Now that we have a clear front-runner for best picture at the Golden Globes and Oscars, what are the odds that "Brokeback Mountain" will hold onto its lead?
In the past 10 gold derbies, there were only four races where one film pony broke away this early and trotted across the finish line: "Lord of the Rings: Return of the King" (2003), "A Beautiful Mind" (2001), "American Beauty" (1999) and "Titanic" (1997). "L.A. Confidential" had swept the early critics' awards in 1997, but after its premieres in New York and L.A. on Dec. 14, "Titanic" was charging full steam ahead and looked truly unsinkable.
In 2002, many derby watchers believed Miramax's ballyhoo of "The musical is back!" They considered "Chicago" the favorite for the top Academy Award once it snagged the most Globe nominations (8), but not everyone concurred. At that point "Chicago" hadn't yet been released wide to theaters and hadn't won any precursor kudos. Instead, New York critics opted for "Far from Heaven," Los Angelenos preferred "About Schmidt." "The Hours" certainly posed a threat. After being named best picture by the National Board of Review, it earned the second-most Globe nominations (7), winning best drama picture, which usually foretells the equivalent Oscar. Sure, "Chicago" won the Globe for best comedy/musical picture, but that rarely matches up.
Nowadays many derby watchers have a revisionist view of "Gladiator," which muscled its way to the top at the 2000 awards. Just prior to the Globes, it was tied with "Traffic" for having the most nominations (5), but it had been a summer popcorn pic that most pundits believed had lost its heat as of cold December. On the other hand, "Traffic's" victory as best picture at the New York Film Critics Circle seemed to confirm that 2000 was "The Year of Steven Soderbergh," since he'd also helmed "Eric Brockovich." Besides, "Traffic" felt more important than its rivals too. Momentum behind it was so fierce that I remember producers of "Access Hollywood" whining to me, "Can you puh-lease help us to find a journalist — anybody, we don't care who at this point — who thinks something other than 'Traffic' is going to win best picture at the Globes?!" Indeed, all of GoldDerby.com's gurus were backing "Traffic."
Photo: In December 1998, "Saving Private Ryan" looked unbeatable as best picture.
"I hear that Peter Travers of Rolling Stone is picking 'Gladiator,'" I replied, "but he's the only one I know of." So they chased down Peter for an interview to offset all of the pro-"Traffic" predictions they already had for their Globes segment. How lucky and smart that they did!
In 1995, "Sense and Sensibility" and "Apollo 13" were considered the early front-runners. "Braveheart" only made its triumphant dash in the final weeks of the December-to-March gold derby.
In 1996, "Fargo" was voted best pic by New York critics and Broadcast Film Critics Assn., while L.A. film critics went with "Secrets & Lies." "The English Patient" led with the most Globe nominations (7), but its victory wasn't a foregone conclusion.
So perhaps only two derbies out of the past 10 may have parallels for us.
Last year "The Aviator" looked like it had everything going for it early on: an A-list star (Leonardo DiCaprio) in an epic about Hollywood helmed by an overdue director (Martin Scorsese). When it took off with the most Globe bids (6), it looked like it would inevitably zoom across the Globe and Oscar finish lines. As predicted, it prevailed at the Globes, yes, but it crashed at the Oscars thanks to a surprise knockout from the scrappy latecomer, "Million Dollar Baby."
But even while most pundits agreed that "Aviator" was solidly out front last year at this time, we all knew that "Million Dollar Baby" posed a serious threat. Does any equivalent film loom over the horizon now? "King Kong" could rally if it sustains its strength at the box office thanks to repeat business, but its Oscar hopes are being hurt by industry whining that it didn't bag $100 million this past weekend. "Munich" just received a good response at an academy screening, but so many film critics are disappointed in it that it's hard to imagine "Munich" being boffo at the b.o., as Variety would say.
Perhaps the best parallel is 1998 when "Saving Private Ryan" looked invincible. Just like "Brokeback Mountain," it was voted best picture by the New York and L.A. film critics and it led with the most nominations from the Broadcast Film Critics Assn. "Shakespeare in Love" and "The Truman Show" actually had more bids at the Golden Globes, but only by a nose — six nominations to five. "Saving Private Ryan" still won the Globe for best drama picture, as "Brokeback" is expected to do.
Most pundits didn't take "Shakespeare's" top victory in the corresponding Globe category to heart. As usual, they didn't take comedy seriously.
Now let's take a gander at that Globe contest this year!
Everybody seems to think that the race for best comedy/musical picture will be a cakewalk for "Walk the Line." Hmm again. Can that beat "Brokeback" at the Oscars? It might have an easy time at the Globes where musicals usually win — and "Walk the Line" kind of qualifies. Or, if voters prefer a more traditional musical like past champs "Chicago," "Mouin Rouge!" and "Evita," perhaps they'll opt for "The Producers"? Even if that occurs, it's hard to imagine that film succeeding at the Oscars since "The Producers" doesn't have the same fanatic support that "Chicago" had.
So maybe the surprise winner will pop out among the losers of best drama picture at the Globes, like what happened with "Million Dollar Baby" losing the Globe, but rallying to bag the Oscar. Perhaps in that case, it's "Good Night, and Good Luck" thanks to the Studly Actor-Turned-Director Factor that probably helped Clint Eastwood and "Million Dollar Baby" last year and, before that, Kevin Costner and "Dances with Wolves," etc.
Or perhaps the winner will come out of nowhere like "The Sting" did in 1973, triumphing at the Oscars after not even being nominated at the Globes. This year that sleeper could be "Crash," which has a secret strength that could rally if given a chance.
Or "Brokeback" might just be unbeatable, period. It's very different than "Saving Private Ryan," which had been a summer release. By the time the Oscars finally rolled around, Entertainment Weekly said about "Ryan," "We thought it had won already!"