To recap 'Basterds's' Oscars bona fides: It is on seven ballots besides the one for Best Picture nomination, most of them key indicators of voter sentiment; it did well at both the domestic and foreign box office; it won a pertinent pre-Oscars award (from the Screen Actors Guild for Best Ensemble Feature); and it bears the signature of an auteur whom many critics and industry insiders think is overdue for Hollywood's highest honor. And, most importantly, it has the Oscars savvy and charmed bluster of executive producer Harvey Weinstein beating the bushes for it. A couple of weeks ago in this space, I made the case for Quentin Tarantino's 'Inglourious Basterds' to upset James Cameron's 'Avatar' and Kathryn Bigelow's 'The Hurt Locker' in the Best Picture Oscar race. Now, I'll tell you why it won't.
To recap 'Basterds's' Oscars bona fides: It is on seven ballots besides the one for Best Picture nomination, most of them key indicators of voter sentiment; it did well at both the domestic and foreign box office; it won a pertinent pre-Oscars award (from the Screen Actors Guild for Best Ensemble Feature); and it bears the signature of an auteur whom many critics and industry insiders think is overdue for Hollywood's highest honor. And, most importantly, it has the Oscars savvy and charmed bluster of executive producer Harvey Weinstein beating the bushes for it.
People who have campaigned against Harvey know the pain of a broken heart, none more than those DreamWorks execs who worked on Steven Spielberg's 'Saving Private Ryan,' only to see it lose the Best Picture Oscar to the Weinstein-produced 'Shakespeare in Love' in 1999. That upset further buoys the hopes of 'Basterds' supporters, who would argue that Tarantino's Nazi revenge fantasy is a better movie than 'Shakespeare in Love,' and that 'Saving Private Ryan' is a better movie than either 'Avatar' or 'The Hurt Locker.'
But that is exactly where the upset scenario goes off the tracks. 'Saving Private Ryan' had been the presumptive Oscar winner since its July release when 'Shakespeare' -- a romantic comedy whose literary wit and delicious assortment of roles was bound to appeal to Academy voters -- opened in limited release in early December and built momentum through the awards season. 'Inglourious Basterds,' like 'Saving Private Ryan,' opened in the summer and was played out in theaters by November.
There is no surprise element to it, no "well, look what we have here" moment in the late stages of the game. If one or two 'Shakespeare's had been released in December, they would be the ones competing with 'The Hurt Locker' and 'Avatar,' not 'Inglourious Basterds.' And though 'Basterds' won a few regional critics' group awards, and was nominated for Golden Globes and various guild awards, that SAG ensemble award is its only major prize.
Then, there is the matter of Tarantino's reputation. It's largely assumed by his devotees that everybody agrees on his genius and aesthetic worthiness. Not so. There are a lot of people in and out of the industry who think he's a film nerd with certain gifts -- among them, one for self-promotion -- who shot his creative wad with 'Pulp Fiction' and has been merely toying with genres ever since.
The critics, as Moviefone readers are wont to remind me, aren't the final arbiters of motion picture quality, but you would expect them -- as a group -- to be more fascinated with Tarantino than paying customers are. In fact, 'Basterds' scored a relatively lukewarm consensus of 69 on Metacritic's 1-100 scale. By contrast, 'Saving Private Ryan' scored 90, 'Shakespeare in Love' scored 87 and 'The Hurt Locker' -- 'Basterds's' main rival -- scored 94.
The main hope for Weinstein and Tarantino fans is that Academy voters will be loathe to vote for a movie seen by very few people. Though it has dominated the awards season, leading by a large margin in both critics group and guild honors, 'The Hurt Locker' has sold just $12.6 million worth of tickets in the U.S. and Canada, and a paltry $5.9 million abroad. Construct your own ironic metaphor, but the story of an American bomb squad defusing IEDs on the streets of Baghdad is one huge dud.
I don't hold its box office failing against it. When Summit Entertainment devised its marketing strategy for 'The Hurt Locker,' the track record for movies dealing seriously with the Iraq War had been disastrous. True, Ridley Scott's 'Body of Lies' grossed $115 million worldwide, but it was an action film with major stars -- Russell Crowe and Leonardo DiCaprio -- and no one would accuse it of shedding light on the politics of the Middle East.
With a much smaller movie and a cast of relative unknowns, Summit had a challenge in trying to find the best way to take what was obviously a well-made movie to market. I second-guess the studio only because it doesn't cost me a thing to do it, but the better option would have been to hold it until late fall -- when critics awards have much greater currency than initial reviews -- and then play it in limited release through the pre-Oscars period.
Instead, Summit decided to release it in a handful of theaters in early June and hoped that reviews would give it a forward spin toward a wider summer release. But despite those expected critical raves, the movie's "Iraq" label deadened it at the box office, and its release quickly stalled. And that would have been the end of the film's Oscar hopes if it weren't for its rash of year-end awards, especially those for Bigelow.
After becoming the first woman to win the Directors Guild of America award, the odds of Bigelow duplicating that feat at the Oscars has grown into a foregone conclusion. Cameron, her ex-husband and fellow Best Director nominee, has virtually conceded the prize to her and all but declared her "Queen of the World." So, sorry Harve and the 'Basterds' nation, Tarantino cannot beat her -- and if he can't beat her, his movie can't beat hers, either.
Finally, there is the matter of the "preferential" voting system being employed by the Academy. Essentially, this complicated hand-counting process is designed to reflect the overall sentiment of the 5,777 voters. That means the movie that shows up most often at or near the top of the ballots is likely to win. And it is inconceivable to me that 'Inglourious Basterds' will do better in that regard than 'The Hurt Locker.'
And what about the red dragon in the room? (You do remember the red dragon in 'Avatar,' right?) James Cameron's movie is still a better bet for the Best Picture Oscar than 'Basterds,' but as its box office fortunes have increased, its Oscar fortunes seem to have dwindled. There's a sense that Cameron has created more of a technological phenomenon than a work of art, and that giving him the Oscar for a movie whose worldwide gross is approaching $2.5 billion would amount to wretched excess.
My advice to 'Basterds' fans: Feel the 'Hurt' ... and embrace it.