'Les Miserables' first look: We saw it and Anne Hathaway killed

Hathaway is a slam-dunk for best supporting actress and "Les Miserables" is poised to take the most nominations including best picture.

Anne HathawayAnne Hathaway in 'Les Miserables' (Photo: Universal Pictures)

Anne Hathaway: Start writing your acceptance speech. Now that I've seen "Les Miserables," I can confirm that "The Dark Knight Rises" star, who plays the doomed factory-worker-turned-prostitute Fantine -- and sings her tonsils off -- has hit a very high note. In her supporting turn, Hathaway sings the signature song "I Dreamed a Dream" and brings the audience to tears. She's like musical meat tenderizer -- once the tears start flowing, they don't stop for the rest of the movie.

Director Tom Hooper (who won an Oscar for "The King's Speech" two years ago) cast Hathaway perfectly. She has star power to burn, has the bones to look good emaciated in rags -- and vocal talent. This is the kind of strong, critical supporting role that undeniably scores Oscars. (She'll get the Golden Globe, too!)

And here's something that I learned at the post-screening Q&A: Hathaway's mother, who was in the audience, played the role of Fantine in a Philadelphia production when Anne was only seven. Hathaway appeared onstage afterward, her hair having grown to an appealing, but still short, Peter Pan-pixie. In the movie, Fantine sells her locks to pay a debt, and Hathaway gave hers up on camera for the role. "When I eventually looked in the mirror I just thought I looked like my gay brother," she told the by-invitation-only audience.

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'Les Miserables' Sneaks for Stars and Industry Insiders at Alice Tully Hall

I saw the movie at the very first public screening Friday at 3 P.M. at Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall. Also in attendance were Hathaway, Hooper and co-stars Eddie Redmayne, Amanda Seyfried and Samantha Barks. I brought my team of experts -- my two vocally-trained teenagers and their musician father. I admit it: I don't have a musical ear so I brought in some ringers. As the pumped-up crowd filled all the seats in the theater, I spied a man in the wings of the stage, drinking a bottle of water and pacing. I thought it was a stagehand but, no, when the house lights dimmed it turned out to be Hooper himself, pacing nervously and peeking through the curtains to get a look at the audience.

Oscar-winning Director Tom Hooper Gives Thanks

When the tall, jeans-clad English director -- last seen picking up his Oscar for "The King's Speech" two years ago -- took the stage, he opted for a charming humility. He told the capacity matinee audience: "I'm thankful that I've finished." He confessed that he'd completed the film at two a.m. He also quipped, "I'm grateful to Victor Hugo, who can't be here with us." The classic novel's author died in France in 1885.

The Audience Thanked Hooper with a Standing Ovation

Hooper didn't need to worry about the audience reaction. The crowd was as rapturous as tween girls at a "One Direction" concert. They greeted the conclusion of the many, many musical numbers with applause and clapped for the director and each performer at the end credits. If you tracked the applause, it seemed that Jackman, Crowe, Hathaway, Redmayne and newcomer Barks got a little extra love. Then came the standing ovation. Yes. And it was spontaneous.

But remember, it was spontaneous among a New York crowd of insiders anticipating a big success -- or a big failure.

Hathaway, Hooper, Redmayne, Seyfried and Barks live off screen

Then the stage lights came up on four director's chairs. The stage crew added more, and more, and then Columbia University professor Annette Insdorf introduced the talent: Hooper, Redmayne, Barks, and Hathaway -- but not Seyfried. "What kind of mother would I be if I didn't introduce my daughter, Amanda Seyfried," Hathaway generously corrected the oversight, referring to the actress who plays her child, Cosette, on screen. It turns out that Seyfried had played the role before in an amateur production at fifteen.

The discussion led off with what anybody who has seen the film's featurette at the movies (I saw it at the Poughkeepsie Galleria before "Skyfall" with a skeptical crowd of Bond watchers) already knows: the singing was all performed live so that the actors could both emote and sing. This method, in contrast to the common practice of laying down tracks beforehand and then lip synching on set, allows the actor more freedom and captures the spontaneity of live performance. The result is largely successful although there are times when both Jackman and Crowe seem to be delivering songs in that chat-sing way that recalls Rex Harrison in "My Fair Lady."

[Video: Behind the scenes of 'Les Miserables']

Hugh Jackman will be nominated for best actor

As the protagonist Jean Valjean, Jackman goes from rotten-toothed battered convict to natty mayor to fugitive surrogate father, aging a good twenty years along the way. We knew he can sing -- he starred in "The Boy From Oz" on Broadway -- but there are times when he goes for the emotion and talks out the lyrics to the detriment of the melody. And, truth be told, the melodies of the songs become a little monotonous. (My husband claimed Neil Diamond's "I Am, I Said" started playing in his head.) In fact, Jackman may just be better than the material, and it's possible that my expectations were so high that I was a little disappointed. And, in the end, he's up against Daniel Day Lewis in "Lincoln," which is still the performance to beat as far as the Oscars go.

Crowe can sing, but Redmayne can sing better

Oscar-winner Crowe has a band and he can sing in a rich, powerful voice as the relentless antagonist Inspector Javert. We love him as the villain. But sometimes his delivery is a bit "yawning," an issue of diction. The revelation is Redmayne, as Marius the romantic revolutionary that falls in love with Cosette (Seyfried) at first sight. He just pulls out every stop in every scene he's in. His tortured, tearful songs of thwarted love prove that Hooper's commitment to live singing works. We've seen the actor before, most recently in "My Week with Marilyn," and I saw him on Broadway in the drama "Red," but this is the kind of performance that makes him pop. If "Les Miserables" will get one best supporting actor nomination in that race, I'm risking a bet on Redmayne.

'Les Miserables' will be nominated for best picture -- and could earn the most nominations ever

"Les Miserables" will definitely be among the five best picture nominees. As my Gold Derby colleague Tom O'Neil wrote after seeing the movie this weekend: "'Les Miserables' could set two records. One would be for most nominations. Currently, that honor is held by 'Titanic' (1997) and 'All About Eve' (1950), which earned 14... 'Les Miserables' could [also] set a record for most acting bids in one film."

Is 'Les Mis' a slam-dunk for Best Picture?

I wouldn't bet on the musical to win just yet. The field is competitive, with "Lincoln," "Argo," "Silver Linings Playbook" and "Zero Dark Thirty" in the mix. Another critical Oscar-race movie -- "Django Unchained" -- will screen this week in time for the New York Film Critics Circle to vote on the morning of December 3rd. Full disclosure: I'm a member and it's unlikely that "Les Mis" will win our best picture. It's just too mainstream for the group, which may honor "The Master," "Zero Dark Thirty," or "Lincoln." Or the Circle may go in a completely contrary direction and crown Michael Haneke's "Amour."

The takeaway: "Les Miserables" is a major contender, and a landmark movie adaptation of the wildly popular mega-musical that opened on Broadway in 1987 and satisfied a legion of bussed-in tourists. That said, given the huge wealth of talent -- not only in acting, singing, staging, costuming and directing -- I would have been more swept away if it had been channeled into a musical I like more, say, "A Little Night Music," "The Drowsy Chaperone," or "Promises, Promises."

"Les Miserables" won't premiere for the general public until Christmas Day.

Watch Anne Hathaway sing in the trailer for 'Les Miserables':

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