Posted in Film

The Sandra Bullock Files #42: The Blind Side (2009)

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The Sandra Bullock Files is a series that looks at the films of Oscar-winning actress Sandra Bullock, all the way from her debut in 1987, to her two major 2018 releases, Ocean’s Eight and Bird Box.

I remember that Sunday night like it was last week. All my life I had loved the Academy Awards, and all my life I had loved Sandra, and suddenly, unexpectedly, two of my favorite things lined up into one amazing event. As much as I love Sandra, and as much I always knew she had better work in her, I had my doubts that Sandra would ever even be nominated for an Oscar, let alone win one. Crash and Infamous showed that with a great script and director, she absolutely could be in contention, but after practically suffocating in movies like Premonition and All About Steve, I wasn’t sure if the stars would ever align, not just for Sandra to finally be taken seriously, but for her to give a performance so beloved that she’d be recognized by her peers. Early 2010 was such a surreal time for Sandra fans, as we watched her collect trophy after trophy, kiss Meryl Streep at the Critic’s Choice Awards, bow in front of Warren Beatty at the Screen Actors Guild Awards, and arrive to the Oscars on Sunday, March 7th, as the frontrunner for Best Actress. After a long, not very exciting show, Sandra’s moment finally arrived.

When Oprah Winfrey and Forest Whitaker, among others, took to the stage, I turned to my friend Katie Bode and said, “Someone needs to be filming me. I’m going to freak out if she wins.” So when Sean Penn stumbled up to the microphone, the envelope in his hand, I started pacing the room — and the camera started rolling. Even as the seconds ticked down to the big reveal, I wasn’t sure if Sandra’s name would be called, but I also felt like, if she ever had a shot at winning, this was her year. Would Sandra have won the year before if she had been up against Kate Winslet for The Reader? No way. Would she have beaten Natalie Portman for Black Swan a year later? Probably not. The only other real Best Actress contender of 2009 was Meryl Streep, in Julie & Julia. But even though she’s great in that film, and hadn’t won an Oscar since the early ’80s, she’s only in half the movie. Penn opened the envelope and read, “And the winner is… Sandra Bullock, in The Blind Side.” I started jumping, screaming, rolling around on the floor. I even had to excuse myself from the room for a moment, I was so excited.

When I think of The Blind Side now, it’s hard to separate the movie from awards season, and especially my crazy Oscar reaction video that received nearly 100,000 hits and comments like “this guy need to be blind sided by a bus” (my personal favorite), so it was a joy, really, to revisit the film nearly five years since its release to see if my initial reaction had changed at all. When I saw The Blind Side opening night in November 2009, I walked out satisfied but unmoved. I’ll never forget the first words I said to my friend Katie when we walked out of the theater: “Sandra was good but she’s not gonna be nominated.” So here I am, one of her biggest fans, and I didn’t even think she would receive a nomination, despite the fact she went on to win every award known to man that season. Is Sandra’s performance as Leigh Ann Tuohy in The Blind Side on par with, say, Helen Mirren’s in The Queen, or Meryl Streep’s in The Iron Lady? Of course not.

But what I missed the first time while I watched The Blind Side was the smart subtle choices Sandra makes throughout the movie. The first time I kept waiting for that big “Oscar” scene, where she would start crying and scream with joy toward the ceiling about how much she loves her new adopted son. Sandra only goes big, so to speak, in a couple of scenes, like when she yells at the gang members. Most of her powerful moments, though, take place when she’s quiet, when you just watch her thinking. At the time even I wasn’t sure if Sandra’s performance in The Blind Side was worthy of the Academy Award, but when I look at the film now, away from all the hype and hoopla of awards season, I see that she was absolutely the best choice to win. She is terrific in this movie.

Aside from a third act conflict that slows the pacing down a bit, The Blind Side works on many levels, as a football movie, a family drama, a rags-to-riches story, and a journey toward self-discovery, both for Leigh Anne and for Michael Oher (Quinton Aaron). The film is based on a true story, about a rich white Christian family of four who take in a poor black seventeen-year-old named Michael, whose GPA never reaches above 1.0 and who’s been in and out of foster care his whole life. After he becomes more comfortable in his new family unit, he tries out for football and becomes the star player, ultimately earning scholarships to any college of his choosing; a few years later he became offensive lineman for the Baltimore Ravens of the NFL. It’s one of those stories you wouldn’t believe if it were fiction. It’s truly inspiring, and writer/director John Lee Hancock (Saving Mr. Banks, The Rookie) is smart in letting the events unfold in a mostly traditional way, without too many directorial flourishes that could have gotten in the way of the narrative.

What I love most about The Blind Side is the family dynamic the director and actors manage to create. Sandra told Charlie Rose, in a revealing interview in early 2010, that she struggled in finding a way into the character of Leigh Anne the first day of filming, but that once the family unit arrived on set, everything started to click. The four actors play off each other really well, and never in a way that seems forced. Tim McGraw may not be the best actor in the world, but he comes off as very natural here, especially in his quieter scenes with Sandra. I love the way he accepts Leigh Anne the way she is and allows her to take control when he knows there’s no stopping her. The kids are adorable, Jae Head as S.J. and Lily Collins as Collins. Head is the movie’s prime comic relief; it’s amazing how funny and refreshingly authentic he is throughout, never coming off as a dumb movie kid. Collins, the older and pretty teenage sister, easily could’ve been the cliché smart-mouth of the family clan, but instead is warm and genuine throughout. It doesn’t seem like Quinton Aaron, as Michael, would fit in with these people, but he does, almost from the beginning — and with each scene that passes, we want him to be included without judgment in this family.

