Can ‘Life of Pi’ cash in Ang Lee’s Oscar I.O.U.?

For the past seven years, Ang Lee has been holding a valuable Oscar I.O.U. Academy members have owed him a Best Picture prize ever since they snubbed his “Brokeback Mountain” and now Oscarwatchers wonder: Is “Life of Pi” good enough to redeem the debt?

Early reviews are strong. The Hollywood Reporter says this “exceptionally beautiful 3D production should prove accessible to and embraceable by all manner of audiences, signaling substantial commercial possibilities domestically and probably even more so internationally.” Pete Hammond (Deadline Hollywood) hails “Life of Pi” as “an instant awards contender with real shots at Oscar nominations across the board in Best Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Music, Sound, Film Editing and Special Effects for a series of dazzling sequences that certainly will catch the eye of Lee’s colleagues in the Academy.” See our reviews roundup here.

Currently, “Life of Pi” is ranked seventh in Gold Derby’s chart of top contenders for Best Picture, earning 16-to-1 odds to win. (Up one notch from eighth place and 50-to-one odds two days ago.) Sixteen of the 24 pundits polled believe it will be nominated for the top Oscar: Edward Douglas (Comingsoon), Pete Hammond (Deadline), Richard Horgan (Mediabistro), Scott Feinberg (Hollywood Reporter), Tariq Khan (Fox News), Dave Karger (Fandango), Michael Musto (Village Voice), Steve Pond (TheWrap), Kevin Polowy (NextMovie), Sasha Stone (AwardsDaily), Alex Suskind (Moviefone), Anne Thompson (Thompson on Hollywood, Indiewire), Chuck Walton (Fandango), Susan Wloszczyna (USA Today) and Paul Sheehan and myself at Gold Derby. See how our pundits rank all contenders here.

Back in 2005, it seemed inevitable that “Brokeback Mountain” would sweep the Oscars. It had trotted through the early derby like a fleet-footed filly nabbing Best Picture laurels from nearly every awards group en route: New York Film Critics Circle, Los Angeles Film Critics Association, Critics Choice, Golden Globes, Directors Guild of America, Writers Guild of America, Producers Guild of America, Indie Spirits. Over all, “Brokeback Mountain” won more precursor awards for Best Picture than any film in history – 26 – if you count the ones bestowed by smaller groups, too, like the critics’ gangs in Boston, Dallas, Las Vegas, San Francisco, etc.

As “Brokeback” headed into the Oscars, it led with the most nominations (eight), which usually translates into victory for Best Picture, of course. Nearly every pundit on the planet predicted that it would win and “Brokeback” certainly looked like it was scaling the Oscar mountain easily on the big night. It won the two chief prizes that usually line up with Best Picture – Best Director (Lee) and Screenplay – but when Jack Nicholson opened the last envelope of the evening, his eyebrows darted up as he gasped the name of the winner: “Crash.”

How did “Brokeback” lose? I think the reason could be found easily in the outrage of older academy members like Tony Curtis, who proudly announced that he refused to watch the gay love story. Past Best Actor champ Ernest Borgnine (“Marty”) fumed, “If John Wayne were alive, he’d be rolling over in his grave.”

Bottom line: “Brokeback” fell victim to homophobia. Yes, those geezer Oscar voters will now and then reward gay-themed films with second-tier trophies like acting awards, but only if they feature straight actors portraying gay characters who die a hideous death (Tom Hanks is felled by AIDs in “Philadelphia,” Sean Penn gets shot in “Milk”). There’s something special about the top Best Picture prize. Voters just couldn’t give it to a movie full of blatant gay romantic yearning that looked so real on Ang Lee’s celluloid mountain.

But maybe that’s all OK now. Seven years have passed. The whole world is a more gay-friendly place and now Lee has a new movie with new themes and bold ideas racing for the top prize.

Sometimes it matters a lot that a director holds a notable Oscar debt. Certainly, Marty Scorsese‘s I.O.U. played a huge role in “The Departed” winning Best Picture one year after “Brokeback” lost. When “Lord of the Rings: Return of the King” swept the 2003 derby, it was largely because it and director Peter Jackson held TWO I.O.U.s after the defeats of the first two hobbit installments.

Top photo: “Life of Pi” (Fox Searchlight). Left photo: Ang Lee accepting Oscar for directing “Brokeback Mountain” (ABC).

More News from GoldDerby