f you’ve checked out our first Buzzmeter, you’ll see that I buck the pundit tide and boldly predict that “Sweeney Todd” will win the Oscar for best picture.
No, I haven’t seen the film adaptation of the Stephen Sondheim Broadway classic yet, but I have now heard from enough viewers to feel confident that I’m making a shrewd, if recklessly early call. They’re all deliriously passionate about it — in fact, they’re as mad for it as Sweeney is for his revenge-wreaking razor — and so far it’s the only film on the scene to inspire this kind of joy.
“Sweeney Todd” does that to people, even though they’re actually rooting for a deranged chap to slash men’s throats. It’s a proven recipe for Oscar victory, tattling on Hollywood’s sick dark side. Let’s recall that the last musical to win best picture — “Chicago” — also asked viewers to cheer on characters to get away with murder.
But “Sweeney” does it much more deftly in an artistic way. Sondheim’s musical score is a masterpiece. By comparison, “Chicago’s” score is bad Britney Spears. Viewers can’t help but get swept up in “Sweeney’s” lush melodies and raging drama, as they’re seduced into egging on his quest for vengeance against old Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman) who wrongly sent him to prison in order to steal his wife, then, after she reportedly dies upon swallowing poison, plans to wed and bed Sweeney’s lovely young daughter.
I was in New York City in 1979 when “Sweeney Todd” first cast its mad spell on audiences. Broadway went berserk. Media and Manhattan’s fancy folk couldn’t stop talking about it. Beware: America’s moviegoers are about to go through the same mania when they inevitably become smitten with its irresistible bloodlust, artistic brilliance and twisted love tales.
Being a fan of the Rialto production, I had misgivings about this screen adaptation at first. I heard that director Tim Burton cut out lots of its musical score and made it very Sweeney-centric. He significantly trimmed Mrs. Lovett’s role — the goofy, love-struck baker who fills her meat pies with his victims because it “seems an awful waste,” she sings. “I mean, with the price of meat / what it is/ when you get it / if you get it.”
But now I hear that Burton didn’t cut out, well, the real meat of her role. She still breaks audiences’ hearts even while Sweeney continues to ignore her, which means Helena Bonham Carter is a serious contender for best actress at the Oscars. Her stage predecessor, Angela Lansbury, won the equivalent Tony. The show won eight in all, including best musical, director (Hal Prince), actor (Len Cariou). The only category it lost was lighting.
Thus — since Burton & Co. do not, apparently, screw things up —I think “Sweeney” is a good bet to sweep the Oscars next. Yes, there’s the serious issue of Johnny Depp’s “singing.” He doesn’t do it well, but I hear that he sells his feelings with such passionate bravado that he compensates adequately, much like tone-deaf Antonio Banderas managed to pull off — miraculously — in “Evita.” When Depp gives up even trying to sing, I hear that he attempts a kind of sing-speak, which worked fine for Oscar- and Tony-winner Rex Harrison in best picture champ “My Fair Lady.”
“Sweeney Todd” isn’t just any show. Arguably, it’s the greatest in Broadway history. All Burton & Co. have to do is not mess up and its dramatic power will carry them to glory.
I believe “Sweeney Todd” will win picture, director and actor. Now it seems clear that Helena Bonham Carter will be nominated for lead actress, but it’s unclear yet that she can win. A few months ago Angela Lansbury told me not to worry.
“I think this young woman is very capable of doing something very interesting,” she told me about Carter taking over her role as Mrs. Lovett. “Because she’s English. She knows London, the East End. I think you’ll be surprised. I hope to be able to say that it’s going to be good.”