LOS ANGELES — With its aura of faux humility, dense saturation of “for your consideration” ads and humble-yet-effusive nominee posturing, awards season can be a long (if gala-packed and celebrity-studded) slog for Hollywood watchers.
So it comes as a blast of fresh air when a front-runner allows himself to get into the competitive spirit. Cut to writer-director Quentin Tarantino mulling the Oscar possibilities for his spaghetti Western-cum-World War II thriller “Inglourious Basterds.” So far, the film has taken in more than $300 million worldwide, landed 10 Critics Choice Movie Awards nominations (as well as a Directors Guild of America nod for Tarantino) and was being handicapped by certain gurus of gold as a shoo-in among the best picture Oscar contenders even before the category doubled to 10 nominees.
“Do I want to win? I totally want to win,” Tarantino exclaimed over a vodka and cranberry at a Beverly Hills hotel the day before “Basterds” snagged four Golden Globe nominations. “I’ve already won an Oscar. But if I did win, that would be one for every decade I’ve been in the business. And that would be awesome! Especially because everyone wrote me off in the first five years of my career as this rock star-y flash in the pan.”
A genre-bending mash-up of the “men on a mission” war movie genre splintered into five “chapters,” “Basterds” follows a Jewish terror squad that sets out to destabilize the Third Reich by killing and scalping German soldiers in occupied France. Some sections of the film spool out fueled by talk-y, monologue-driven drama, others with gritty shoot ‘em up fantasy.
And while Brad Pitt may be the film’s focal point as Aldo “the Apache” Raines, the scene-stealing Austrian actor Christoph Waltz, who portrays the polyglot Nazi colonel known as “the Jew hunter,” is its heart and soul. Waltz is an odds-on favorite for the supporting actor Oscar (and so far has secured a Golden Globe nod).
But to hear it from Tarantino, casting the smooth-talking sadist Col. Hans Landa proved so difficult that until Waltz arrived, the writer-director considered scuttling the project.
“When I finished the script, I’m aware enough to know, this is one of the best roles I’ve ever written — one of the best roles I’ll ever write,” Tarantino said. “It was so there on the page, if I couldn’t get what was on the page onto the screen, I didn’t want to make the movie.”
Auditions began inauspiciously in Berlin. After seeing a number of German actors fluent in English, no one was nailing the essence of the character: a man who is, by turns, silky and bloodthirsty, debonair and extremely goofy — in four different languages.
“Other German actors would come in, they’d do the German part fantastic, stumble through the French to one degree or another,” Tarantino recalled. “But when it came to English, they couldn’t make my dialogue sing.”
He continued: “I pulled the producers together and said, ‘Look, guys, I don’t know if we are going to find Landa. I might have just written a role that’s unplayable. And I don’t want to make the movie without Landa. I’d rather just publish the script.’”
Waltz, 53, a journeyman stage and TV actor, became the 12th person to read for the part and iced it.
“Christoph came in, he sure looks like Landa. He carries himself in a certain way and that wasn’t him trying — Christoph is just very erudite,” said Tarantino. “And halfway through the opening scene, I was like, ‘This is the guy!’”
With his seemingly bottomless well of enthusiasm, eminent quip-worthiness and a born hustler’s easy smile, Tarantino admitted that he has taken to the kind of Hollywood politicking that will result in Oscar votes like a duck to water. Having previously won an Oscar for best screenplay for 1994’s “Pulp Fiction” (an award he shares with co-writer Roger Avary) and landed a Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival for “Pulp,” he’s no stranger to the drill.
So, what kind of statuette-grabbing plays is master Oscar campaigner Harvey Weinstein calling from the sideline? “It’s just, ‘Go to the parties. Everyone loves your movie so just keep reminding them. When they see you, they’ll be reminded of how much.’”
And again, the Southern California-reared former video store clerk pondered what academy validation for “Basterds” would symbolize at this point in his career. “The movie flew in the face of conventional wisdom in almost every aspect. It’s a movie made out of five chapters, some are like one-act plays — and with all these different languages in there,” Tarantino said. “And there’s nothing better for an artist like myself than to prove conventional wisdom wrong.
“So, it actually means a lot to be in contention at the end of my second decade in business,” he said in a voice barely below a shout. “My wine is aging very well!”
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