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There's no Oscar curse against early front-runners!

March 9, 2008 |  9:11 am

I'm getting sick and tired of beating up on this topic, but since it just reared its ugly head again in a ridiculous Hollywood Reporter article about Oscar strategy that contradicts itself, I can't resist wailing away one more time.

Can we finally bury, once and for all, the absurd myth that it's a terrible thing to be out front early in the derby?


That's the notion uninformed Oscar pundits keep touting to explain why "Brokeback Mountain," "Dreamgirls" and other early faves trip up. But timing seldom has anything to do with those tumbles. Now the Hollywood Reporter suggests that being the early front-runner was one of the key factors in Julie Christie's recent loss — that plus aggressive late campaigning by Marion Cotillard.

"Avoid looking invincible," the Reporter warns future contenders. "Julie Christie looked unbeatable for best actress, but Marion Cotillard spent weeks working the Los Angeles awards circuit while Christie stayed home. Oscar voters rewarded the Frenchwoman."

That's not why Cotillard won. But more on that in a minute.

Now here comes the real howler in the HR article.

"Cannes is back," it declares. "Conventional thinking — and the dashed hopes of 'Dreamgirls' in 2006 — had strategists thinking that you can't start a campaign at the festival and keep it going for months. But 2007 Croisette darling 'No Country for Old Men' proved that with the right campaign it can be done."

So let me grasp this correctly: "Dreamgirls" disappointed at the Oscars because early hype built up too soon at Cannes in May 2006, but "No Country" managed to defy that issue last year because someone, mysteriously, someplace, had decreed that "Cannes is back" now?

Who decided this? Where did Cannes go in the interim? Oh, this is pure Oscar poppycock! Enough!

This year,"No Country" got out front early in the derby and stayed there because that's what most winners do — just like other recent best-pic champs "Lord of the Rings: Return of the King," "Titanic" and "American Beauty." Heck, it's so hard for early front-runners to stumble that "A Beautiful Mind" managed to prevail despite being under siege by major media for sugar-coating the real-life story of its flawed hero. (There was no "smear campaign," but let's not go into that again.)

When front-runners do stumble, it's rarely due to timing. I can think of only one modern example of that actually being the chief factor — "Saving Private Ryan" losing to "Shakespeare in Love"— but I'd argue that voters ended up making the right decision. (But let's not go into that again either.)

Changing the release date of "The Aviator" would not have helped it to soar to victory over late-breaking "Million Dollar Baby." Face it, Clint Eastwood is an Oscar magnet and can't be beat when he ambushes the derby at the last second with an English-language movie that milks the tear ducts of those geezers in the academy.

It's the failure of Oscar pundits — including, yes, me on occasion — to properly size up the biases of those ole white guys that makes most Oscarwatchers write off failed expectations due to timing.

It didn't matter that "Brokeback Mountain" won an unprecedented number of best-picture awards (26) and looked invincible at the Oscars, where it led with the most nominations and had an edge that helped "A Beautiful Mind," "Lord of the Rings," "The Departed" and "No Country" to win best pic: an overdue director (Ang Lee).

The ole, straight white guys in the academy just weren't going to vote for the gay cowboy romance and that's that. Many of them, such as Tony Curtis and Ernest Borgnine, even denounced it publicly and boasted that they refused to watch it. Only after that derby was over did scores of academy members admit to me privately that they didn't watch their DVD screener either.

I don't believe that most of those ole, straight white guys are prejudiced against gays or blacks, for that matter. They're just not interested. There's an emotional disconnect, and they're not going to bother doing their job as film-watchers by projecting themselves into some lead character up on that screen and empathize with them. The geezers admired various aspects of "Dreamgirls" enough to give it the most nominations but didn't feel its emotional oomph like so many other filmgoers who gave it roaring standing ovations in theaters across America.

"Dreamgirls," let's recall, received the equivalent of a best-pic nom from the producers', directors' and actors' guilds. It began that year's derby as the favorite to win the Oscar for best picture and it stayed out front after extensive industry screenings. It won the Golden Globe for best pic/musical or comedy. It was a box-office smash hit. The L.A. Times called it a "triumph," and Variety insisted " 'Dreamgirls' gets it right."

The fact that it wasn't even nominated for best picture by the ole white guys has more to do with what's inside the heads of those ole white guys than the fact that "Dreamgirls" was the early derby fave and thus doomed, according to some clueless pundits, by timing.

But that doesn't stop those pundits from constantly citing "Dreamgirls" and "Brokeback" as examples of why future contenders don't want to be out front too early.

Now consider the acting categories. This year, Daniel Day-Lewis was out front from the start of the derby and stayed there, just like Forest Whitaker and Helen Mirren did last year.

Being out front early is not why Julie Christie lost, for crying out loud. Again, consider the voters who shamelessly lust after young babes like Marion Cotillard. Yes, Cotillard campaigned shrewdly, but no more aggressively in the home stretch than she did the whole year earlier, including the many months when Christie was ballyhooed as invincible. If anyone cranked up campaigning in the last leg of the derby, it was Christie, who kissed every baby and slapped every back between Santa Barbara and Beverly Hills once Oscar noms came out.

Bottom line: The real reason Christie lost — as I predicted she would — was because she's 66 years old. Only twice in the last 15 years have women over age 50 won any acting award, lead or supporting, and one of those (Mirren) did so after brazenly flaunting her sexuality. Remember her tugging at her peek-a-boo bra on the cover of Los Angeles magazine?

Again, this upset can be explained, like almost all others, by the failure of most Oscarologists to take into account the selfish bias of the academy's ole white geezers.

However, even after an upset happens, those same Oscarologists refuse to see the obvious. Invariably, they blame it on The Front-Runner Stumbles Theory and, even more shocking, most Hollywooders buy a barrel of that same hogwash year after year. Why? Because they're afraid of offending the ole geezers by publicly fingering them?

Memo to future Oscar front-runners: If you're not in trouble with the geezers, just breathe easy and enjoy the race, worry free, because the odds are overwhelming that you'll win. If your studio's Oscar consultant says otherwise, just leave him or her in the dust, giddyap and get your acceptance speech ready.