The State of the Race – The Big Pull

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The Reader is like the English Patient. Old age makeup, great sex scenes, World War II, Harvey Weinstein, redemption, suffering.

This occurred to me today as I was contemplating who might win the Scripter. Is The Reader still coming up from the outside, or is, as NY Times’ Michael Cieply suggests, Benjamin Button the potential spoiler?¬† This subject has been bandied about in our comments for quite some time now, though the consensus seems to be that it’s either Milk or Benjamin Button to upset. The way I look at it is this. This same rule, by the way, applied to the year The Departed won. You have your obvious frontrunner. Then you have little splinter groups that don’t like the frontrunner and so what is next on their list? Benjamin Button is the obvious choice, with 13 nominations. But what if it isn’t. The Reader was clearly beloved enough to make a last minute show at the Oscars and not like Atonement, which made it with no director nod, not like Munich, which started out strong, then was a disappointment but ultimately made it anyway: The Reader succeeded despite the critics mostly panning it. That is some serious Academy love there.
But okay, so let’s say some of them like Button, some of them like The Reader, well a lot of them are going to like Milk. The potential spoiler is only a serious threat if the other films are weak in the category. As far as I can tell the weak link here is Frost/Nixon for a variety of reasons but right at the top of the list is that it was already a successful play (I know, Chicago). That takes away a bit of its heat as a potential threat.

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There is enough passion for Milk and Benjamin Button AND The Reader to pull votes in every other direction. Slumdog still comes out the winner because the majority (the actors for instance, who just chose for ensemble) still go for the frontrunner.

This scenario has been playing this entire season. The thing Slumdog has going for it, the best thing it has, is that audiences are still discovering it. When this season started, around Christmas, I mentioned the film to my family. Not a single person had even heard of it. This is really how the Oscars work best – when they bring people to films that they never would have heard about otherwise. So, Slumdog might seem like the frontrunner to we who obsess on this stuff but to the rest of the population who had never heard of it, it is still the underdog.

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And notice how no one is calling Slumdog the “little movie that could”?¬† Slumdog started out as a Bollywood-style movie that might have hit it in big in India and might have done moderate business over here. Sometimes magic happens when the collective is aligned in their feelings — in this case, residual hope and optimism from the Obama win — that puts the movie in exactly the right place at exactly the right time.

Remember early in the year Ryan and I both said that the election was going to be the tipping point for how voters responded to the films? Well, imagine if McCain and Palin had won. I suspect, in that scenario, Milk would be the strongest of the five. I also suspect that Revolutionary Road and The Dark Knight would have been nominated. But that isn’t now. Now is Obama, now is Slumdog Millionaire.

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On the other hand, there is The Reader. This is the one I’d be worried about if I were Fox Searchlight. The first reason is that irresistible Academy dynamic of the Holocaust, love and sex. Gosh, I can’t believe I used those three words in a sentence. And I can’t believe that when I think of who Kate Winslet played I have to say “Nazi death camp guard.” But here’s the thing. Do we really loathe Hanna Schmitz? Are we prepared to do as the other guards and the public do in the film, place all of our blame on her? What was she supposed to do? What was anyone supposed to do back then? Everyone was going along with it. Hell, even Americans went along with it. My departed grandmother back in the 30s and 40s had to lie about being Jewish and had to change her name to get work.

Most people turned a blind eye. The film doesn’t sympathize with her – it merely opens up this idea of the people involved, the people who went along with the horrors happening before their eyes.

So what we have with The Reader is an “important” film. I don’t know if Slumdog qualifies as “important” in their eyes. What Slumdog is is a hell of an entertaining ride. But for old timers in the Academy who might be interested in something deeper they might vote for The Reader.

And then again, there are many of them that are going to respond to Benjamin Button. The Brad Pitt and Taraji P. Henson nods show they loved this movie a hell of a lot more than the critics did. So that makes The Reader and Benjamin Button two films that were popular with the Academy despite the critics.

Benjamin Button had the misfortune of being the early frontrunner and that always sets expectations too high, impossibly high. An Oscar movie has to be seen and then talked about as Best Picture – it can’t be talked about as Best Picture and then seen. I’ve yet to see a movie do that.

The bottom line here is that if Slumdog had been weak at all it would have showed up at the SAGs. It won there, impossibly. My point in all of this mumbo jumbo is just to say that if there was going to be a spoiler, like The Reader, it would be counter-balanced by the other potential spoilers, which is how Slumdog keeps winning.  This, as opposed to there being only two films in the race. This feels like a one-film race with three other films pulling against each other for second place.

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