Why 'Avatar' lost the Best Picture Oscar
Everyone expected ‘Avatar’ to be the big winner at last Sunday’s Oscars, but it was a smaller film that did the business. Dave Calhoun finds out why.
Most of the talk before Sunday night’s Oscars boiled down to two films: ‘Avatar’ and ‘The Hurt Locker’. James Cameron v Kathryn Bigelow. The battle of the exes. Digital v analogue. David v Goliath. As the weeks went by, post-‘Avatar’ sobriety set in and ‘The Hurt Locker’ became the narrow favourite to win the Academy’s big prizes. And so it was that Bigelow’s film about a US army bomb disposal unit in Baghdad won six Oscars, including prizes for Best Picture and Best Director, while ‘Avatar’ won only three, for Visual Effects, Art Direction and Cinematography.Now that the Champagne is drunk and the tuxedos are back in storage, it’s time to ask: why exactly did Bigelow’s $11 million film (which took less than $13m at the US box office) triumph over James Cameron’s $300m, box-office-busting blue juggernaut? Most people agree this was a middling year for Oscar nominees. ‘The Hurt Locker’ is smart, swift and sane – but nobody thinks it’s a masterpiece. Which means there’s more behind its triumph than mere quality. So, what other factors were at play?
1 Oscar is sniffy about sci-fi
The Academy is a conservative body, not known for a love of sci-fi. Those who thought ‘Avatar’ had a chance of winning the Best Picture Oscar pointed to Cameron’s ‘Titanic’ and its success at the box office and the Oscars (despite, like ‘Avatar’, being slammed for its poor script and story). But ‘Titanic’ was a traditional picture: historical, romantic, epic, led by stars. ‘Avatar’ is different. Oscars-wise, it’s comparable to ‘Star Wars’, which was nominated for ten and won six – all of them technical.
2 James Cameron is not as popular as his film‘Avatar’ is hugely popular and has made billions of dollars. But there is less goodwill in the US film industry towards Cameron than many may have thought. His ‘king of the world!’ outburst at the 1998 Oscars lingers long in the memory and earlier this year he irked traditionalists by dismissing a harmless comment by Meryl Streep that her work doing a voice for ‘Fantastic Mr Fox’ was similar to the work of actors on ‘Avatar’. ‘She did a voice performance for a day or two,’ Cameron said in rebuttal, leading to silly reports that he had ‘slammed’ her. A month later, a British producer told me the same story at the Baftas, suggesting that Cameron’s ego was causing annoyance in the film business.
3 Oscar voters like to think that Hollywood mattersThe Oscars are voted for by members of the industry, many of whom like to think they’re doing more than making mindless multiplex fodder. ‘The Hurt Locker’ is a good film for the conscience. ‘Avatar’ just screams mammon.
4 ‘Avatar’ is divisive. ‘The Hurt Locker’ was a consensus choiceMany conversations about ‘Avatar’, even among fans, go this way: ‘It looks amazing, but the characters are dodgy and the new-age stuff is iffy.’ ‘The Hurt Locker’ might be less groundbreaking, but more people agreed it was a balanced work, with directing, acting and writing all working in harmony.
5 A chance to make history in an unhistoric yearBigelow is now the first woman to win a Best Director Oscar. The opportunity to break a 65-year, all-male run surely proved persuasive to those whose pens were hovering over the ballot paper.
6 It’s not all about the money
There was much talk about this year’s Oscars being destined to reward commercial success (ie ‘Avatar’). This was repeated so often in the media that maybe there was a backlash among voters annoyed at being typecast as interested only in money, not art.
7 Hollywood loves a comeback
Bigelow was on the skids before ‘The Hurt Locker’. Her last film, ‘K19: The Widowmaker’ (2002) only made $35m at the US box office, despite a budget of around $100m. Fans of ‘Near Dark’ or ‘Point Break’ would have been satisfied to see her back on fighting form with a self-produced, independently made film.
8 Finally, an Iraq movie everyone can get behind
‘The Hurt Locker’ isn’t the first movie about Iraq (‘In the Valley of Elah’, ‘The Messenger’, ‘Redacted’…) and neither did it break the run of such films performing badly at the box office. Yet ‘The Hurt Locker’ is a film that is both topical and entertaining – and one which is mildly questioning of the war while still honouring the courage and sacrifice of US solidiers. Everyone’s a winner!
Author: Dave Calhoun
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