Can Harvey really pull off an 'Inglourious Basterds' victory?
You gotta give Harvey Weinstein credit. When it comes to Academy Awards campaigns, he is the maestro, an indefatigable manipulator of every Oscar pundit in need of a fresh story angle for a dreary, overly long Oscar season. The Big W is at it again this year, having set off a slew of credulous "Can 'Inglourious Basterds' win?" blog posts after boasting to Gold Derby's Pete Hammond that "Basterds" had victory in its rifle sights. As Weinstein put it: "We're going to win best picture. This is the movie people love and it's Quentin's time. We are going for it and we are going to get it."
How can he be so sure? I mean, everyone is doing plenty of serious campaigning, so it hardly gives Weinstein an edge that he's shelled out oodles of dough on newspaper ads, staged Tarantino retrospectives and cajoled Ari Emanuel into hosting a star-studded dinner for Tarantino at Mr. Chow. But Weinstein believes that he has a trump card, pointing to the fact that "Basterds" walked away with the SAG Award for best ensemble film, often an indicator of Oscar success. As he told Hammond: "Actors are the biggest branch in the academy and they love the movie."
The impact was pretty amazing. All Weinstein had to do was brag about his impending victory and suddenly the blogosphere was buzzing with "Basterds" victory speculation. The Wrap's Steve Pond put up a post earlier this week raising the possibility of a possible "Basterds" win, saying that "within the last couple of weeks the buzz has been suggesting that an upset could come in the shape of Quentin Tarantino's 'Inglourious Basterds.' "
The Gold Derby's always breathless Tom O'Neil also threw his hat in the ring, actually predicting a "Basterds" upset, noting, among other things, that Weinstein's "Shakespeare in Love" also pulled off a best picture upset victory after winning SAG's best ensemble award. He also touted a Peter Bart theory ("that we should all carve on tablets to be doled out from mountaintops") that the movies that win best picture almost always have a recognizable person behind them whom the academy reveres -- hence the recent wins for films directed by Martin Scorsese and Clint Eastwood.
Of course, if this were anyone other than the Big W, the whole scenario would be pretty laughable. Let's look at the theories supposedly supporting Weinstein's upset victory:
1) Actors love the movie: I hate to be the bearer of bad tidings, but if actors loved the movie so much, how come "Basterds" only has -- count 'em -- one measly acting nomination, and only for best supporting actor. The film's star, Brad Pitt, went away empty-handed. Even "Up in the Air," now fading badly in the home stretch, earned three actor nominations to "Basterds' " one.
2) Best picture winners have recognizable people behind them that the academy reveres: That one is really a whopper. Just to mention a few recent examples, did the academy really have such abiding regard for Danny Boyle ("Slumdog Millionaire"), Paul Haggis ("Crash"), Rob Marshall ("Chicago") or Sam Mendes ("American Beauty"), especially since the latter three directors all won despite never having even made a feature film before? That's one of those theories that sounds plausible until you see how often the academy actually ignores it. And it's definitely an open question as to whether the academy has any deep reverence for the shoot-from-the-hip Tarantino in the first place.
"Basterds" has a couple of strikes against it when it comes to being a serious contender for best picture. First off, most voters, or even an enthusiast like myself, view it as an entertainment, not a weighty masterwork. It's basically a writer-director's comic-fantasy thriller, not a film with the historical sweep or depth of "The English Patient" or "Braveheart." For all its sharp dialogue and narrative imagination, as a war film it has far more in common with "Kelly's Heroes" than with "Platoon," which was the last bona fide war film to win best picture. The academy, as Weinstein knows all too well, isn't enamored of war movies, which is why "Saving Private Ryan" was upset by Weinstein's "Shakespeare in Love."
Let's give Tarantino his due. He's made a marvelously engaging film, but is it a best picture winner? Not in a year when academy members have an opportunity to vote for an astounding game changer ("Avatar") or a mesmerizing example of directorial craftsmanship ("The Hurt Locker"). In this horse race, win and place are already taken. "Basterds" is running strong, but its best hope is to show.
Photo of Harvey Weinstein by Fernando Leon / Getty Images