Julianne Moore and Eddie Redmayne aren’t cross-dressing in fat suits or performing racially insensitive accents in their new movies. But have the two Oscar frontrunners found their Norbits?
With the release this weekend of Seventh Son and Jupiter Ascending, two critically panned films hitting theaters as Oscar voters are down to the wire filling out their ballots, they might have.
Norbit, should you have rightfully banished it from your memory, was the 2007 comedy that starred Eddie Murphy as several characters including a morbidly obese woman named Rasputia whose defining characteristic is “lazy” and an elderly Asian orphanage owner whose defining characteristic is “Asian.” The movie was so poorly received by critics (9 percent on Rotten Tomatoes), so riddled with offensive stereotypes, and such an embarrassment for Murphy that several pundits wondered—and perhaps were correct—whether it ruined his chance to win an Oscar that year for Dreamgirls. (Norbit did land an Oscar nod (!) for makeup in 2008.)
Murphy, you see, was all kinds of excellent in Dreamgirls, playing a drug addled falling star with the charisma of Eddie Murphy and the surprising song-and-dance chops of James Brown. After picking up Best Supporting Actor trophies from nearly every single awards group, including the Golden Globe and the SAG Award, Murphy was all-but guaranteed to win on Oscar night, too. He even had two Academy friendly narratives in his favor: career comeback and funny guy goes serious.
But then Alan Arkin won the Academy Award for his performance in Little Miss Sunshine. Murphy was so incensed and surprised that reports are that he stormed out of the theater after losing.
A slew of theories floated for why Murphy ended up losing the award that was supposed to be his. The older-skewing Academy voters might have simply been fond of Little Miss Sunshine, and even fonder of Arkin, who fits their old, white, guy demographic makeup to a T. Voters may have been put off by Murphy’s series of smug, self-righteous acceptance speeches in the lead up to Oscar night. (As we’ve noted before, voters do audition potential winners with their acceptance speeches at the precursor awards. No one wants a boring Oscar winner.)
But the Hollywood legend that still haunts Murphy’s Oscar loss is that it was Norbit that killed his chances. The reviled film’s release was unfortunately timed right as Oscar voters were filling out their ballots. A 2007 Los Angeles Times report quotes one voter at the time about their reaction to Norbit: “Every time I pass that billboard, it makes me sick.”
Considering Murphy’s eventual Oscar loss, the tagline on that Norbit billboard seems sadly prescient. It reads, “Have you ever made a really big mistake?”
After this weekend, Julianne Moore and Eddie Redmayne may be wondering the same thing.
The two actors are, with the deadline for Oscar voters to submit their ballots next week, the current frontrunners to take home Best Actor and Best Actress at this year’s Academy Awards. Oscar tradition predicts their wins. Every SAG Award winner for Best Actor has repeated at the Academy Awards stretching back to 2003 and there have been only three times since 1990 that the SAG Award winner for Best Actress didn’t also win the Oscar.
Both Moore and Redmayne won at the SAGs, and betting site Odds Checker currently has them both as the odds on favorite to win the Oscar. (Though Redmayne is much more vulnerable than Moore, with Birdman’s Michael Keaton as a potential spoiler.)
Obviously when actors are planning out their film dockets and signing on for roles, they have no idea that, come February of a given year, they’ll find themselves leading the horserace for Oscar. If they did, one would imagine that they wouldn’t allow films like Seventh Son and Jupiter Ascending to be released just as Oscar voting is winding down.
In Seventh Son, Moore plays a character described as “malevolently powerful witch” on one side of a war between forces of the supernatural and humankind. The film’s current Rotten Tomatoes score is 6 percent—worse than Norbit’s. Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir hits the nail on the head: “Why does this movie exist? And what the hell are A-list actors like Moore and [Jeff] Bridges doing in something that seems so clearly destined to perplex insomniac Starz viewers several weeks from now?”
And then there’s Jupiter Ascending. Woof, Jupiter Ascending. The film is sad. That’s not to say that it’s tragic or maudlin. It’s sad because it’s so embarrassing. It just so not a good movie. It’s bloated and empty and garish and obtuse and clichéd and, worse than all of that, boasts not a lick of entertainment value.
Eddie Redmayne plays the movie’s key villain, doing a sort of Ralph Fiennes Voldemort from the Harry Potter films mixed with, perhaps unintentionally, a heavy dose of Dr. Evil. He so admirably goes so big with his performance. And he falls so hard.
These films aren’t exact one-to-one comparisons to Norbit. For one, neither is as blatantly offensive as Murphy’s film was. And neither is as buzzy. Whereas Norbit’s trailers were omnipresent in early 2007 and everyone was talking about the film, albeit not positively, the level of awareness for Jupiter Ascending and Seventh Son is confusingly low—especially considering the jaw-dropping budgets the respective films had.
But while there is no science behind it or actual way of measuring it tangibly, the projects an actor has in release during their Oscar bid does influence voters. Sometimes it can influence them negatively, as we saw with Murphy. And sometimes it can really help an actor. Matthew McConaughey won Best Actor last year, and the fact that he was winning raves for his performance in True Detective at the same time voters were filling out their ballots hugely worked in his favor.
There certainly have been other cases where Oscar nominees have had dreadful films poorly timed with release dates in the prime of Oscar season. When Anne Hathaway was a nominee for Rachel Getting Married, she had Bride Wars. When Nicole Kidman was nominated for Rabbit Hole, she had Just Go With It. When Queen Latifah was nominated for Chicago, she had Bringing Down the House, and when Alec Baldwin was nominated for The Cooler, he had Along Came Polly.
But these cases don’t resonate as much as Moore’s and Redmayne’s do. None of those actors had a prayer of winning the Oscar in their respective years. And there are examples of Oscar frontrunners having a Norbit but overcoming any harm they could’ve done to their campaigns. Natalie Portman, for instance, won Best Actress for Black Swan while No Strings Attached threatened to derail her chances.
So Moore and Redmayne should breathe easy. It’s doubtful that The Norbit Effect will really plague them. But if either loses on Oscar night, they’ll certainly have something to think about.