Take a look at the image on the right. That’s Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind — but it might just as well be yours truly trying to figure out the new Academy Awards balloting system, which makes a little less sense to me each time I hear it explained. Okay, I sort of get it: The voters will rank the 10 nominated films in order of preference, which means that to secure a victory, a movie will need to garner a sizable number of second and third place votes on the ballots that didn’t pick it as number one. To me, that would seem to favor The Hurt Locker, a movie that, while “small,” is almost universally admired. The Hurt Locker doesn’t appear to have many detractors; it hasn’t been divisive. Yet according to the Oscar buzz of the week, the new preferential voting system may actually favor…Inglourious Basterds.
That scenario has now been floated, if not flogged, by a healthy handful of entertainment journalists, most relentlessly by Tom O’Neil, who has been pushing his prediction of an Inglourious Basterds triumph for well over a month. (He actually called me out on my “goof” of not including Inglourious on a roster of possible Best Picture winners.) Well, time will tell if O’Neil’s prediction was ahead of the curve, or just bent. What has brought the Inglourious buzz machine to life this week is Harvey Weinstein, who basically decided to go public with the fact that he’s been funneling the movie through one of his legendary if-it-feels-good-it’s-not-overkill Academy Award campaigns. Only a fool would write off a Harvey Weinstein Oscar blitzkrieg. Back in 1998/1999, when he snatched a Shakespeare in Love victory from the jaws of a Saving Private Ryan defeat, it was clear that he’d honed the politics of all this to a new level of Jedi mind-trick effectiveness.
What’s worth noting, to me, is the subtext of all these Inglourious predictions — namely, that the movie has the potential to be a dark-horse winner because it’s a Holocaust drama, and we all know how much the Academy loves to vote for those. Don’t get me wrong: Inglourious Basterds was number two on my 10 Best list (right behind Up in the Air), and I think it’s a greater film than either The Hurt Locker or Avatar. I would personally be tickled if it won. (I’d be even more tickled, of course, if Up in the Air won.) But there’s a major irony to the fact that a lot of the Academy voters — older, more traditional — who are now being wooed to vote for Inglourious Basterds are probably among the last people in Hollywood who would ever vote for an ultra-violent Quentin Tarantino movie for Best Picture if it weren’t a Holocaust drama.
My gut instinct says that Inglourious Basterds has virtually no chance to win the Oscar. But on the off-chance that it did, it would truly be the perfect storm of 21st-century Academy Awards mania: a deserved salute to a fantastic film; the kind of über-surprise that just about everyone loves; a recognition of the visionary filmmaker of his generation, the one who redefined movies; the ultimate confirmation, however sobering it may be, that Oscar campaigning is now just as much of an art form as the movies themselves; and a fluky, one-of-a-kind opportunity for a great many veteran Academy voters to take their stodgy old moralistic message-movie passion, which dates back to World War II, and drag it into a new cinematic age. A Weinstein plot? Let’s just say it would be enough to make Hollywood plotz.