This starry 'Les Miserables' gets up close and personal

05:00 AM, Dec 18, 2012

Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway co-star in the musical 'Les Miserables.' Todd Plitt, USA TODAY/


Written By by Susan Wloszczyna, USA TODAY

NEW YORK — At one of the first press screenings of the hotly anticipated film version of Les Miserables held last month before its opening on Christmas Day, magic struck at the half-hour mark.

With street-grimy rags and butchered hair, Anne Hathaway as woeful prostitute Fantine whispers, weeps and angrily wails her way through a single live take of one of the stage show’s signature anthems of suffering, I Dreamed a Dream.

It was real. It was raw. And it wasn’t pretty. But that is the point in this highly intimate and extreme close-up interpretation of Les Mis, with its restless camerawork awash in the blood, sweat and tears of A-list actors pouring their hearts out.

Arriving early in the 160-minute proceedings, the number works as a litmus test for whether moviegoers will buy into this almost entirely sung tribute to the downtrodden hordes of 19th-century France that took the best-musical Tony way back in 1987.

Not only did Hathaway, whose haunting rendition already has propelled her to the top of the list of likely supporting-actress Oscar candidates, instantly reclaim the heartbreaking ballad from the melodic clutches of reality show sensation Susan Boyle. She also caused a goodly amount of the preview attendees to break into applause — when they weren’t dabbing at their eyes.

I’m so honored that people had that reaction,” Hathaway says when she learns of the response, the likes of which probably haven’t been heard in the land of musical cinema since a roaring Jennifer Hudson told us she wasn’t going in 2006’s Dreamgirls.

Never mind that Hathaway wasn’t there to savor it. “That it was illogical makes it even more wonderful.” In fact, she felt the same urge to clap after watching co-star Hugh Jackman as his runaway ex-con Jean Valjean valiantly vows to change his life for the better at the end of the prologue while Russell Crowe’s lawman Javert continues his relentless pursuit.

My hands came together but I stopped myself,” she says. “I was with about 10 people and I didn’t want to be the only one in a small group. But now I wish I had, because apparently it is happening.”

Take it as a sign that a musical warhorse has been resurrected and reborn.As a result, the unabashedly sentimental fable of strife, sacrifice, vengeance, love and redemption adapted from Victor Hugo’s 1862 classic novel and inspired by a real-life student uprising just might become the first of its genre to compete in the Academy Awards best-picture category since Chicago took the gold a decade ago.

Of course, the Mizfits — the moniker given to the most devoted of the more than 60 million people who have seen the production in 42 countries and in 21 languages— have been counting down the days ever since the movie was announced.

That includes Megan Fraedrich, 20, a Springfield, Va., native studying English literature at King’s College in London, where she recently camped out on the red carpet and scored a ticket to the premiere. Her reaction in a nutshell: “A tremendous, staggering masterpiece.”

Why did she wear out her parents’ old audio tape of the soundtrack when she was 16 and later see it five times onstage?

Musicals tend to get a bad rep,” Fraedrich says. “People always think of them as having this phony, forced cheeriness and lots of leaden dialogue interspersed with characters awkwardly breaking into song. Les Miserables has an authenticity and a purity of intent that makes it stand out. The fact that it is entirely sung-through makes it even more spellbinding.”

But while many early reviews of the film have been mostly positive, a few reveal not every critic is a pushover for such gilded melodrama.

Lisa Schwarzbaum of Entertainment Weekly damned the effort as “faux-opulent,” adding that sitting through it made her “long for the guillotines.” Richard Corliss of Time was even more blunt: “This is a bad movie.”

C’est la vie. The second-longest-running musical in the world after The Fantasticks has survived worse, including weak notices when it first opened in London in 1985. It has always been a musical by the people and for the people after all. But the veteran talents behind this translation, including producer Cameron Mackintosh, the British theatrical whiz and the pop-opera specialist also behind Cats and The Phantom of the Opera, as well as the original creators Claude-Michel Schonberg, Herbert Kretzmer and Alain Boublil, are keenly aware that movie musicals do not live by the enthusiasm of zealots alone.

We have to give them a reason to love the film,” Jackman says. “We couldn’t slavishly re-create the stage production. You want to be able to get through that screen, through that camera to the audience and allow them to have those emotional reactions you do with a musical onstage.”

