Before this year’s Oscar nominations were announced, the often-bloody battle for Best Picture looked more like a gentlemanly game of cricket. Danny Boyle’s Mumbai fairy tale, Slumdog Millionaire, had racked up four Golden Globes and 16 critics’ group awards, and had secured the coveted slot as this year's Oscar front-runner. The film had been an irresistible surprise: a low-budget indie with foreign actors, a respected director who had never been nominated, and a much-admired studio, Fox Searchlight, which had never scored the Academy’s biggest prize. Oscar pundits were declaring the race all but won and trumpeting 2008 as The Year of the Underdog. And then, unexpectedly, another dog showed up.
On Jan. 22, The Reader, a quiet post-Holocaust drama released by The Weinstein Co., earned five Oscar nods, including one for Best Picture. Starring Kate Winslet and directed by Stephen Daldry (The Hours), the film had pedigree and famously Academy-friendly subject matter — but that’s about all it had going for it. First, there was the embarrassing public clash over its release date: Harvey Weinstein had strong-armed Daldry into rushing the film into theaters before the end of last year, setting off a power struggle with the film’s producer, Scott Rudin, who took his name off the film in protest. Early reviews were poor to mixed, box office receipts were dismal, and the Oscar campaign seemed subdued, if not anemic. What’s more, Weinstein hadn’t had a Best Picture contender in four years, and rumors abounded that his company was running out of money and that Harvey had lost his golden touch. Yet on Oscar-nomination morning, The Reader edged out (presumably) The Dark Knight to nab the fifth Best Picture slot. A big achievement, but it isn’t enough for Weinstein, who’s not exactly an ”it’s an honor to be nominated” kind of guy. ”I love Danny Boyle’s movie. It’s breathtaking,” Weinstein says of Slumdog. ”It’s a shame they’re going to come in second.” Harmless trash talk, perhaps. But could The Reader actually win? And if it does, could it resurrect Harvey Weinstein’s status as the industry’s most feared and fascinating studio head?
For most of the 1990s, Weinstein was the undisputed czar of the Academy Awards. As the co-chairman of Miramax Films, the company he founded with his brother, Bob, Weinstein racked up a massive 249 Oscar nominations and 60 wins, including Best Picture trophies for The English Patient, Shakespeare in Love, and Chicago. (In a nasty corporate divorce, the Weinsteins parted ways with Miramax and its parent company, Disney, in 2005.) An unswerving champion of great filmmaking, Harvey could also be a crass, bare-knuckles bully who turned Oscar campaigning into a barroom brawl. In 2002, he was suspected of starting a whisper campaign against Universal’s A Beautiful Mind by falsely accusing the film’s protagonist, John Nash, of being anti-Semitic. The film won Best Picture anyway, defeating Miramax’s contender, In the Bedroom, and Weinstein has always adamantly denied the charges. Fairly or not, though, the incident cemented his image as a man who would cross any line necessary to win. Even now, no one expects him to play by the rules. ”I bet you right now he’s back to his old habits, out there trashing Slumdog,” says an industry veteran who has gone toe-to-toe with Weinstein in the past. ”Those five noms he received are like crack for a recovering addict.”
NEXT PAGE: ”What can I say? When you’re Billy the Kid and people around you die of natural causes, everyone thinks you shot them.”