February 10, 2009 / 1:25 AM / 10 years ago

"Slumdog" takes on underdogs at Oscars

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - Fire up the curry and vindaloo.

Anyone throwing a viewing party for the Academy Awards on February 22 would be smart to have plenty of Indian condiments on hand. Ever since its world premiere at the Telluride Film Festival in Colorado last August, “Slumdog Millionaire” has been climbing toward a best picture Oscar just as surely as its hero Jamal successfully answers questions in his quest to win 20 million rupees.

But don’t start dishing out the chutneys and naan just yet.

Sure, all signs point to a big Bollywood finish at this year’s Oscar show. Fox Searchlight’s “Slumdog” scored 10 nominations, second only to the 13 for Paramount’s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” It picked up four Golden Globes, including best drama, and top honors from the directors, producers, screen actors and writers guilds.

But upsets do happen. Just three years ago, “Crash” edged out “Brokeback Mountain” for best picture, moments after the Academy celebrated “Brokeback’s” Ang Lee as best director. “Shakespeare in Love” derailed the best picture hopes of would-be shoo-in “Saving Private Ryan” in 1999. And in 1982, “Chariots of Fire” staged a last-minute surge that saw it grab the brass ring from “Reds.”

“Chariots” was a feel-good indie that stole the spotlight from a pricey, prestige-laden studio pic. This year, the roles of David and Goliath are reversed. The $160 million “Button” currently looks like the underdog, while “Slumdog,” which at one point was going straight-to-DVD, has been busy running victory laps.

But “Button,” David Fincher’s adaptation of the F. Scott Fitzgerald short story, does have history on its side. Only two films, 1950’s “All About Eve” and 1997’s “Titanic,” have amassed more nominations (14 each), and they both took the best picture prize. And of the eight previous movies that collected 13 nominations, five of them — including 1994’s “Forrest Gump,” also penned by “Button” screenwriter Eric Roth — also went on to clinch the best picture title.

Additionally, “Button” displayed strength in a wide swath of categories, which ordinarily would suggest it has broad support among the Academy’s 5,810 members. “Slumdog,” conversely, struck out in the four acting categories, where “Button” is represented by actor Brad Pitt and supporting actress Taraji P. Henson. In the eight-decade history of the Oscars, only ten movies — most recently 2003’s “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” — have won best picture without receiving any acting nominations.

On the other hand, the Screen Actors Guild boosted “Slumdog’s” chances by giving it the ensemble cast award.

“Button” might also find vocal constituencies in several other categories — art direction, costumes, make-up and visual effects — where “Slumdog” didn’t rate a nomination. In fact, in visual effects and make-up, “Button” has to be considered the main contender.

However, as much as the various crafts branches might admire “Button,” that film ends, by design, on a note of melancholy as the passage of time moves in to drown out life’s fleeting moments of joy. By contrast, “Slumdog” is all about conquering the odds. Its hero’s journey from the Mumbai slums to love and riches, however improbable, is like a Depression-era fantasy updated for an age of multicultural globalism. “Jai Ho,” the best song-nominated dance number that closes the film, leaves moviegoers on a genuine high.

If it all comes down to taking the temperature of the zeitgeist, “Slumdog” isn’t the only film with an advantage, though. Buoyed by eight nominations, Focus Features’ “Milk,” Gus Van Sant’s tribute to the life of gay activist Harvey Milk, also speaks to the current moment.

The biopic recounts Milk’s successful battle against Proposition 6, which would have banned gay teachers in California. That issue took on contemporary relevance in the wake of the passage of Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage in the state.

But the film has an even deeper resonance: “Milk” portrayed the power of a community organizer just as a former community organizer was elected president. If voters opt for the empowering choice, they could end up marking their ballots for “Milk.”

With five nominations each, Universal’s “Frost/Nixon” and the Weinstein Co.’s “The Reader” are facing an uphill battle. Both films have solid support: Each also has a stake in the best director race, for Ron Howard and Stephen Daldry, respectively; they’ve earned acting consideration for Frank Langella and Kate Winslet; and their screenplays are nominated.

But even if they score victories in those run-offs, that doesn’t guarantee a best picture win. In 2003, “The Pianist” entered the evening with seven nominations, won key trophies for screenwriter Ronald Harwood, director Roman Polanski and actor Adrien Brody, but still lost best picture honors to “Chicago.”

As for box office, “Button,” which opened wide at Christmas, has inched to $120 million. “Milk” ($25 million),”Frost/Nixon” ($16 million) and “The Reader” ($16 million) have yet to break through to wider audiences. But “Slumdog,” which has been growing its audience since its limited release in November, has attracted nearly $77 million domestically.

If there’s a bandwagon effect in play, then “Slumdog” looks to be leading the parade.

Reuters/Hollywood Reporter

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