Awards Watch: Director III

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History will likely be made when the envelope revealing the best director Oscar winner is opened at the 82nd Annual Academy Awards.

Most insiders know that Kathryn Bigelow ("The Hurt Locker") would become the first woman to take home that prize. And Lee Daniels ("Precious") would be the first black winner.

But even if the Academy opts to bestow a second directing Oscar on James Cameron ("Avatar"), it would still be kind of epic, since Cameron would become the first director since David Lean's victory laps for 1957's "The Bridge on the River Kwai" and 1962's "Lawrence of Arabia" to win the directing prize for back-to-back narrative features.

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The betting is that the contest boils down to a Bigelow-Cameron face-off. Here are the factors likely to tip the balance one way or another.

1. War isn't always hell.

By venturing into a war zone, Bigelow has avoided being pigeon-holed as a "woman" director. She follows in the footsteps of Lina Wertmuller, the first woman nominated for directing for 1975's "Seven Beauties," who built her movie around World War II and its aftermath. But that film was in Italian, and no director has ever taken the category with a foreign-language film. Jane Campion and Sofia Coppola, the other two women to proceed Bigelow, told more relationship-oriented stories with "The Piano" and "Lost in Translation," respectively.

"Locker," by contrast, is a tough, tense entry. And over the years -- going all the way back to the third Oscar ceremony when Lewis Milestone was named best director for "All Quiet on the Western Front" -- the Academy has admired movies about men in uniform.

In the modern era, victorious directors have included Franklin J. Schaffner for 1970's "Patton," Michael Cimino for 1978's "The Deer Hunter," Oliver Stone for 1986's "Platoon" and then again, just two years later, for "Born on the Fourth of July," and Steven Spielberg for 1999's "Saving Private Ryan."

2. Sci-fi, on the other hand, is suspect.

Certainly, Cameron also demonstrated a knack for commandeering military hardware in "Avatar." But, over the years, the Academy has shown real resistance to futuristic fantasies. In its day, Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" (1968) was just as ground-breaking and eye-popping as Cameron's new movie, but while Kubrick was nominated as best director -- and picked up a visual effects trophy -- he lost out on directing honors to Carol Reed, for orchestrating the retro musical "Oliver!"

Flash forward nine years to the first "Star Wars": George Lucas earned a directing nom, but then lost to Woody Allen for "Annie Hall." Five years later, Spielberg, nominated for "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial," saw the prize go to Richard Attenborough for the far more serious-minded "Gandhi."

If "Avatar's" off-world setting works against it, perhaps Cameron should embrace those critics who have dismissed it as his blue-period reworking of themes found in 1990's "Dances With Wolves" -- because that movie resulted in a best directing prize for Kevin Costner.

3. Experience counts.

On occasion, the Academy rewards a newbie film director. But that tends to happen when a celebrated stage director transitions into film (Mike Nichols with his sophomore effort "The Graduate," Sam Mendes with "American Beauty," Rob Marshall with "Chicago") or a movie star shifts behind the camera (Robert Redford with "Ordinary People," Mel Gibson for his second film, "Braveheart").

Generally, though, it's better to have been around the block a few times. The longer a director works in Hollywood, the more voters he has worked with, potentially building up a constituency among the Academy's branches.

This year, Cameron and Bigelow are the two veterans: Starting with his first flick, 1981's "Piranha Part Two: The Spawning," Cameron has turned out eight features -- as well as Imax underwater documentaries and even a 3D Terminator attraction for Universal Studios.

Starting with "The Loveless" in 1982, Bigelow has matched Cameron with eight features of her own. But Cameron's pictures have been bigger -- and have also consistently chalked up effects breakthroughs that should earn him the admiration of the tech branches.

4. Other directors, other prizes.

With "Inglourious Basterds," Quentin Tarantino has notched seven features of his own (if you count the two installments of "Kill Bill" separately). Jason Reitman ("Up in the Air"), at only 32, has now completed three films. And both men have been nominated in the category before -- Tarantino for "Pulp Fiction" and Reitman for "Juno" -- which would put them in line ahead of the never-before-nominated Bigelow.

But Academy voters have an out in both cases. Both men are personally nominated in other categories: Tarantino for original screenplay, and Reitman for adapted (with Sheldon Turner). Both could well win in those categories, freeing voters, looking to spread the wealth around, to choose another of the contenders for best director.

It's not likely they'll turn to Daniels because he's the least seasoned of the group. While he has begun to build up an impressive resume as an indie producer with such films as "Monster's Ball" and "The Woodsman," "Precious" is only the second film that he's directed. Which puts him in the honored-to-be-nominated seat.

5. Precedents matter.

Bigelow has already had time to practice her acceptance speech. Critics' groups, from Los Angeles to New York, were among the first to bestow laurels on her. Additionally, she's picked up top honors from the Broadcast Film Critics Assn. and the Producers Guild of America.

Cameron did butt in and break her stride at the 62nd annual Golden Globes, where he emerged as best director ("Avatar" also won best picture/drama). But during the past decade, the Globe-winning director has gone on to take home the corresponding Oscar just 60% of the time.

Bigelow, on the other hand, rallied in late January, cementing her front-runner status when she became the first woman to ever be awarded top honors from the DGA. And as the DGA likes to remind everyone, with only six exceptions since the DGA Awards began in 1948, the guild winner has gone on to take the Oscar.

"This is the most incredible moment of my life," Bigelow exclaimed as she clutched that trophy -- a sentiment she may well have to revise on March 7.
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