Oscars: Will Weinstein's 'Philomena' Benefit From Best Picture Split? (Analysis)

Judi Dench as Philomena Lee and Philomena Lee Split - H 2014
The Weinstein Company; Paul A. Hebert/Invision/AP)

Judi Dench as Philomena Lee and Philomena Lee Split - H 2014

The best picture Oscar race broke in three different directions last weekend -- the top honor at the SAG Awards went to American Hustle and at the PGA Awards went, in a tie, to 12 Years a Slave and Gravity. That outcome confirms what we already suspected: we have a very close competition on our hands this year. And it must please no one more than a man who has nothing to do with any of those three films: Harvey Weinstein.

Weinstein, the 61-year-old co-chief of The Weinstein Co., is universally regarded as the most effective Academy Awards strategist of all-time. He oversaw the successful best picture Oscar campaigns of The English Patient, Shakespeare in Love, Chicago, The King's Speech and The Artist. Roberto Benigni, Gwyneth Paltrow, Nicole Kidman, Kate Winslet, Robin Williams, Cate Blanchett, Jean Dujardin, Penelope Cruz, Colin Firth, Jennifer Lawrence and literally dozens of others might not have won their Oscars had he not fought for them. And, consequently, he has been thanked in more Oscar acceptance speeches than even God.

But this year Weinstein, who is used to juggling multiple major Oscar contenders each year, has only one film that scored more than two noms -- his sole horse in the best picture race, Stephen Frears' Philomena. Sure, it's an underdog, but Harvey feeds on people betting against him and his movies -- and you better believe that he's going to throw all of his muscle behind this one. After all, Weinstein is not a man who likes to leave the Academy Awards empty-handed.

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All of which raises the question: could Philomena -- a low-budget dramedy inspired by the true story of Philomena Lee, an elderly woman who attempted to locate the son that was taken from her a half-century earlier by nuns at the Irish abbey at which she once lived -- actually come from behind and become the spoiler in this year's race? It's obviously a long shot, but I wouldn't rule out the possibility.

It does indeed have a lot going for it:

(1) Consider its backers within the Academy. It scored only three noms aside from its best pic mention -- but they are big ones. It was feted by the Academy's most populous branch, the actors, who bestowed a best actress nom upon Judi Dench (her sixth nom for a Weinstein film in the last 16 years and seventh overall). The writers, the fifth biggest branch, honored Jeff Pope and Steve Coogan for adapting journalist Martin Sixsmith's story of his time with Lee into a film in which Coogan also stars. And the music branch gave Alexandre Desplat, who is still seeking his first win, his sixth best original score nom in eight years.

A best director nom also would have been nice -- only four films have won without one, although Argo did so just last year. But just as important for best picture contenders are noms for acting, without which only 11 films have won. (Her lacks any acting noms this year). Philomena also got a screenplay nomination, without which only seven films have won. (Of this year's best picture line-up, Gravity lacks a writing nomination).

Plus the British bloc of the Academy, which is comprised of a considerable number of people, love Philomena. (Look at how well the film did with BAFTA to get a sense of how it has gone over in the U.K.!)

(2) Remember how moving the film is. Few people who attend this film leave it with dry eyes. And, to jerk the tears even harder, Weinstein has brought over from the U.K. not only Coogan but also Lee herself. They have become the lovable odd-couple of the season, hitting the circuit as hard as anyone in an attempt to make up for Dench's absence. (The 79-year-old is recovering from recent surgery.) They have done tons of interviews; participated in post-screening Q&As (at which they have received standing-ovations when they take the stage and when they leave it); introduced their film at the Golden Globe Awards; presented an honor to another project at the PGA Awards; and literally worked, without complaint, to the point of exhausting their energy and clean clothing. (One can only fit so many outfits into a suitcase!)

The only other best picture nominees with living subjects who have have endorsed their respective films are Captain Phillips (although some have suggested that this is because the film makes Richard Phillips seem more heroic than he actually was) and The Wolf of Wall Street (although the filmmakers have tried to keep a safe distance from Jordan Belfort for fear of being tainted by his him).

(3) Don't forget that it has social import, like most best picture winners, and is making a real difference in the world. The film has helped to raise international awareness of Ireland's "Magdalen Laundries" -- institutions like the one at which Philomena's son was taken from her -- and brought pressure on the Irish government and the Vatican to do more than they heretofore have done to help reunite some 25,000 children with the parents from whom they were taken. (Numerous women have already come forward, in the wake of seeing Philomena, and publicly acknowledged, sometimes for the first time, that their own children were taken from them under circumstances similar to Lee's.)

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(4) What else is Harvey going to focus on for the next six weeks?! His other nominees won't require much of his time and attention. Barring a miracle, August: Osage County's lead actress Meryl Streep, while revered, is not going to beat Blue Jasmine's Cate Blanchett or Philomena's Dench, and August's supporting actress Julia Roberts, while beloved, appears to have quite a bit of ground to cover to catch up to Slave's Lupita Nyong'o and Hustle's Lawrence. Scoring noms for cinematography and costume design was probably the win for The Grandmaster. Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom's original song "Ordinary Love," which bagged a Golden Globe for U2, could repeat at the Oscars, but it faces an uphill climb against Frozen's "Let It Go." And, in the documentary feature race, TWC-RADiUS' 20 Feet from Stardom already looks like a likely winner over, among other films, the company's other nominee, Cutie and the Boxer.

So best picture is the one race in which Weinstein could, conceivably, change an outcome by doing what he does best. It's not likely to pan out, but it's not impossible that it could, either. Does anyone really think he won't give it his best shot?

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg