Saturday, December 19, 2015

Failed Oscar Campaigns: "Inglourious Basterds" (2009)

Christoph Waltz in Inglourious Basterds
As awards seasons pick up, so do the campaigns to make your film have the best chances at the Best Picture race. However, like a drunken stupor, sometimes these efforts come off as trying too hard and leave behind a trailer of ridiculous flamboyance. Join me on every other Saturday for a highlight of the failed campaigns that make this season as much about prestige as it does about train wrecks. Come for the Harvey Weinstein comments and stay for the history. It's going to be a fun time as I explore cinema's rich history of attempting to matter.

The Movie

Inglourious Basters (2009)
Directed By: Quentin Tarantino
Written By: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Brad Pitt, Diane Kruger, Eli Roth 
Genre: Action, Drama, War
Running Time: 153 minutes
Summary: In Nazi-occupied France during World War II, a plan to assassinate Nazi leaders by a group of Jewish U.S. soldiers coincides with a theater owner's vengeful plans for the same.

The Movie

To a certain audience, director Quentin Tarantino was only known for one movie by 2009. It was Pulp Fiction. Despite remaining consistently authentic and present in pop culture, there was a concern that the man who revolutionized cinema in 1994 would never make a film that held such high of merits as his sophomore film. True, he was always distinguished and depending on your tastes, he made good movies. However, there's no denying that the impact of two Kill Bill movies, Jackie Brown, and Grindhouse weren't showing him to be the auteur that most want to claim. He made silly movies and the chances of him being more respected weren't coming fast enough. 

It took him 15 years to return to the Oscars circle, and meanwhile the general public's good graces. Inglourious Basterds remains arguably his most ambitious film of his career. It wasn't just film references in between violent outbursts. It was a rewrite of history that featured several interesting tweaks to his writing. To the casual viewer, the shifts between English and the various other languages just seems coincidental. However, it's key to why it's also among his best scripts, even if the words aren't as stylish off the tongue. One can easily see this when Christoph Waltz as Hans Landa speaks to a farmer in the opening chapter. When he shifts to English, the subject becomes more focused on his true intents: to capture and murder Jews. While it was also the beginning of Waltz's impressive American career, it was evidence that the director who's been accused of self-indulgence had at least something to offer.

Considering that the film opened in August, it's surprising to see that it's among his most successful. Behind his next film Django Unchained, it was a film that grossed his career's highest at $120 million, beating his own Pulp Fiction's $107 million. Suddenly, he was being discussed about with such reverence again. He was more than a silly director. He was making cinema that was now necessary for everyone to see. While his later work would shift into more uncomfortable and abrasive homages to westerns, this film embodied a textbook example of what he will likely be remembered for: cinema. Regardless of the film's strong Anti-Nazi story, it revolves around how cinema can unite people and even save lives.

The last sentence does feel why this film resonated with The Academy well enough to get him back into the Oscar race - where he has stayed ever since. Even if Pulp Fiction is easily more accessible, the impact of Inglourious Basterds cannot be understated. It helped to launch Waltz's career. More importantly, it reminded people why Tarantino was a hot shot back in the 90's. He was here to stay, challenging cinema and forcing culture to address its relationship with it. While I'd argue that he's been on a slow decline back to his default style over substance (as good as it may be), it's hard to ignore how his 2009 film resurrected his career much like how he had done with so many actors before. True, he never went anywhere to need it - but those Oscar nominations are pretty telling.

The Campaign

In 2015, Harvey Weinstein complained in interviews that prestige movies should be released at any point throughout the year. He even cited Tarantino's Christmas release The Hateful Eight. What is more confusing is why he chose to forget that he was the strategist behind some clever late-summer success stories. In 2008, he released The Reader at the last minute of the December 2008 - January 2009 stretch. This worked out just fine for the film, finally earning Kate Winslet her Best Actress Oscar. For his follow-up, he went the other route with a director that he's been very supportive of. For Tarantino, he would do a double wave attack in an approach that inevitably worked for the controversial winner Crash

The film premiered in August to very positive reviews and even greater box office. Waltz was immediately praised as the discovery of 2009. Even before the next attack would happen, there was no denying that the film connected with audiences in unexpected ways. It was a film with an easily recognizable plot that people could back: killing Nazis. While a serious story, the underlying humor of its characters meant that people unfamiliar with foreign language films could easily get into the lengthy and subtitled scenes. Considering that Tarantino likely lost some audiences with Grindhouse before this, the success was enough to call this film a comeback.

