"This was a pleasure!" Quentin Tarantino said the other day, as he stood up from an intimate press lunch—during which the director slugged back three screwdrivers and wolfed down a lobster taco—held on the sun-dappled balcony of the Tower Bar, the see-and-be-seen restaurant on the Sunset Strip.
Grinning his roguish, slightly maniacal grin, Tarantino was dressed in an all-black ensemble that involved an open-at-the-collar Western shirt and sneakers with the word "Bill" inscribed on the sides.
If Inglourious Basterds doesn’t win Best Picture, Weinstein said, “Then we’ll steal it, because we’re bastards!”
It was all part of the Tarantino traveling show, which has been in full force over the last several weeks, as the Oscar race has hit the home stretch, and Inglourious Basterds—Tarantino's World War II homage, which is up for eight Oscar awards—is emerging as not just a dark horse candidate for Best Picture, but a dark horse candidate that could possibly win. Much in the way that Shakespeare in Love, another one of studio mogul Havey Weinstein's films, unexpectedly beat out Saving Private Ryan, in 1999. (Until now, it's been generally agreed upon in these parts that the Best Picture race was between Avatar and The Hurt Locker.)
Behind all the Basterds buzz, of course, is Weinstein, whose eponymous, post-Miramax company produced the film, and who is convinced that it can beat the odds and go all the way, a message he is trumpeting to anyone and everyone who will listen. At the Marchesa fashion show in New York on Wednesday (his wife, Georgina Chapman, is the line's designer), he told The Daily Beast reporter Isabel Wilkinson that if Basterds—which is Tarantino's highest-grossing film—didn't win Best Picture, "Then we'll steal it, because we're bastards!"
In a phone interview later, Weinstein said that if Basterds does win, "I'll ask Disney if I can put the Miramax logo on it. I'm serious. Why not? I'd like to see Miramax associated with quality. I'm very nostalgic."
(Of the possibility that Weinstein and his brother Bob may buy back Miramax, which Disney is selling, he would only say: "I'm a suitor.")
What makes Weinstein's case for Basterds more than just typical Harvey bluster is the new, Oscar voting process, which is "preferential," as opposed to the single-voting system that has been used in recent years. In other words, voters will not simply pick the best film of 2009, but rank the nominees from one through 10. As Weinstein sees it, if Avatar and Hurt Locker split the votes, Basterds could win.
Weinstein is also convinced that Basterds has an edge because it's "an actor's film" and Tarantino is an "actor's director." (The acting branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which votes on the Oscars, is by far its most sizeable.)
"The actors understand that Tarantino writes great parts for actors. He is non-discriminatory when it comes to creating great roles for John Travolta or Christoph Waltz [considered the shoo-in for Best Supporting Actor for Basterds] or Pam Grier or putting Bob De Niro in a supporting role," Weinstein said. "His movies run the range and gamut of what an actor does."
Basterds has already won support from the Screen Actors Guild, which awarded the movie its top honor, for best ensemble cast.
A number of Oscar pundits are right there with Harvey, including Tom O'Neil, who writes the Gold Derby blog for the Los Angeles Times, and who has been saying since November that Basterds will win.
But not everyone is buying the logic. As one Academy voter put it: "Harvey saying that it's gonna win is based on the math, not the picture. The acting is OK, but this isn't The English Patient or Shakespeare in Love."
Asked who would win, this person said, "Depending on the day you ask me, it's Hurt Locker or Avatar. I don't know."
And the No. 3 slot? "I don't care about three. Three is like being the tallest midget in the room."
Others point out that Weinstein has made Best Picture promises before that he failed to deliver on—such as for Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York and Gus Van Sant's Good Will Hunting, to name a few.
Weinstein chafes at this, saying that the Good Will Hunting year, "We were happy to be invited to the dance," and that the Gangs of New York year, he was pushing Chicago—which he won—for Best Picture. Then, he was more concerned with Scorsese for Best Director, though he lost.
Still, Weinstein's track record is better than most—Miramax dominated the Oscars in the mid-1990s and early 2000s—thus no one is willing to completely ignore his soap-box demonstrations.
"I don't think there's anybody with a better record of navigating these waters, and you have to respect him for that," said Hollywood guru and Variety editorial director Peter Bart. "He sort of invented the process. He certainly feels that, at this moment, the Inglourious Basterds ship has not sailed, and he's proven to be right in the past."
Not that it's possible to ignore Harvey. Over the past several weeks, Weinstein—whom Tarantino affectionately refers to as Joe Namath, the quintessential underdog—has been on a tirade of publicity for the movie: buying ads (an eight-page insert ran in the Los Angeles Times this week), and hosting and attending parties and events. He's also been strong-arming, or at least attempting to, everyone into noticing. When Tarantino's über-agent, Ari Emanuel, recently hosted a dinner for Basterds at Mr. Chow, Weinstein threw a fit when he was told that Emanuel did not want reporters to attend.
Even though the Weinstein Co. is reportedly cash-strapped, no expense has been spared on the Basterds campaign. Sources say that both Tarantino and his producing partner, Lawrence Bender, are chipping in to foot the bill.
The star of the circus is Tarantino, who's perhaps the only person on earth who eclipses Weinstein's own showman qualities, making him the ideal talent to trot around town. While other nominees have started to betray signs of being beleaguered by the relentless parade of dinners, luncheons, and awards ceremonies—at a recent BAFTA event for Kathryn Bigelow, when a reporter whom she knew asked her how she was coping, Bigelow leaned against the wall, let out a sigh, and opened her eyes wide, like a deer in headlights—Tarantino seems positively giddy from all the festivities.
At the Tower Bar, for two hours straight, he delivered a high-adrenaline—as he would say, "kinetic"—discourse on everything from the history of modern violence in film, to bonding with the other directors nominated for Oscars this year ("We all get along. We joke and say that we should have a panel at a film festival—'Have jury, will travel!'"), to, of course, Inglourious Basterds, a film that took him 10 years to make and that Weinstein, naturally, sees as his "climax."
Which fits into the other prong of his Oscar campaign—that it's Tarantino's "time," seeing as he's never won a Best Picture Oscar and has only been nominated for one film, Pulp Fiction, which won for Best Original Screenplay. (Weinstein is not foolish enough to think that Tarantino could pull off a Best Director win—that one, Hollywood unanimously believes, belongs to Bigelow.)
And then, of course, there's the fact that Weinstein's mom is behind a Basterds win.
"My mom turns 84 today," Weinstein said. "She's the Miriam of Miramax. We're taking her out to dinner. My mom is pulling for Inglourious Basterds. She loves Quentin like he was her own son."
And being a good son, Weinstein is going to do whatever it takes to make her happy.
Nicole LaPorte is the senior West Coast correspondent for The Daily Beast. A former film reporter for Variety, she has also written for The New Yorker, the Los Angeles Times Magazine, The New York Times, The New York Observer, and W.