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'The Reader' roars into the Oscars derby and may trip up a chief rival

November 26, 2008 | 10:48 am

No wonder that notorious rascal Harvey Weinstein was so hellbent to push "The Reader" into this year's Oscars derby. It became quite clear after a screening Tuesday night in New York: It's a serious contender for best picture, director, actress (lead or supporting — more on that later), supporting actors, screenplay plus other slots. And that could possibly trip up a rival contender.

There have been grave doubts about "The Reader" because it takes an ambivalent look at a perpetrator of the Holocaust rather than a sympathetic one of the victims. Kate Winslet portrays a woman who dispatched Jews to gas chambers and doesn't seem obviously repentant later when she's tried in court. How can anyone, especially Jewish Oscar voters, embrace that?

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The question got a fascinating test at the screening at a Jewish organization, the 92nd Street Y, a branch of YMHA, where the audience of more than 750-plus viewers was largely enthralled. Afterward, I overhead lots of huzzahs and no slams.

The screening was followed by a Q&A session conducted by Columbia University professor Annette Insdorf with director Stephen Daldry, who savvily articulated the reasons why "The Reader's" story may not be offensive. Kate Winslet's character isn't overtly sorry for her past, no, not early in the film anyway, but viewers may believe she becomes so later, especially when she does something that may be perceived as punishing herself. The uncertainty makes "The Reader" all the more fascinating as a drama.

"I tried to leave things ambiguous," Daldry said. "I want to keep what she learned and what she didn't from us. It's not for us to know."

During the first part of the film, it's clear that Kate Winslet's character, Hanna, is "morally illiterate," Daldry added. (There were loud gasps throughout the audience when he uttered that phrase.) But later in the story, Daldry said, he and screenwriter David Hare cautiously applied "complicated calibration to try to find careful relations to when you are sympathetic to her and when you're not."

Two Oscar pundits who saw "Revolutionary Road" and "The Reader" this week and who asked not to quoted by name (for reasons I don't understand but will honor) believe that "The Reader" has a better shot at a best-picture nomination and even a lead actress bid for Winslet. A few others I admire disagree and pick "Revolutionary Road" for both categories. Personally, I haven't sorted out my own thoughts yet, but the former opinions — and the response "The Reader" got Tuesday night in New York — tell me that Harvey Weinstein may be quite happy on Jan. 22 when noms are unveiled.

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Let's consider, first, a best picture bid. "The Reader" will get a chunk of No. 1 votes on nomination ballots, but enough? Dunno. Considering how Oscar voting works, using that odd preferential ballot, it could get in with a strong minority vote even if it's not listed among the five choices ranked by a majority of academy members. Remember, only No. 1 (and sometimes No. 2) votes really count when tallies are done.

Secondly, about 80% of best pic nominees usually line up with films in the helming race. That's great news for "The Reader." Stephen Daldry has never not been nominated for best director. "The Reader" is his third feature film, and he previously reaped bids for "The Hours" and "Billy Elliot." "The Hours" got nommed for best pic, "Billy Elliot" didn't.

Thirdly, movies nominated for best picture usually get corresponding bids in screenplay and acting, and "The Reader" is strong in those races. David Hare got nominated for penning "The Hours," and Ralph Fiennes and David Kross are strong contenders for supporting actor.

Now let's consider the lead actress race, the most intriguing Oscar mystery of all. Kate Winslet is campaigning in lead for "Revolutionary Road" and supporting in "The Reader." That preference may make sense to Winslet — "Revolutionary Road" is directed by her husband, Sam Mendes — but, frankly, it's absurd to define her role in "The Reader" as supporting.

Winslet gives powerhouse lead performances in both films, but according to the academy's bizarre rules, she can only be nominated once per category. (Directors and writers, however, can have multiple bids per slot.) Oscar voters may graciously assign her two roles to the separate categories, as she asks, but they've ignored category guidance in the past in cases like "Whale Rider" star Keisha Castle-Hughes, who campaigned for supporting and got upped to lead when noms came out.

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Even if voters might generally want to defer to Winslet's wishes, they may forget what they are when it comes down to inking their ballots. Pundits trying to predict the outcome must consider how the voting process works. When academy members get their ballots, the only guidance they get is a big, thick reminder list of candidates who aren't separated into lead and supporting classifications. All actors are listed in one, long alphabetical rundown that will group "Kate Winslet, 'The Reader' " and "Kate Winslet, 'Revolutionary Road' " consecutively — with "The Reader" role on top because of its spelling.

That's where things really get tricky. If academy members put both roles in lead, her votes could split and she could be shut out. That happened in 2003 to Cate Blanchett, who had strong roles in "Veronica Guerin" and "The Missing." In 2001, Billy Bob Thornton had three impressive lead turns in "Monster's Ball," "The Man Who Wasn't There" and "Bandits." At the Golden Globes, Thornton got nominated in the drama race for "Man" and in the comedy slot for "Bandits," but he got totally skunked at the Oscars. In 2000, Michael Douglas failed to be nominated for either "Wonder Boys" or "Traffic." Read more about that tragic Oscars phenomenon  — CLICK HERE.

Even if Winslet's dual campaigns go according to plan and she gets nominated in both lead and supporting categories, the outcome could still be catastophic — CLICK HERE.

Photos: Weinstein Co., Paramount


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