I’ll happily jump on the bandwagon* and laud Anne Hathaway (and cast**) for the latest, and best movie version of Les Misérables. Hathaway has already snatched a Golden Globe nomination for her turn as Fantine, and buzz for an Oscar nod is high.
Fans of the musical may lament that Hollywood stars do not have concert hall voices. Don’t buy the soundtrack to Les Mis, the movie. Because it’s not the stage play, or even Les Mis, the concert version. It’s a movie.
The movie musical historically shies away from close ups and too much cutting. After all, what’s impressive about Fred and Ginger on roller skates in Shall We Dance is that there’s only one cut in the entire dance sequence. Judy Garland was one of few stars who given real singing close ups (notably in The Wizard of Oz and For Me and My Gal). Doris Day got some, but got more medium shots and duets. To the credit of the film’s director, Tom Hooper, much of Les Mis is shot in close up, especially the solo numbers.
Acting in front of a camera is much different than being onstage. Singing in front of a camera is too. Hooper had the cast perform each song live. They are not lip-syncing their performances. Hathaway, and her fellow Hollywood celebs Russell Crowe, Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen earned their keep singing, but the reason they and not the stage cast should be in the movie is the difference between stage and screen. On stage, the voice must be perfect. In the last row, they can’t see your face as much as they can hear your voice. On the screen, the close up sells emotion, not the voice.
In one long, close up take, Hathaway performs the emotional bulk of Fantine’s standout number, “I Dreamed a Dream” with virtuoso, heart-wrenching ethos. The reason Hathaway deserves and Oscar is not because she has the perfect voice for the part. She doesn’t. Her voice is nice. It’s lovely, but it’s not Patti LuPone. But her performance is a textbook on acting for the camera. She sells the emotion of the scene by doing the work of an actor. Hathaway has said that when she watched the film her tears at the scene were because of her emotional connection to the character, necessary as an actor. Her technique is flawless. She is Fantine, and the moment is all too real. Those two minutes on film are jaw-dropping. When you listen to the performance, it is flawed. This is not the concert version. But when you watch the performance, it is flawless, because the moment is so raw and so true.
According to an interview in the Huffington Post, the scene was shot over twenty times, and Hooper used the fourth take. Performance on stage is nightly, organic communion with an audience because of live presence and immediacy. Performance on film is the truth under scrutiny. One critic has said the camera never lies, it just makes things bigger than life. Hathaway’s performance will hold up under critical gaze for as long as a film can endure.
The popularity of the film will probably wax an wane, as it does for all films. The stage musical’s popularity is bound to endure, and find a new audience because of the film’s success. For that, both the stage and screen performers and fans who love it should be please. And that’s why, when Anne Hathaway receives the Oscar she deserves, she should thank LuPone, and every actress who as ever brought Fantine to life. They have all told the story faithfully. Hathaway (and Hooper) know the medium, and understood how to translate Victor Hugo’s story and the musical’s artists (like Claude-Michel Schönberg, the composer) work into the medium for which language is shot and performance is fitted to a smaller frame.
*The Bandwagon is a 1953 MGM musical starring Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse. It was directed by one of the kings of movie musicals, Vincent Minelli.
**While Hathaway’s performance is standout, don’t overlook Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Samantha Barks, and the rest of the cast, who also understood and used the medium well. Kudos, Tom Hooper, kudos.