How 'Avatar' lost best picture

Commentary: 'Hurt Locker' win to go down as controversial

It was the Little Engine That Could against the Big Kahuna that couldn't.

In what will go down as one of the more controversial Academy votes for best picture, Kathryn Bigelow's "The Hurt Locker" ran roughshod over James Cameron's "Avatar" on Sunday night in a race that initially was thought of as a cakewalk for the 3D extravaganza.

Talk about a money gap: Since its release in June, Bigelow's taut Iraq War drama has mustered a measly $14.7 million at the domestic wickets, while her ex-husband's years-in-the-making epic has in three months grossed $721 million stateside and a whopping $2.6 billion worldwide. Only his other tour de force, "Titanic," comes close, with a $1.8 billion worldwide haul.

On the budget side, too, the discrepancy was huge, hers costing $15 million and his $300 million or thereabouts.

So what happened?

A lot of folks were asking that in the wake of Tom Hanks' bolt to the stage to blurt out the final winner at the end of the overlong, 31⁄2-hour awards show. The audience hardly had time to gasp before being herded to the exits. Not since -- take your pick -- "Shakespeare in Love" outshone "Saving Private Ryan," "Gandhi" edged "E.T." or "Crash" beat "Brokeback Mountain" has there been such an eyebrow-raising finale.

OK, "Hurt Locker" did have the momentum going into the final lap of awards season, especially after its recent Producers Guild triumph, but still ...

No doubt there will be a lot of theories -- conspiratorial and not -- bandied about, even though we arguably never will know what precise mixture of factors contributed and in what percentages.

But some explanations can be hazarded.

After so many Iraq War dramas that have failed to hit their marks at the boxoffice or strike an emotional chord with the public, this one seemed to hit a nerve, achieving the right thematic balance between the horrors of a conflict that just won't go away and sympathy for those who have to take part in it. This story of a wounded, addictive psyche might well do for our time and for our collective mood what, say, "Platoon" did for the Vietnam War -- the irony being that so few actually have seen "Locker."

Even so, its messages were clear and clearly portrayed, and distributor Summit did an excellent job in mounting an awards campaign that appealed to Academy voters across the various industry categories.

Then there's that preferential voting system, which likely skewed the outcome toward the indie pic. "Avatar" might have garnered more first-place ballots than any other contender, but probably just as likely it appeared way down on the ballots of other voters who didn't wish to see it win. "Locker" probably was high on most everyone's list, benefiting when the second- and third-place entries were scooped up and re-assigned.

Also playing a role in the selection might have been a predilection for the perceived underdog -- and a charming, talented, articulate woman at that -- over the self-styled king of the world who no doubt rubbed some Academy members the wrong way the last time he was onstage brandishing the Oscar.

The very idea that a female helmer made the kind of movie heretofore the exclusive reserve and prerogative of male directors also might have been too tantalizing to resist. More appealing was that a little pic with a difficult story managed the feat of amassing enough dough to shoot under adverse conditions in the Middle East while Fox for years was signing the checks for a helmer hunkered down in a high-tech hangar in West Los Angeles. Bigelow's crew faced suspicious crowds, curfews and fusillades; Cameron's crew faced a bunch of computers.

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In short, "Avatar" simply might have been too complicated a phenom to get one's arms around and the money it's thrown off too unseemly -- or so it would seem from how Fox variously waged its awards campaign.

First, it was all about 3D, which while an amazing advance technologically -- even Spielberg made a point of publicly praising Cameron's achievement in raising the bar for filmmakers -- never resonated widely as an emotional message.

Secondly, Cameron and company began arguing for the actors in the movie to be considered for their performances in the same category and league with traditional thespians. Many no doubt felt that computer-generated or enhanced or re-created performances are different in kind from their own -- or even a threat to their profession. As the largest voting bloc among Academy members, they might have tilted away from this Pandora's box.

Thirdly, the accent of the campaign began to tilt most recently toward the environmental themes of the film, but that approach came too late to be effective. There was also a sizable critical contingent that felt the plot lines were simplistic, fuzzy or even anti-American. "Just a more tricked-out take on 'Pocahontas' or 'Dances With Wolves,' " these detractors argued dismissively.

In the end, and despite opening the competition to 10 contenders, the Academy's decision might have come down to that reflex preference for art over commerce or to its sense of purpose in rewarding art in an increasingly corporate, commercially driven film industry. Indie pics, they might have reasoned, are an increasingly endangered species, while mainstream, studio pics have been extraordinarily counter-recessionary.

Whatever we might think of the result, the indie biz can be encouraged by the Academy's nod, and Fox still will laugh all the way to the bank.