Dave Karger and Josh Young
April 02, 2004 AT 05:00 AM EST

Could ”The Passion of the Christ” win best picture?

Will The Passion of the Christ rise again come Oscar time? Since its release Feb. 25, Mel Gibson’s film has touched off the most polarizing cultural debate in recent memory and grossed $300 million in domestic box office alone. Now, just a month after the 2004 Academy Awards, this very early entry has Hollywood ditching the hobbits and turning its attention to 2005’s big night. With its epic scale, weighty performances, and moody cinematography by four-time nominee Caleb Deschanel, The Passion could easily factor into next year’s Oscar race — with some careful strategizing.

”It has two things going against it,” says Focus Features copresident James Schamus, who has his own first-quarter potential Oscar contender in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. ”One is the extreme brutality of the violence. It’s two hours of watching a guy get the you-know-what beat out of him. Academy voters tend to be rather squeamish about that. The other is the very orchestrated ‘I’m being persecuted’ campaign that Mel waged. It’s a turnoff when somebody starts screaming that you’re attacking them when you haven’t even noticed them yet. But people forgive rather quickly when they look at the grosses.”

Controversy aside, there is precedent for an early release exhibiting long legs. Fargo, Erin Brockovich, and The Silence of the Lambs were able to sustain their momentum thanks to heavy trade-ad spending, special awards-group screenings, or well-timed DVD releases. And Gibson has proven himself an Academy favorite in the past — he took home Best Picture and Best Director trophies for Braveheart in 1996. No surprise, then, that Newmarket Films hopes to duplicate its Monster Oscar success. Though neither Newmarket nor Gibson’s Icon Productions would comment for this story, it’s worth noting that a high-profile Christmastime rerelease of the film would coincide quite conveniently with the Oscar balloting process.

But would Gibson — who’s been selective about how he publicizes The Passion, not to mention clearly defensive when challenged about the film — submit to the countless glad-handing events and Q&A sessions that are an essential part of most Oscar campaigns? He may not have to: Should Gibson choose not to stump, he has several vocal supporters, like Bill O’Reilly, who would take the Academy to task for any perceived Passion snub. In any case, the rules may have to be rewritten. ”I would not mount a campaign,” says one studio marketing chief. ”That’s taking something that was a touchstone and saying it’s no different than any other movie. If I were doing it, you would see ads for the cinematography, the things that are safe. But the first time you see a Best Director ad for Mel Gibson? I don’t know how that’s going to go over.”

Gibson’s friends may need to do some intensive lobbying. ”I really don’t think it will get any nominations,” says a member of the Academy’s screenwriters branch. ”The music and cinematography were awfully good, but it will be forgotten by Academy Awards time. Nobody I know thinks it has a remote chance for Best Picture.” (Nor does it have a shot at Best Foreign Language Film, since there’s no Aramaic-speaking home country to submit it.)

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