Now that I've outted some Oscar pundits cited below for not taking "Inglourious Basterds" seriously early this derby season, a few are scrambling to insist that no, no, no -- they always thought it might be nominated. Really! They just didn't think it could win.
Oh, rubbish. A few weeks ago virtually all Oscarologists, forgetting the lessons of history, were preoccupied looking ahead on the calendar while predicting that "Invictus," "Precious," "Avatar," "Up in the Air," "The Lovely Bones" or another late 2009 release will win best picture. The ridicule they heaped upon me was for daring even to suggest that Quentin Tarantino's old August release was a serious contender.
Most rookie Oscarologists make that same mistake every year, focusing only upon late-year releases, forgetting how summer flicks like "Gladiator" or "Braveheart" or even spring releases like "Annie Hall" can make late-year dashes to win when December films trip up. That's what is happening this year.
Sure, some voters love "Avatar," but sci-fi/fantasy blockbusters are usually cursed at the Academy Awards. "The Hurt Locker" is respected, but it has several strikes against it, including a lack of stars, an off-putting title and the tragic fact that voters have recently shunned films about U.S. involvement in the Mideast.
"Precious" may be too gritty, too depressing, too scary in a real-life way to that pampered, lily-white Beverly Hills crowd.
"Up in the Air" is a fine film, but it's the tale of a cold-hearted corporate cat chasing babes and frequent flyer miles. It has the star power that's usually required to win best picture, but where's the gravitas?
That leaves us with "Inglourious Basterds" — almost by default. Film critics loved it ("There's no resisting it," Rolling Stone's Peter Travers warned). It was hugely successful ($300 million worldwide). It's got one of the highest cool factors in the biz because it's got Brad Pitt on screen and Quentin Tarantino behind the celluloid. Quentin hasn't been seriously in the derby since "Pulp Fiction" (1994). Now he's back with Oscar-mad Harvey Weinstein behind him pushing hard while blitzing Hollywood with cheap, nonwatermarked DVDs, and everywhere you look lots of nifty ads reminding you how much fun you had watching Quentin dare to rewrite World War II history.
This isn't one of those derby years where you have everybody obviously cheering on a film like "Slumdog Millionaire." Well, OK many people are rooting loudly for "Avatar," but, given Oscar history, odds are stacked against voters embracing blue monkeys.
Remember how shocked everybody (except me) was when "Inglourious Basterds" reaped the most Critics Choice Award nominations and landed in all of the top Golden Globe races? That's because there isn't a loud rah-rah section behind it to warn that the old August movie was about to make a big, splashy return. Its support emerges quietly when voters look over a ballot. Not thrilled by options among late-year releases, they spy that irresistibly cheeky title — "Inglourious Basterds" — on the list, they smile mischievously and can't resist checking it off.
Over and over I keep trying this same experiment with actual Oscar voters. I ask them what movie they may vote for as best picture. Only a few mention "Inglourious Basterds." Then I hand them a written list of movie titles to choose from and I ask them to tell me what they'd vote for, ranking top three choices first, second, third. "Inglorious Basterds" is the only film that gets mentioned by nearly everyone in one of the three positions. Some voters pick "Avatar," others "Precious," "Up in the Air" or "The Hurt Locker." Quite a few pick "Basterds" too, even though they didn't volunteer it until I showed it to them on a list. That's interesting. But it's ranked high up by almost every voter in my survey.
Breaking with recent tradition, a weighted ballot will be used to pick the winner this year. Thus, pundits must size up this race in new ways. I don't think "Basterds" would win under the old system, but I think it's the fave under this new one that offers 10 alternatives, thus widely splitting votes, giving the edge to the film with the most consensus support.
The movie with the most nominations usually wins best picture. "Inglourioius Basterds" could lead with 11: best picture, director, screenplay, supporting actor (Christoph Waltz), supporting actress (Diane Kruger or Melaine Laurent -- I don't think Laurent can be nominated in lead), film editing, cinematography, art direction, costumes, sound editing and sound mixing. By comparison, "Avatar" has the potential of reaping nine. "Up in the Air" could score eight.
Lastly, movies with the best titles usually win. As my Oscarologist pal Tariq Khan likes to say, if "Million Dollar Baby" retained its original title, "Rope Burns," it wouldn't have won. I'm sure he's correct. "Slumdog" struck the Oscar jackpot in part because it had "Millionaire" in its title. Aspiring toward beauty helped "American Beauty" and "A Beautiful Mind" to win. If a movie claims an award this year for best title, clearly it's the ingenious "Inglourious Basterds," which cleverly danced around censors by changing the spelling of a naughty word. How can voters resist tripping the light fantastic with Quentin?
Photos: Weinstein Co.