All night long, the jokes kept coming on the same subjects: Avatar this, George Clooney that. Sandra Bullock, accepting her award for Best Actress, acknowledged "all the people who didn't" help her, including "George Clooney, who threw me in a pool. I still hold a grudge." Ben Stiller showed up painted like a Na'vi to introduce the makeup category (for which Avatar wasn't nominated), and the Argentine winner of Best Foreign Language Film thanked the Academy "for not considering Na'vi a foreign language."
It's the classic comedy strategy of the have-nots making fun of the haves, and the hoary Oscar tradition of using famous movies and celebrities as the punch lines to jokes understandable to the mass of viewers most of whom haven't seen, and might not have heard of, the smaller films and actors, who tend to get the awards. Oooh, Avatar, $2.5 billion at the box office ... Heh heh, George Clooney, world's coolest movie star ... Rim shot.
Except that on Sunday night, the haves had not. Clooney did not win an Academy Award, and neither did the film he was nominated for, the early front runner (and utterly Oscar-worthy) Up in the Air, which even failed to cop its expected prize for Best Adapted Screenplay. Avatar won only three of the nine categories for which it was eligible the door prizes of Cinematography, Art Direction and Special Effects and its begetter, James Cameron, supped on the special gall of losing Best Picture and Best Director to The Hurt Locker and his ex-wife Kathryn Bigelow, respectively. The Hurt Locker was also up for nine Oscars. It won six, and the evening's bragging rights.
No question, The Hurt Locker is a near perfect war film and an excellent choice for Best Picture. Bigelow's job wrangling this orphan project into shape, and her shot-by-shot mastery of the story, should be considered no less impressive than her swaggering hero's effectiveness in defusing bombs on Baghdad streets. The same goes for Mark Boal's winning screenplay, based on his reporting for a Playboy nonfiction piece about IED squads (which really should have put the script in the Best Adapted Screenplay category).
But The Hurt Locker's Oscar haul had less to do with the movie's merits than with the Academy membership's make-up and mind-set. Remember, to win Best Picture you don't have to make the best picture; you have to make the picture that appeals to the voters, who are older, politically liberal and artistically conservative. Here's how those and other factors may have played in The Hurt Locker's favor and doomed Avatar.
1. Age. For the Oscar voters, who are at the senior end of the demographic spectrum from the mass audience, which most movies are made for, the most convenient way to see the nominated films is on screeners at home, where The Hurt Locker plays just fine. A Lourdes miracle would be needed for the Academy geriatrics to throw away their walkers and actually go to a theater the only place Avatar can be appreciated in all its 21st century splendor. Filmmakers rushing to the 3-D format had better learn to be satisfied with the boodle they earn at the box office and not expect to win Oscars for a project that doesn't look like an HBO movie.
2. Size. Over the decades, the membership has shown a fondness for small dramas with an obvious social message and a prejudice against gigantic science-fiction pictures that use pioneering techniques to create a compelling new world albeit with their own obvious social message. Avatar is every bit as political as The Hurt Locker in its eco-friendly theme, and much more boldly anti-military: by the end of the movie, viewers are meant to be cheering for the deaths of the U.S. soldiers trying to occupy Pandora. It didn't help. The Oscar voters saw Avatar (if they did watch it) as just another genre film. No sci-fi movie has ever won Best Picture.
3. The Shock of the New. Not to generalize about old people, like the typical Academy member, but every one of them is resistant to change or novelty. Anything new in movies seems less like progress and more like a renunciation of the artistic standards they were nurtured on. Consider that in 1942, the Academy gave its top awards, Best Picture and Director, to John Ford's How Green Was My Valley, a poignant evocation of a Welsh mining town. Fine, honorable, fully worthy. The film it beat: Citizen Kane. Who needs all those low-angle shots, the deep-focus cinematography, the oblique, multifaceted view of a powerful publisher? Those aren't innovations; they're ostentations cinematic showing off. Thus the Academy blew its chance to give due homage to what is still considered the greatest American movie.
4. The Grudge Report. Maybe the Oscar voters simply hate Cameron; apparently that's an easy and widespread feeling in Hollywood. The evening provided ample evidence that some categories were a popularity contest not among the mass of viewers but the 5,000-plus Academy voters. They may as well have scrawled, "We like you, we really like you," on their ballots next to the boxes checked off for Best Actress Bullock (The Blind Side) and Best Actor Jeff Bridges (Crazy Heart). The victors' chief competition, Meryl Streep and Clooney, were two more examples of the haves: 16 Oscar nominations (but no win since 1983) for Streep, and radiant Clooneyness for George. What do you give the man who has everything? Nothing. Same with Cameron, whose $2.5 billion worldwide take for Avatar will let him cry all the way to the bank, which he could now buy.
So the top-grossing film of all time was creamed by the least-seen film ever to win the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences's top prize. Even the Argentine director took home one more Oscar than Cameron did on Sunday night. Hell, the hippie Swedish dude who did the sound editing and mixing for The Hurt Locker out-statuetted Cameron two to nothing. And at the end of the broadcast, co-host Steve Martin kidded, "The show is so long that Avatar now takes place in the past." Now that's just piling on. By then, Cameron was the underdog. Martin should have made a joke about that have-it-all The Hurt Locker.