And despite such post-Chicago successes as Mamma Mia! and Hairspray, movie musicals still are a risk at the box office. Just ask the folks behind such flops as Nine and Rock of Ages. Which is why the Les Mis budget was intentionally kept to around $60 million.

Just how did its makers attempt to convert those potential ticket buyers who, unlike George Costanza in a memorable episode of Seinfeld, don’t have the catchy comical ditty Master of the House playing on a loop inside their head?

Here are three of their smartest can’t-miss Les Mis moves.

Hiring an outsider. Since when did director Tom Hooper, the British history guy who was nominated for an Emmy for HBO’s John Adams and won an Oscar for the 2010 best-picture champ The King’s Speech, become Mr. Musical?

There is no Mr. Musical,” says producer Eric Fellner (Atonement, Four Weddings and a Funeral). “That was the question. Who the hell do you get to direct a musical? But after seeing The King’s Speech, you realized there was a piece of material that could have been very small. We thought the job he did was superb and figured if that is what Tom can do, then we should sit down and talk to him.”

Hooper, who describes his only experience of seeing Les Mis onstage as “spine-tingling,” became interested in drama at an early age before stepping behind a camera.

The very first thing I acted in when I was 11 was a musical, The Beggar’s Opera. I was part of Macheath’s gang.” He also is a sucker for The Sound of Music, which he watched again as part of his Les Mis homework. “Julie Andrews just brings so much unabashed joy to it that it lifts your heart.”

That is where Les Mis comes in.

The thing I felt most proud about The King’s Speech is how it made people feel and it delivered such powerful emotion,” he says. “I wanted to find a piece of material that worked on that visceral level. Les Miserables is an incredibly powerful vehicle to deliver huge emotion to an audience. It has music in its DNA and so it’s probably even more tear-jerking.”

Jackman, who began his career in theater starring in a London revival of Oklahoma! in 1998 and won a Tony for The Boy From Oz in 2004, says of his director, “He has an innate musicality, but he’s not mired in the musical theater world, and I think that is a plus. He knows when to make the music soar and when to not let the music dominate.”

Sing loud, proud and live. Other movie musicals have featured live singing before, including the little-seen At Long Last Love. Others have also been sung throughout, most notably Jesus Christ Superstar, Tommy and Evita.

But Les Miserables is probably the first fully sung major movie musical — even the dialogue is done in operatic fashion save for a few spoken lines — performed completely live by its cast on camera instead of miming to a pre-recorded track.

Hooper insisted on no lip-syncing and his producers agreed. “When you are singing to a mimed playback, even if the synchronization is done very well, there is a part of you that knows something is false,” he says. “When it is live, you believe it that much more immediately. And it allows the actor to make stuff up as he goes along. They have complete freedom.”

As a result, the sounds of music might not be as perfect as it is on stage, but allows the audience to more readily accept that everyone is singing every line. “I wouldn’t do the movie if I couldn’t do it live,” he says. “That emotional connection with the characters is needed.”

Enhancing that link was Hooper’s decision to shoot much of Les Mis in closeup, something he could achieve because his actors were so well-prepared. “There was no issue with having to cut because they could do it in one take.”’

Cast a wide net. Old and young. Rich and poor. Depraved and saintly. With its considerable ensemble cast, there is at least one character for everyone to relate to. And the cast is similarly diverse. Established stars: Jackman, Crowe and Hathaway as well as comic relief from Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen as the Thernadiers, thieving innkeepers and guardians of Fantine’s daughter Cosette. Rising talent: Eddie Redmayne of My Week With Marilyn as student revolutionary Maurius and Aaron Tveit of Gossip Girl as dashing rebel Enjorias. Fresh faces: Samantha Barks, a discovery of Mackintosh’s making her film debut after playing Eponine in the West End production and on tour.

Most wisely, homage is also paid to the past with Colm Wilkinson, the original Valjean, playing the charitable bishop opposite Jackman, and Frances Ruffelle, the original street waif Eponine, who shows up as one of the Lovely Ladies.

But most agree that the MVP is Jackman. Mackintosh has been trying to make a movie out of the crown jewel in his collection of musical gems since the late ’80s. But there is at least one reason he is glad he waited: “Did a Hugh Jackman exist 25 years ago who had that experience with both the stage with music and in the cinema?”