Bombshell lives up to its title, and then some, and the explosive story of the scandal in which a group of women brought down Fox News founder and ruler Roger Ailes entered the Oscar race in a big way Sunday.
Stars Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman and Margot Robbie, director Jay Roach and screenwriter Charles Randolph appeared at the first night screening of the Lionsgate’s holiday release at Pacific Design Center, which was followed by a conversation with the quintet moderated by Madelyn Hammond. Earlier in the day the actors, along with co-star John Lithgow — who brilliantly plays Ailes — did a Q&A following a SAG screening in Westwood. Reaction was strong for a movie that is funny, fierce, furious, powerful, timely and moving — qualities that ought to secure it a place in the Oscar conversation as the season ramps up.
Lionsgate, which acquired the project after Annapurna put it in turnaround just two weeks before filming was to begin, is smart to get this out early, well before its December 20 release, in order to get the buzz going. And buzz at the post-screening reception Sunday night definitely was there, much of it centered around Theron’s uncanny and remarkable transformation into Fox News star Megyn Kelly, who became a key player in the eventual ouster of Ailes when she admitted 10 years earlier she — like so many women at Fox News Channel, famous or not — had similar stories to tell.
The real force in this case was the sexual harassment charges against Ailes and Fox by fired anchor Gretchen Carlson that became the beginning of his undoing. Kidman plays her in a touching portrayal that shows the personal and professional cost, of going into battle with a very powerful man and network. Robbie is is excellent as Kayla, a fictional character meant to represent an amalgamation of various women the filmmakers interviewed in creating the movie, employees who signed NDAs but can have their voice in Robbie’s character.
Theron, whose production company Denver & Delilah is one the entities bringing the film to fruition, also was a producer in addition to taking on the risky role of Kelly, which she admitted during last night’s Q&A she wasn’t sure about doing at first. At the reception Theron told me she had been involved with Roach in possibly producing a TV project, and when the then-untitled Ailes saga came along, she turned to him for advice on it. Roach, who directed the Emmy-winning ripped-from-the-headlines HBO movies Recount and Game Change, said “you have to make this movie,” and she got him to take the journey with her. Roach said part of the interest for him was that Fox News was among the most unlikely places where this kind of revolution could happen, and he praised Theron for playing a deeply conflicted character we aren’t sure about.
Theron related to that aspect of her. “I have no interest in playing heroes,” she told mne. “I like playing someone who is complicated and flawed, who at the beginning might be oft-putting.. … Women don’t always do the right thing. This idea of what a victim looks like, of what an abuser looks like is not black and white. It’s incredibly gray.” Theron mentioned the 2005 film North Country, which she made about the landmark 1984 sexual-harassment case by female miners in Minnesota, as an early example of how the once-unspoken subject is becoming a rallying cry for women whose voices finally are being heard. Bombshell demonstrates one more big step in bringing it all fully in the open — a long way from those miners in North Country.
“We are in a climate now that is pretty intense, and it is not cooling,” she added. “Now there is more safety in numbers and that is happening, which is why I think this movie is so powerful.”
Randolph, an Oscar winner for The Big Short, talked about the challenging creative choices he had to make in writing about a subject where “half the audience will already know more than you do,” referring to the well -publicized scandal that brought down not only Ailes but eventually veteran Fox News star Bill O’Reilly and others. Interestingly, the film was a “go” before the 2016 election of Donald Trump and before the Harvey Weinstein scandal set off the #MeToo movement. Now that it is coming out, it feels more timely than ever. “No woman, no matter what you think of her politics, deserved to be harassed. … This resonates way beyond that,” he said. Randolph also mentioned that Annapurna, where it was developed, had other encouraging projects this year about strong female characters, including Booksmart and Hustlers, the latter eventually taken over by STX. Lionsgate , in conjunction with Bron which was already on board having fully financed the film, joined in to rescue Bombshell when Annapurna backed out. Megan Ellison retains an EP credit.
Kidman, playing Carlson who got a $20 million settlement from Fox but isn’t allowed to discuss the details, looked at the human factor in taking on the role. “It’s such a personal experience. I would hope now women could think they could be heard and be believed.” She said she knew very little about Carlson or this story, but was making the second season of Big Little Lies when the offer came her way. Her answer became clear when she sought the counsel of a certain co-star in that show. “So I was sitting on the set and I asked Meryl (pause) Streep if I should do it and she said ‘yes!’”. Give Meryl 10%! Good decision.
Robbie, playing Kayla, connected to her character even though she is not an actual person. “She was so real to me even though she’s fictional,” she said. Roach added that they wanted to get input from everyone involved — the people it happened to as well as the actors playing them — and also noted how important this story is not just for women to see but also men. “Men have to talk about this,” he said. “People should be safe at work, and men are the problem.”
Lionsgate is planning to take the film and these kinds of screenings on the road before its December debut. In fact as you entered the Pacific Design Center theater, a big sign said, “Bombshell The Conversation Tour.” Theron mentioned they had some early screenings where the audience stayed for two hours or more just talking about the emotions and issues the film brings to the surface.
As for its awards prospects the early reaction would seem to indicate that it could resonate with voters, not just as an important film with food for thought but, as the moderator pointed out, a hell of a political thriller that has you on the edge of your seat. There should be consideration for Best Picture, Director, Screenplay and other tech credits. In a just world, Theron would be in strong contention for Lead Actress in a portrait of Kelly that goes way past the voice and prosthetics to create the essence of a person caught up in her own ambition versus doing the right thing. Both Kidman and Robbie likely will be in the mix for Supporting Actress, though the latter will be competing for attention against her own lovely performance as Sharon Tate in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Veteran Lithgow adds yet another deserving name in the impossibly crowed Supporting Actor race. All the actors in the large Bombshell cast are so perfectly chosen, including a best-yet performance from Kate McKinnon and a dead-on turn from Allison Janney as Ailes lawyer Susan Estrich, that a SAG Cast nom should be in the offing.
Right now Lionsgate’s main job should just be in getting Bombshell seen. The film’s considerable merits should take care of its eventual awards fate.