When is the top-grossing movie of all time an underdog to a film hardly anyone saw? When the big hit is Avatar, the little picture that could is The Hurt Locker, and there are major Oscars up for grabs.
Though James Cameron's eco-epic has earned 132 times as much as Kathryn Bigelow's Iraq bomb-squad drama at the worldwide box office, it can't match The Hurt Locker's stash of gold medals from the Hollywood guilds, many of whose voters are also members of the Motion Picture Academy. The producers', directors', writers' and editors' groups all chose The Hurt Locker over Avatar. No film in Oscar history has won all those guild awards and then lost Best Picture.
Will the Academy give its top award to a gritty indie drama? That would derail its mission to attract larger, younger audiences to the Oscar show by honoring big hits that were also must-see movies. Forced to choose between two superior works by ex-spouses, no less the voters may decide to divide custody, awarding the Best Director Oscar to Bigelow and Best Picture to Cameron.
This year's ballot is strewn with such dilemmas. George Clooney or Jeff Bridges? In Up in the Air, Clooney gives a career-defining performance, and in his spare time he organized the all-star Haiti fundraiser. Yet Bridges, whose decent, not great, turn won the Screen Actors Guild nod, looks set to win a Lifetime Achievement Award in the shape of a Best Actor statuette.
How about Meryl Streep (Julie & Julia) vs. Sandra Bullock (The Blind Side)? Streep has been invited to the big party 16 times but hasn't won since 1983. Bullock is a first-time nominee whose star turn in a minor weepie helped turn it into a huge surprise hit. One is a comedy specialist in a drama, the other a drama diva in a comedy. The mind says Streep; the Hollywood stethoscope says Bullock. If she and Bridges win, it will be a vote not for best performances but for prom queen and king.
And those are just the movies you know. Other categories where two's a crowd: Foreign Language Film, Documentary Feature, Doc Short and Live Action Short. Of the Foreign Language front runners, the German entry, Michael Haneke's austere The White Ribbon, is the highbrow choice, Jacques Audiard's teeming French prison drama A Prophet the middlebrow. Haneke's possible ace: his movie shows the seeds of Nazism sown in a German village, and Oscar voters love to hate Hitler. Who doesn't?
The leading pair of Doc Features, The Cove and Food, Inc., will force Academy members to choose between saving the dolphins and giving the finger to Big Agro. In Doc Shorts, two Emmy-winning teams of filmmakers compete, with a disastrous Chinese flood and the closing of a GM plant as their topics. Of the live-action shorts, the two sharpest both show children in mortal peril: The Door (a Russian boy tainted by Chernobyl) and Kavi (an Indian kid in Slumdog Millionaire misery but with no miraculous reprieve) will battle for this poster-child Oscar. See for yourself if you'd like: the nominees for Live Action and Animated Shorts are showing now in about 125 theaters nationwide.
Only a few categories are snaps: Supporting Actor and Actress (Christoph Waltz and Mo'Nique), Adapted Screenplay (Up in the Air), Original Song ("The Weary Kind," from Crazy Heart), Makeup (Star Trek), Animated Feature and Original Score (both to Up). Nick Park's most recent Wallace & Gromit film, A Matter of Loaf and Death, seems a lock for Animated Short, in part because it's fabulous but also because his stop-motion delights have already won four Oscars. The only time he lost was when two of his films had to compete against each other the same year.
The visually sumptuous Avatar ought to be the favorite in technical slots like Art Direction and Cinematography, but the very newness of the movie's wizardry may confuse old-line voters: Weren't the splendors of Pandora all achieved through CGI?
The Hurt Locker can't be counted on to take every Oscar whose guild vote it won. The film's main competition in Original Screenplay, Inglourious Basterds, was deemed ineligible by the Writers Guild; look for Quentin Tarantino to ace that category on Oscar night. And for Best Picture? Who knows? I certainly don't. We'll all find out March 7.
So here's a ballot from one veteran, but rarely prescient, Oscar watcher. The only sure prediction: there will be surprises.