What was Weinstein's second attack? Well, it is in the most obvious way possible. He was going to distribute DVD's. No, this doesn't mean that he would print the familiar screeners and give them out to audiences. He was going to do a cheaper method. Because the film came out in August, the wide release on home video was right when Oscar season was kicking in. He would basically send out DVD's to the various voters using the ones that had been manufactured for the public. The common sense came down to pricing, really, as a screener's production would cost $20 compared to the regular DVD's $5. If nothing else, it was one of the more noble and economic approaches that Weinstein had ever done.

Of course, there was the typical promotions for the film everywhere. He took out ads in papers. He even attended luncheons with Academy members, often with Tarantino in tow. Speaking as the director was an eccentric film enthusiast, this was an easy marketing trick. The whole deal was that Inglourious Basterds was an "actor movie" and that Tarantino was an "actor's director." Considering his legacy, this all makes sense, even giving him the edge at the Screen Actors Guild (S.A.G.) Awards, where his film won best ensemble. 

The only real blockage came from The Hurt Locker and Avatar: both the lowest grossing and highest grossing Oscar contenders of the year. For many, the race was between these two. That wouldn't stop Weinstein from declaring that Inglourious Basterds was "a dark horse" that could win. If they didn't? He claimed that he would steal the award because they're bastards, and if the film bombed, he would plan to put the Miramax logo on the film. Considering that Weinstein was in the middle of losing his old company, expenses had to be low for the film. Giving the film an unlikely story meant that it would create an awareness. 

Finally, he played "the numbers game." In an attempt to explain his strategy, he explained that Oscar contenders are voted on in a hierarchical fashion; with first place getting more points than second and so on. It's the reason that many assume Crash beat Brokeback Mountain a few years prior. For Weinstein, he believed that Avatar and The Hurt Locker's constant battle meant that they would split the votes too much and give third place ("him") a shot at winning. He was the only one who cared about this logic, but was insistent that it could happen.

The Payoff

During the red carpet leading up to that year's ceremony, Tarantino claimed to a reporter that he was hoping that Inglourious Basterds would pull an upset. Considering that the film had eight nominations, it was already astounding that the film was even a major contender. Still, the race was between Avatar and The Hurt Locker. Most people were only giving his film proper credit because of Waltz's performance, which was consistently winning awards season. In fact, Inglourious Basterds had the most wins of the night at one point: the beginning. Best Supporting Actor was the first category announced, and Waltz won. After giving a heartfelt speech, it was the end of things for the film. They lost most of the other categories.

Depending on who you ask, this was inevitable. Considering that Weinstein's approach is actually very modest compared to most years, it is a miracle at all that Inglourious Basterds has such a presence. Still, there was one person who was perpetually upset by it: Tarantino. While he would win the following time for Best Original Screenplay for Django Unchained, he felt that things weren't going his way in 2010. He was "pissed" about losing, believing that the campaigning that he had done wasn't worth it. 

In a move that seems odd, he claims that he doesn't want to do such aggressive campaigning again. While he ended up having to do a lot of press for Django Unchained regarding its racial depictions, he also had to deal with his violent films owing some fault for 2012's coinciding Sandy Hook school shooting. Whether or not that is considered campaigning, it still was press that raised awareness of his film. Much like Inglourious Basterds, Waltz won a Best Supporting Actor statue for his work. Despite being an "actor's director," Waltz is the only actor in all of Tarantino's movies to ever win an award, and the only to be nominated from his past few films.

There's not a lot to learn about Oscar campaigns from Inglourious Basterds, as Tarantino remains as public in the news in 2015. However, there's one note that makes it possible that he's reconsidering his words. In an interview this past summer, he claimed that he wanted to win more writing Oscars than Woody Allen - whom has three. While not specifying that he wants to win for The Hateful Eight, there's small implication that he wants to do it A.S.A.P. before he quits. Considering that he has made eight films and intends to stop after 10, he likely wants it to work out this time.

How differently would Weinstein's approach be if he had a bigger budget? Who knows. Maybe there would have been more than luncheons and mailed out DVD's to appease voters. Maybe the film would have had a strange twisted message about its significance. Even if Weinstein has lost yet again, it's interesting to see him do it modestly, and with one of his proudest collaborators. It will be interesting to see what he does for The Hateful Eight in 2015, especially considering that Django Unchained's campaign was fraught with constant controversy and the director's most mixed reviews to date. Maybe it will work out. Maybe Tarantino won't campaign after all. Who knows what will be there when all is said and done.

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