‘True Grit’ to ‘Social Network': 4 Oscar Trial Balloons … Popped

“True Grit” wins Best Picture? Mel Gibson for Best Actor? “Social Network” an original screenplay? Considering the unlikely scenarios …

It’s never too early in Oscar season.

Most of the real contenders have yet to hit the big screen, but that hasn't kept  a spate of trial balloons and unlikely scenarios that are being entertained to swirl around town.

The big ones right now?

That "True Grit," sight unseen, is a strong candidate to win Best Picture.

That “The Social Network” could be competing as an Original Screenplay rather than an adapted one.

That Mel Gibson might be a Best Actor candidate.

That Ben Affleck’s “The Town” is a bona fide  Best Picture contender.

Let’s try to figure out just how likely these are to actually happen.

"TRUE GRIT" IS A GENUINE BEST PICTURE THREAT

True GritA small number of key films have yet to screen for Oscar-watchers, foremost among them David O. Russell’s “The Fighter” and the Coen Brothers’ “True Grit.” These days, the attention is all on the latter film, a Jeff Bridges/Matt Damon remake of the 1969 Henry Hathaway film – or, perhaps more accurately, the Coens' version of the Charles Portis novel on which Hathaway’s film was based.

Its teaser trailer, released last week, won immediate raves: Brad Brevet said it was reason enough to stop talking about Best Picture being a race between “The Social Network” and “The King’s Speech.”

And now the full-length trailer, longer and darker and set to the doomy strains of Johnny Cash’s “God’s Gonna Cut You Down,” has prompted more pundits to label the film a possible Oscar juggernaut on the level of the Coen’s Best Picture winner “No Country for Old Men.”

“If the movie lives up to the promise of this preview,” asked Dave Karger, “could we have another ‘No Country for Old Men’ on our hands?”

I would never rule the film out sight unseen, but it’s worth pointing out that the Coens have made three films that were nominated for Best Picture, and 12 that weren’t.

More than that, let's remember that "True Grit" is a remake. Maybe it’s a reimagining, maybe it’s closer to the book, and maybe it’s more stylish and dramatic and substantial. But it also has shots that are extremely close to those in the original (check out Jeff Bridges, reins in his mouth, riding across the field to face down the bad guys). And as far as I can determine, remakes simply don’t win Best Picture. Ever.

I won’t count the Coens out. I’m just saying that the “True Grit” trailers aren’t enough to make me think that the usual rules won’t apply.

"THE SOCIAL NETWORK" IS AN ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

OK, I get the thinking behind this one: Ben Mezrich’s book “The Accidental Billionaires” has been attacked as being a one-sided distortion of the founding of Facebook. Mezrich’s admitted use of fictional techniques has left the author open to charges that his true story might not be all that true. (“Obviously dramatized” and “clearly unreliable,” said the New York Times.)Jesse Eisenberg

If David Fincher’s movie can avoid being tied too closely to the book, maybe it can escape some of that criticism. So the narrative now being floated is that screenwriter Aaron Sorkin and Mezrich actually wrote the screenplay and book simultaneously, doing independent research. Kris Tapley advanced this theory three weeks ago, positing that it could lead to an Original Screenplay nomination rather than the expected Adapted Screenplay nod.

But it won't be easy to make that theory stick, for a couple of reasons. For one thing, the project began when Scott Rudin bought the film rights to Mezrich’s book — even if at that point the book was more a proposal than a manuscript. And when Mezrich talked to the Los Angeles Times about the process, he said that Sorkin was “my first reader” – that as soon as he finished a chapter, he gave it to the screenwriter to peruse. In other words, Sorkin was adapting Mezrich.

(This differs from the story Sorkin told to Mark Harris for New York magazine, where he says he doesn’t remember ever getting pages.)

The biggest obstacle to selling the original screenplay story, though, is the first few minutes of the film itself: the opening credits flatly say that Sorkin’s screenplay is based on Mezrich’s book. The writers branch of the Academy may make odd choices sometimes – classifying “Bright Star” as an adapted screenplay rather than an original last year – and it's not completely unprecedented for them to take a script widely considered adapted and classify it as original. They did just that with "Syriana" in 2005.

Still, I can’t imagine them disregarding the opening credits in this case. So unless Rudin, Fincher and Sony make a last-minute change to those titles, I’d say this one isn’t going to happen. 

MEL GIBSON FOR BEST ACTOR

The theory: He’s really, really good as a depressed CEO communicating via a hand puppet in Jodie Foster’s dark comedy “The Beaver” – and if Summit gives the film a 2010 release, Academy members will be so blown away by his work that they’ll have no choice but to consider him.

Pete Hammond, inflator of Oscar trial balloons par excellence, floated this one, basing it on Foster’s comments about how wonderful Gibson’s performance is, and on three conversations with people who’d seen the movie (and “have a connection to it”).

I wouldn’t really trust the director when she tells you how great her embattled star (and good friend) is, and I’m certainly skeptical of people with ties to the movie. No, I’ll side with Patrick Goldstein, who called it “wild Oscar hype,” and Anne Thompson, who called the idea of a Gibson Oscar campaign “absurd.”

“Gibson could get the best reviews on the planet and … the Academy would still give him the cold shoulder,” Thompson wrote. “Believe me, he really is persona non grata in Hollywood … This is about racism and anti-semitism—two things that the Liberal Academy cannot forgive.”

And I can’t help but remember a moment I witnessed at Oscar rehearsals back in 2004, when Steven Spielberg dropped by the Kodak Theater. At the time, the biggest movie in theaters was Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” which worried Spielberg.

At one point, Spielberg quietly took Oscar show producer Joe Roth aside. “Is there going to be anything on ‘The Passion of the Christ’?” he asked.

“Billy might do a couple of jokes,” Roth assured him. “But not much.”

Spielberg nodded. “Good,” he said. “That’s good.”

And that was several serious Gibson transgressions, and a whole lot of taped telephone rants, ago.

If Spielberg wanted to keep Mel at arm’s length back then, he and his pals are going to run the other way these days, no matter how fabulous the guy’s acting may be.

'THE TOWN" FOR BEST PICTURE

Well … maybe.

I thought Affleck’s Boston crime drama was solid and appealing, but a cut below his “Gone Baby Gone,” and several cuts below the last Boston crime drama that the Academy went for, Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed.”The Town

It's lost steam since it's release — but you never can tell. Pete Hammond wrote that a well-received screening at the Academy’s Samuel Goldwyn Theater argued positively for its chances. And Gregg Kilday followed in the Hollywood Reporter with a story headlined “How ‘The Town’ Became an Oscar Contender."

Patrick Goldstein objected and said he really liked the movie but that it “isn’t a contender at all.”

A lot of recent Best Picture nominees – and even a couple of winners, including “The Departed” – are films that seemed unlikely at the beginning of the season. So, yeah, it’s certainly possible that something similar will happen this year, that “The Town” will slip in and get a nomination.

I doubt it, but it could  happen.