A few days ago a Tom O’Neil-fed notion about Tom Hooper’s Les Miserables becoming a “monster” Oscar sweeper crept into the conversation. Okay, maybe. But a couple of nights ago a counter-notion was implied (i.e., not firmly asserted) by a fellow who knows a Les Miz contributor. The notion is that it might be more of an acting vehicle thing (particularly benefitting Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway) than an overall Oscar fireworks thing. A solid, admirable, workmanlike job but that’s all.

This is joined in my mind with observations…reminders, I mean…from Gold Derby‘s Tom O’Neil as well as Glenn Kenny on yesterday’s Oscar Poker that the Les Miserables material is familiar and classic and not exactly thrilling in and of itself, and that the stage musical is over 25 years old and quite traditional and retro-defaulty by today’s standards, and Tom Hooper‘s innovation of having the actors sing live on the set is (this was a Kenny riff also) doesn’t necessarily mean that the film will work splendidly. Live singing may seem to some like an exciting new approach to shooting movie musicals, but what will finally matter is whether or not Les Miserables works altogether…whether the entire working mechanism harmonizes in a way that inspires “wow, that was truly exceptional!” or “that was an entirely respectable rendering of a classic musical that was all the rage in London and Broadway back in the ’80s.”

If the latter impression dominates and Les Miserables becomes merely one of the Best Picture contenders instead of (according to O’Neil’s maddeningly coy tipster) possibly the Best Picture contender, then you’ll have an uncertain and perhaps even mysterious Best Picture race on your hands — an egalitarian race without a frontrunner or heavyweight contender, a competition among jacks and knaves and outliers without a big gorilla (or gorillas) that everyone’s looking to beat.

I fully expect, mind, that many of your typical 62 year-old white male Academy members will default to Les Miserables because of its traditional, classical bones and humanist aspirations and because of its (presumed) showiness and those (expected) emotionally grandstanding performances, blah blah. But if it finally settles in as a highly respectable venture rather than a revolutionary knockout, the stage will be set for some kind of Best Picture street fight.

Les Miserables is the new favorite among the Gold Derby contributors….a sudden “massive shift,” in the words of Tom O’Neil.