By Christopher Campbell
With Danny Boyle’s DGA win over the weekend, Slumdog Millionaire achieved a near-impossible feat; it became even more favored to win the Oscar for Best Picture. Once thought to be an underdog, Slumdog has been pretty much unstoppable throughout the awards season, even picking up the undeserved top honor at the SAG Awards, and has never fallen from its position of frontrunner since it took the lead months ago. Yet last week, the internet was populated by talk of a Slumdog backlash, and for the first time in weeks, other Best Picture candidates were seriously being discussed as slightly plausible victors. The two titles considered most likely to be a threat to Boyle’s film are The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Milk, with little concern for either Frost/Nixon or The Reader. However, while the former candidate is probably a sure thing to lose, the latter film should not yet be dismissed.
Before the Academy Award nominations were announced last month, The Reader wasn’t even thought to be a contender for any major category except Best Supporting Actress. Now, among its five nominations, it’s up for three higher-tiered Oscars, including Best Picture. So, we can’t rightly continue underestimating its potential. This isn’t to say that we are predicting The Reader to win Best Picture; Slumdog is still the safest bet for the top prize. But odds for The Reader do need to be adjusted, as its chances are a lot closer to, if not better than, secondary favorites Benjamin Button and Milk. Of course, as the it stands now, the film should be an appealing choice for any gamblers out there, because a surprise Best Picture win for The Reader would pay out big time. So, our immediate apologies to betters if the following seven factors have any influence on professional oddsmakers out there.
The Cancel-Out Factor
Let’s begin with the simplest argument, which has also been used recently as evidence that Milk’s chances for the top award have gone up: Whether due to a backlash or not, Slumdog’s lead may be shortening, and Benjamin Button may be gaining. So, the two films could cancel each other out and The Reader, not Milk, could sneak forward. Or, to give Milk the same credit as others are giving it, the three favorites cancel each other out and The Reader makes an even greater leap forward.
The Stephen Daldry Factor
Now for the weakest, but not completely implausible argument: It’s clear the Academy loves Stephen Daldry, as they’ve nominated him for Best Director every time he’s made a movie. Unfortunately for him, there’s no way he’ll win his category this year, because no director has ever won the Oscar without at least being nominated for the DGA award. So, Boyle remains a lock for Best Director, but Daldry’s fans could try and make a serious push for the film to win Best Picture. It would be a somewhat ironic win, since Daldry’s first nomination came for a film that wasn’t even nominated for the top award (Billy Elliot).
The Posthumous Oscars Factor (aka the Sydney Pollack and Anthony Minghella Factor)
Thanks to a special exception the Academy made for The Reader, there are now three posthumous Oscar nominees. Heath Ledger is most definitely going to win Best Supporting Actor for his role in The Dark Knight, but what about Sydney Pollack and Anthony Minghella? The two are among The Reader’s four producers named to receive trophies if the film wins Best Picture. Academy members could consider this a year to pay special honor to the artists they’ve lost, and that would mean voting for two of their favorite filmmaking talents. On the other hand, though, with Pollack having previously won two Oscars (out of six nominations) and Minghella having previously won one (out of three nominations), it’s not as if the voters will feel as much of an obligation as they would if neither had been honored before. Still, never underestimate the power of the celebrity death cult.
The Harvey Weinstein Factor
It’s been awhile since Harvey’s heyday at the Oscars. While heading Miramax, he managed a couple surprise victories in the Best Picture category, and at the 2003 awards, Harvey actually had a connection to four of the five Best Picture nominees. He used to be known as someone not to be reckoned with when it came to his desire for Academy Awards. But it’s taken years for The Weinstein Co. to see one of its films in contention for the top prize. So, will Harvey once again show great influence over the Academy? According to Entertainment Weekly’s Dave Karger, Harvey’s been advised not to go crazy with the Oscar campaigning this year, partly for economic reasons and partly because his chances are considered low. But Karger thinks he’s still going to “go whole hog,” because “otherwise he wouldn’t be Harvey Weinstein.” And when Harvey goes whole hog, things like Shakespeare in Love beating Saving Private Ryan happen. Seriously, there are already those who believe the whole Slumdog backlash thing was started by a certain “truth-and ethically challenged mogul” who would benefit from such a smear campaign.
The Schindler’s List Factor
As much as we all like to joke about the Academy’s Holocaust fetish, no Holocaust movie is a sure thing for Best Picture (especially if such a film is the one non-Harvey Weinstein-related nominee). But one Holocaust film in particular is the Academy’s pride and joy: Schindler’s List. If Slumdog Millionaire continues its awards season sweep, garnering top kudos from the WGA, the BAFTAs and finally the Oscars, it will actually become a more-honored film than Schindler’s List, which holds the current record for awards season domination. Unfortunately for Spielberg’s film, as noted by In Contention’s Kristopher Tapley, there were no BFCA or SAG ensemble awards back then. So, due to more opportunities, Slumdog could break the record rather unfairly. For Schindler’s List-loving members of the Academy, that might be an incentive to vote for The Reader, a fellow Holocaust film, instead of for Slumdog, which nobody could reasonably argue is better than the 1994 Best Picture-winner.
The Tolerance Factor
One of the major arguments in favor of Milk’s chances are that a Best Picture win for that film would make up for the Brokeback Mountain loss three years ago. And the Academy might vote for Milk in order to prove it is tolerant. But in a way, honoring Crash over Brokeback Mountain was a display of tolerance, only one that focused on race rather than sexual orientation. The Reader could be this year’s Crash, and not just because it’s one of the most critically hated Best Picture candidates in years. An argument against the aforementioned Schindler’s List Factor is that The Reader is almost like an anti-Holocaust film, because it attempts to make the audience sympathize with a concentration camp guard who slaughtered many Jewish prisoners. If the Academy should really feel the need to again prove its members are tolerant, honoring The Reader, which allegorically deals with Germany’s struggle to come to terms with its Nazi past, would be an even stronger display of this than would honoring a film focusing on gay rights. The again, the latter action may potentially be easier for some voters.
The Surprise Factor
Okay, this is actually the simplest argument: the Oscars are full of surprises. From Marisa Tomei’s out-numbered defeat of the British (and Australian) in 1992 to the shocking 1936 win by write-in candidate Hal Mohr to the unexpected Best Picture wins by non-frontrunners Chariots of Fire, Shakespeare in Love, Chicago and Crash (among others), the Academy should never be underestimated when it comes to their aim with monkey wrenches. So, the best reason not to dismiss The Reader in the Best Picture race is that all Oscars races are anyone’s game up until the envelopes are opened and the winners are named.