The first-ever screening of Tom Hooper's "Les Misérables" received a rapturous standing ovation on Friday afternoon in New York. Audience members -- many of whom belong to the guilds that will end up casting votes for Hollywood's top awards, including the Oscars -- also applauded many of the film's big musical numbers, including Anne Hathaway's "I Dreamed a Dream" and Hugh Jackman's "Bring Him Home," as well as the ensemble cast's "One Day More." If other audiences prove half as enthusiastic, Universal Studios could have its first Oscar winner for Best Picture since 2001's "A Beautiful Mind."
Hooper, whose last film, "The King's Speech," won Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor and Best Original Screenplay at the 2011 Academy Awards, informed the revved-up crowd that he had just finished "Les Misérables" at 2 a.m. on Friday morning, making them the first people to see the completed version. His unorthodox decision to have the actors sing live rather than lip-synch to pre-recorded tracks caused some skepticism early on, but the bet appears to have paid off. During a Q&A session following the screening, Hooper said the approach helped establish intimacy between the actors and the audience -- something he felt was important, given the emotional intensity of the material.
Hooper said his very first casting decision was to put Hugh Jackman in the role of Jean Valjean, the ex-prisoner who creates a successful new life for himself under an invented identity. In fact, he said, "If Hugh Jackman didn't exist, I don't think I would have done the film." The decision to cast Russell Crowe as Valjean's nemesis, the relentless Inspector Javert, flowed from the first. Referring to Jackman's recurring role in the "X-Men" films, Hooper said he asked himself, "Who's capable of intimidating Wolverine?" and realized there were only a few actors on the list.
Hathaway, a Best Supporting Actress favorite on the strength of the film's trailers alone, acknowledged losing weight to play scenes where her character, Fantine, is ill, but said she wished the media would stop obsessing over her diet and start talking about her co-star Jackman, who lost a full 30 pounds for the opening sequence, where Valjean toils as a prison slave. She also said it was her idea to have her hair actually cut during a scene where her character sells her locks to a wig-maker. And though she was nervous about undergoing such a dramatic makeover in the run-up to her wedding, she said the final result wasn't so bad: "When I eventually looked at myself in the mirror, I just looked like my gay brother. It was fine."
The film also features strong performances by Eddie Redmayne, Amanda Seyfried and the British actress Samantha Barks, all of whom appeared with Hooper following the screening, as well as by Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter, who did not. "Les Misérables" opens in the U.S. and Canada on Christmas Day.