Quentin Tarantino vs. the Cops: Is Oscar in the Crossfire?

Illustration by: R. Kikuo Johnson

Not even Harvey Weinstein can muzzle the 'Hateful Eight' director as Tarantino speaks out against police killings amid calls for a boycott of his newest film.

This story first appeared in the Nov. 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

The year was 2002. The front-runner for best actor was Russell Crowe.

Crowe had delivered the performance of his life in A Beautiful Mind and was poised to win an Oscar — until something went dreadfully wrong. After receiving a BAFTA Award, where he made the tactical but not terminal misstep of reciting a poem in full ("I am celebrating my love for you with a pint of beer and a new tattoo"), Crowe lost his cool when the BBC excised the poem from its broadcast. Tracking down the show's director, the actor pinned him to a wall and unleashed a volley of expletives, describing him as a c— and a motherf—er. Four weeks later, he lost the Academy Award to Training Day's Denzel Washington.

That's about the only time a contender's offscreen antics have cost him or her an Oscar.

You don't lose for repeatedly failing to show up for award ceremonies (see Woody Allen); you don't lose for scoffing at awards (see George C. Scott); you don't lose when the Academy is skeptical of your religion (see Paul Haggis, before leaving Scientology); and you don't lose when banned from Hollywood altogether (see Dalton Trumbo, who won for 1956's The Brave One while blacklisted and using the pseudonym Robert Rich).

You don't even lose when you're living in exile and being pursued by authorities for having unlawful sex with an underage girl (see Roman Polanski, honored as best director for 2002's The Pianist).

So do you lose if police associations throughout the country are urging a boycott of your film, charging you've called them all "murderers"?

That's the question The Weinstein Co. faces while approaching the Dec. 25 opening of Quentin Tarantino's The Hateful Eight: Will the director's much-publicized remarks (made during an Oct. 24 demonstration in New York, when he said, "I have to call the murderers the murderers") derail the picture's box-office and Oscar chances?

Industry veterans are split about the box office — though no movie is helped when its marketing narrative is thrown to the wind — but they're unanimous that if the film is any good, Tarantino can cruise to a statuette.

"Look at Polanski," says one awards consultant. "He didn't do a lick of publicity; he didn't come to the U.S. It seemed clear he couldn't win — and then he did. If that scandal couldn't kill it for him, this new scandal with Tarantino won't affect him either."

Nor is the latter's stand perceived as scandalous by many in the Academy. Michael Moore already has applauded the director for speaking out against police brutality (not that he's much help). Recent incidents like the death of a 6-year-old boy at the hands of two Louisiana marshals only add resonance to Tarantino's words. Says one producer and longtime Academy member, "Sixty-five percent of voters live in L.A. and don't like the cops anyway."

Yet a hint of anxiety persists — not that too much damage has been done, but that more might follow.

"Sometimes you have to cut these guys off and tell them to stop talking," cautions the awards consultant. "But nobody tells Quentin what to do, including Harvey [Weinstein]. He's got a 3½-hour film — you think Harvey wanted to release a 3½-hour film? This is not what Harvey needs right now." (Actually, the running time of the road-show version is three hours, seven minutes, including a 12-minute intermission.)

So what should Tarantino do, if he needs to do anything?

First, say insiders, he should bring forward screenings of his movie so the picture becomes the narrative, not himself. "Start to get it out there because if it's a crowd-pleaser, none of this will matter," says one marketer.

Second, arrange special screenings for cops who have played positive roles in the African-American community, underlining Tarantino's assertion that he is not against the police but rather against those police who have killed without provocation. "They're implying that I meant that all cops are murderers, and I wasn't," he told Bill Maher on Nov. 6.

Third, have Hateful's eight stars declare their unqualified support. This is one of the world's most brilliant filmmakers, after all, and they're the ones who best can remind audiences. Django Unchained's Jamie Foxx defended Tarantino at the Hollywood Film Awards, but more voices must be heard. "It would be nice to have all of his actors support him because a lot of them have fan bases," says the consultant.

Above all, change the subject: The more Tarantino talks, the deeper he digs a hole. Like all true artists, he should let his picture speak for itself. After all, that strategy has served him superbly the past quarter-century.