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Will Emmy's biggest loser Bill Maher take Jesus to the Oscars with 'Religulous'?

August 12, 2008 |  9:20 am

Not content being Emmy's biggest loser, Bill Maher is trying his luck with the Oscars.

The controversial comedian has produced "Religulous," a feature-length documentary in which Maher, an avowed atheist, questions advocates of various organized religions about their beliefs. As helming was handled by Larry Charles, who skewered American culture in "Borat" two years ago, perhaps "Religulous" should be called a "mockumentary." Whether the unwitting participants will be laughing when the film unspools Oct. 3, after world preeming at the Toronto film fest in September, remains a question mark.


Also in doubt is whether Bill Maher can break into the closed-knit ranks of the film academy's documentary branch with his freewheeling approach.

After all, this is the same group that rejected for consideration such worthy contenders as "The Thin Blue Line," "Roger and Me" and "Hoop Dreams." Even with the introduction of a two-tier voting system, the acclaimed documentary "Grizzly Man" by Werner Herzog, winner of prizes from both the Gotham and L.A. critics, could not break into the semi-final 15 in 2005.

Lionsgate, which took over distribution of Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" when it became a political hot potato in 2004, is handling "Religulous." Back in 2004, many Oscarwatchers expected Moore to win a bookend to the one he had picked up two years earlier for "Bowling for Columbine," his searing indictment of the gun lobby. However, after "Fahrenheit 9/11" won the Palme d'Or at Cannes and then broke box-office records, Moore decided to aim higher than the Oscar docu category he'd won in the past. He campaigned "Fahrenheit 9/11" in the best-picture race. He came up short and missed out on a documentary nomination as well. That year, "Born into Brothels," a raw look at child prostitution in India, won the prize. Last year, Moore's examination of the healthcare system, "Sicko," lost to "Taxi to the Dark Side," an investigation of the use of torture in the war on terrorism.

For the first two decades of the documentary feature category, winners tended to be either a straightforward recounting of war (beginning with the first champ "Desert Victory" in 1943), a nature film ("The Sea Around Us," 1952) or an inspirational biography ("Helen Keller in Her Story," 1955). However, with the win in 1966 for "The War Game," a look at a fictionalized Soviet attack on England, the documentary branch began to reward more provocative fare, be it an examination of the Vietnam War ("Hearts and Minds," 1974), a look at the hard life of coalminers ("Harlan County, USA," 1976) or the assassination of a gay politician ("The Times of Harvey Milk," 1984).


Though we won't know whether "Religulous" has the gravitas to be taken seriously by the documentary branch until next January, come September we will know whether Bill Maher can finally end his record-breaking losing streak with the Emmys.

His tally stands at 19 nominations, zero wins (even Susan Lucci won with nomination 19). This year he gets a chance to add to that losing record with two more producing nods for "Real Time With Bill Maher" (making its fourth bid for outstanding variety, music or comedy series ) and "Bill Maher: The Decider" (up for outstanding variety, music or comedy special).

In the variety-series race, "Real Time" is up against "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart" (won the last five races in a row) and "Late Show with David Letterman" (won the previous five in a row) as well as "Saturday Night Live" (last won in 1993) and two-time nominee "The Colbert Report." His special is competing against a hodgepodge including sentimental favorite "George Carlin: It’s Bad For Ya!" The late comedian never won an Emmy in his lifetime despite five nominations. Also in the mix is never-nominated Don Rickles, who picked up performing and producing nods for "Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project" and Kathy Griffin, who celebrates the headlines she made for her Emmy win last year in "Kathy Griffin: Straight to Hell." Rounding out the mix are "The Kennedy Center Honors" (which last won this category in 1994) and "James Taylor: One Man Band (Great Performances)."

Maher's Emmy snubs date to a 1995 nod for "Politically Incorrect" as outstanding variety, music or comedy series. ("The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" won that year for the first and perhaps last time.) That ABC show brought  Maher 11 nominations in total — producing (eight), writing (two), and hosting (one). His current HBO series had earned him seven nods before this year — producing (three), writing (three), and hosting (one). In addition, he has a producing nod for his 2006 HBO special "Bill Maher: I'm Swiss." (That one lost to the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics no less.) However, as his losses are mostly for producing and writing, Angela Lansbury's record of 18 losses as a performer remains safe for some time.

(Photos: Lionsgate/ HBO)