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Beware: Here comes an 'Inglourious' upset at the Oscars

February 17, 2010 | 10:17 am

The Academy Awards never go according to script. Although most Oscarologists say that "The Hurt Locker" or "Avatar" will win best picture, they may be underestimating that sneaky dark horse poised to pull off a classic derby upset: "Inglourious Basterds."

Yes, "The Hurt Locker" has the most momentum and buzz right now and appears to be the front-runner – with "Avatar" close enough behind to dash ahead in the homestretch. But "Basterds" is within striking distance too and, I believe, will strike.

Oscars Academy Awards news upset prediction 2

"We're going to win best picture," vows its executive producer, veteran Oscar grabber Harvey Weinstein, whose former studio Miramax won best pic twice ("Chicago" in 2002, "Shakespeare in Love" in 1998) when it was part of Disney. Now that Harvey is out on his own with the Weinstein Co., he's hellbent to have his shingle do it again, although technically he won't win a statuette himself. That'll go to producer Lawrence Bender if "Basterds" does prevail. Harvey got a taste of victory last year with Weinstein Co.'s "The Reader" being nommed for best pic and winning best actress for Kate Winslet. But now he tells my Envelope colleague Pete Hammond that "Basterds" will nail it: "We are going for it and we are gonna get it."

As Pete's article points out, Harvey's mounting a full-throttle blitzkrieg across Hollywood. Last week Gold Derby caught agent Ari Emanuel rallying Quentin Tarantino's pals at Mr. Chow in Beverly Hills. Meantime, out in Manhattan, New York magazine's Vulture blog spied Quentin and Harvey huddling with Oscar voters "in the fantastically opulent Upper East Side townhouse of director/rich person" Katharina Otto-Bernstein "to pretend they were only sort of campaigning for Oscars."

One of Harvey's best picture victories, "Shakespeare in Love," was a jaw-dropper pulled off after it won the ensemble prize at the Screen Actors Guild, the same award "Crash" nabbed before usurping the best picture trophy in 2005. At the most recent SAG Awards, that ensemble award was snagged by "Inglourious Basterds."

One of the most respected Oscarologists on the planet, Jack Mathews -- former film critic of the New York Daily News who now writes for Moviefone -- believes that "Basterds" has a real shot to win: "A very good case can be made for its ability to pull off a 'Shakespeare'-size upset. It received just one less nomination than 'Avatar' and 'The Hurt Locker' and it has received them in all of the pertinent categories -- picture, directing, acting, screenplay and film editing. It also did well at the box office, selling $120.5 million worth of tickets in the U.S. and Canada and $193 million overseas. Academy voters don't always reward the biggest commercial success, which is 'Avatar;' nor are they known for throwing gold in the direction of box office bombs, which is 'The Hurt Locker.' Compared to those extremes, 'Basterds' may have just the right mix of good filmmaking and commercial appeal."

Other notable Oscarologists like Hammond believe a "Basterds" upset is possible too. Susan Wloszcyzyna of USA Today says, "If any film has a chance to pull an upset (over 'The Hurt Locker'), it's going to be 'Basterds' and not 'Avatar.'" See Gold Derby's roundups of diverse opinions about a possible "Basterds" upset from many major Oscar pundits here and here.

"Basterds" also has something else in its favor that often decides what wins best picture: a famous person behind it who's overdue for Oscar glory.

Former Variety editor Peter Bart has a brilliant Oscar theory we should all carve on tablets to be doled out from mountaintops. He says that movies that win best picture almost always have a recognizable person behind them that we wish to give an Oscar. "Million Dollar Baby" (2004) and "Unforgiven" (1992) won, for example, because Hollywood wanted to hug Clint Eastwood. No one -- let's be honest -- thought that "The Departed" was the best picture of 2006. It prevailed because Hollywood wanted to give an overdue best picture hug to Marty Scorsese. Even though "A Beautiful Mind" (2001) was under fierce media attack for sugarcoating the oft-sordid story of its real-life protagonist, it still won because Hollywood was determined to catch up with Ron Howard.

Of the key people behind the three current best picture leaders, there's less urgency to reward James Cameron since his "Titanic" swept in the past, tying "Ben-Hur's" record (11 wins). But he's not completely out of the running considering that Eastwood's films won twice. However, "Avatar" may be cursed because no sci-fi flick has ever claimed the top Oscar.

If so, then best picture is a race between Kathryn Bigelow and Tarantino. Early tea leaves say Bigelow should win because she claimed top honors from two prizes that often mirror Oscar's outcome: the producers' and directors' guilds. In fact, PGA's voting method mirrored Oscar's exactly using a preferential ballot with 10 nominees and "The Hurt Locker" won. Doesn't that guarantee that it'll win best picture at the Oscars too?

No. This year the main focus is chiefly on Bigelow. She's a glamorous, even heroic filmmaker -- a sexy person to vote for in many ways. At PGA and DGA there was only one category for voters to embrace her. However, at the Oscars, there are two -- best picture and director -- and that's the key difference. Voters will certainly give Bigelow the Oscar for best director and, once they've checked off that list, they may wish to go elsewhere with their best picture vote. Maybe to that other notable person who's overdue for Oscar glory: Tarantino.

In 1932-43, when the Oscars expanded their best picture race to more than five nominees, the winner didn't agree with best director five times (42%) out of 12 derbies. Over the last decade, the director and picture races were out of sync three out of 10 races (30%).

Quentin hasn't been in the derby since his "Pulp Fiction" lost best picture to "Forrest Gump." Since 1994, we haven't had a chance to measure his Oscar support across Hollywood while he made more overtly commercial flicks like "Kill Bill." It's clear that many people have underestimated him. Early this derby season, many Oscar bloggers didn't even have "Basterds" on their lists of top contenders. When I warned that it could win best picture, the idea seemed so ludicrous that I got crucified across the blogosphere. Now most Oscar pundits admit that it's in the top three to win.

As I chat with actual Oscar voters, it's clear that they consistently rank "Basterds" high on their ballots too. "The Hurt Locker" gets ranked high as well, but it has a significant number of detractors who'll rank it low -- even though they, strangely, plan to give Bigelow the director's trophy. That's crazy Hollywood for you. "Basterds" doesn't seem to have many detractors.

Thanks to the introduction of the preferential ballot, the movie with the most consistently high-ranked support will win. Thus, "Basterds" can do it. I don't believe it would win if voters couldn't give Bigelow the director's award, but since voters can split the baby, I think they will.

As a best picture contender, "Inglourious Basterds" has a very strong plus: one of the sexiest titles ever on an Oscar ballot. Often the movie with the coolest title wins. As my Oscarologist pal Tariq Khan (Fox News) likes to point out, "Million Dollar Baby" wouldn't have won best picture if it retained its original title, "Rope Burns." Having a similar word in its title may have helped "Slumdog Millionaire" hit the Oscar jackpot. Having "beauty" going for them: "A Beautiful Mind" and "American Beauty." (Read more about Tariq's theory here.) If this theory is true, then Bigelow's movie may truly be hurt by being called "The Hurt Locker."

Back in November, I predicted that "Basterds" will win best picture, but shortly after "The Hurt Locker" won PGA and DGA, I temporarily ditched "Basterds" to jump on the Bigelow bandwagon, but now I'm getting back off after talking with actual Oscar voters. Yes, there's a whole lot of academy love out there for "Hurt Locker," but everybody's underestimating "Basterds" again -- just like they, foolishly, did earlier.

Photo credit: Weinstein Co.

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