But more than anything, this film gave Sandra the chance to finally stretch her acting muscles on a large-scale capacity. While she did terrific dramatic work in Crash and Infamous, her screen-time in those movies is limited. In The Blind Side, she’s the star, and she never has one false move. I love her introduction in the movie, her pushing past teenagers, yapping away on a cell phone, trying to get to a seat for her daughter’s volleyball game. We know in her very first shot the kind of woman we’re about to meet. She’s loud, pushy, speaks her mind — and, as her husband attests to a lot throughout the movie, always gets her way. Of course there’s the look, with the long blonde hair, glossy make-up, affluent conservative wardrobes. But deep down she’s the kind of woman who wants to do the right thing, so when she comes across Michael shivering in the cold, she doesn’t let ten seconds pass before she decides to take him home. Sandra and Aaron work well off each other, especially as he grows more tender and affectionate toward her. Of course it didn’t hurt that while filming this movie, Sandra in real life was getting close to adopting a baby boy of her own, enabling her to truly relate to this story and character. (In her Oscar speech, she even says, “what this film is about for me are the moms who take care of the children and the babies no matter where they come from.”)

Some may look at her “bigger” moments in the movie as her best, like when she tells off the woman at the DMV, or when she schools Michael on the football field about how to treat his teammates like a family. I, however, also love the subtle moments, like when she asks Michael if he’d like to be a part of the family, and has to excuse herself from the table when her eyes start welling up with tears, or the way she looks at him when he says he’s never even had a bed before. Sandra could have overplayed some of these quieter moments, but she never does. She becomes this character, through and through. She never tries to go for that emotional close-up, and she never lets any “Sandra Bullock-isms” seep into the performance. Part of what makes her performances in Crash and Infamous so startling is that she really does lose herself, of everything we know about her. She disappears into Leigh Anne from the very beginning, and, while she manages to be funny and vulnerable and caring, qualities she exudes both in other films and as a human being, they are all essential to the character, and the arc she gets to play over the course of this very fine film.

The Blind Side opened on November 20, 2009, up against Twilight: New Moon, which, of course, enjoyed one of the biggest opening weekends ever. Even Sandra herself questioned the decision to open The Blind Side against a juggernaut like the Twilight sequel. Of course the choice turned out to be an inspired one, given that The Blind Side opened with $35 million, went up in profit the second weekend, and stepped ahead of New Moon in the third weekend to become the nation’s number one movie. Why the love? Everyone enjoys a good sports movie; mix in a fascinating true life story and Sandra, at the top of her craft, and a hit you are practically guaranteed. The movie is notable for being the first to cross the $200 million-dollar mark at the box office having only one actress’s name above the title. Topping out at $256 million nationwide, The Blind Side became one of the most profitable films in recent history, proving that Sandra was not just still America’s sweetheart, but also one of a few select actors who can bring in audiences of all ages.

2009 was Sandra’s banner year at the movies, and even though the three films she made are definitely inconsistent in terms of quality, each one demonstrated the different kinds of women Sandra’s capable of playing. In The Proposal, she plays a powerful book editor who prefers to be alone. In All About Steve, she plays a crazy stalker loner who just wants to be accepted. And in The Blind Side, she plays a devout Christian wife and mother of two who takes a kid in need off the street and ends up changing her family’s life forever. These three roles couldn’t be any more different from each other, and they did a great job that year in showing the kind of range she has, and how adept she is at both comedy and drama.

But as much fun as The Proposal is, and how perfectly dreadful All About Steve turned out to be, it’s The Blind Side that marked the great turning point in Sandra’s career. For fifteen years, between Speed and The Blind Side, I kept lamenting how Sandra continued to pick bad scripts and mediocre directors. She was rarely stepping out of her comfort zone, or taking on material that might challenge her. Of course that all changed after The Blind Side, because the following year Sandra signed on for Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, directed by thrice-Oscar-nominated Stephen Daldry, and Gravity, directed by the great Alfonso Cuaron. Would Sandra have been considered for Gravity, if it hadn’t have been for The Blind Side? Not likely. As ridiculous as it sounds, winning an Academy Award raises your pedigree in Hollywood, especially for someone like Sandra, who might not have been thought of for more weighty dramatic roles in the past. Many probably wouldn’t have immediately thought of Sandra for the role in The Blind Side, and thankfully John Lee Hancock did. With this beloved film, Sandra finally got to show what she could do. Today? There’s no stopping her.

Best Scene: Sandra explains to Michael how playing football is about protecting the family.

Best Line: “If you so much as set foot downtown, you will be sorry. I’m in a prayer group with the D.A., I’m a member of the NRA, and I’m always packing.”

Fun Facts

For this film, Sandra won the Academy Award, Screen Actors Guild Award, Golden Globe Award, and Critic’s Choice Award.

The Blind Side was nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. It lost to The Hurt Locker.

This film is the highest grossing sports drama of all time.

This is the first movie to gross more than $200 million that features a sole actress’s name above the title.

When Quinton Aaron auditioned for the film, he was working as a security guard.

Julia Roberts was offered the role of Leigh Anne Touhy, but turned it down. She also turned down the role of Margaret Tate in The Proposal. Sandra should be happy Roberts likes to say no to things.

Sandra has strong ties to the south. Her father was from Alabama, and she was born and raised in Virginia, and attended college in North Carolina.

Sandra took a pay cut to make the film and agreed to a percentage of the profits, which turned out to be a very smart move on her part.

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