and violated by two baffled admirers, Mark Ruffalo and Ramy Youssef.

She confessed her Best Actress award left her stunned (“I blacked out,” were her words.) Oscar bet-makers were also in shock.

As with his earlier films, Lanthimos’ work elicited mixed reviews. Manohla Dargis in the New York Times found Poor Things “a study in calculated dissonance” that left her feeling ”bludgeoned” rather than entertained. ComScore’s Paul Dergarabedian noted that “the comedy seemed devoid of a commercial concept like The Fabelmans” (it nonetheless proved more commercial than the Spielberg film).

Its pungent dialogue emanated from Tony McNamara, an Australian whose past work includes The Favourite, also a Lanthimos project, and the equally rambunctious TV series The Great, which stars Elle Fanning as a Russian empress (Lanthimos was not involved).

Will ticket buyers respond to the idiosyncratic humor as exuberantly as the Oscar voters? Academy membership over the past three years has become younger and more international. When I personally was recruited for Academy membership at age 29, it was made clear to me that it wasn’t about me — my younger “demo” was urgently needed.

At that filmmaking moment the list of revered directors included Henry Hathaway, William Wyler and Leo McCarey – a talented if traditionalist fraternity. Though some had been born and trained in Europe, like Michael Curtiz of Casablanca, their work reflected the Hollywood discipline. Academy voters applauded their films but there was a widespread feeling that new attitudes – fresh blood – was needed.

It is unclear whether either Poor Things or Everything Everywhere would have won their acclaim.

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