Sunday, March 7, 2010

Best Picture: A tale of two sensibilities

According to the smart money, tonight’s battle for Best Picture at the 82nd annual Oscars ceremony comes down to a choice between “Avatar,” James Cameron’s sci-fi animation morality tale/space Western/geopolitical fable, and “The Hurt Locker,” Kathryn Bigelow’s story of American soldiers fighting the insidious IED-borne dangers of the Iraq war. Both have been nominated for nine Oscars.

Several critics have made the assumption that “Avatar” has amassed so much momentum, both culturally and financially, that it’s the prohibitive favorite. That may be true, the critics may well be right, but for some of the wrong reasons.

If “Avatar” wins — and the Academy throws off the prevailing assumptions and elevates a dark horse like “Precious” or “A Serious Man” to the top spot — it may have as much to do with the Academy as anything else.

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The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is an old-line outfit. Founded in May 1927, it was and remains not only the primary arbiter of a movie’s esthetic qualities but also the standard-setter for the films that hold to the Academy’s sense of what dovetails with its world view, its idea of the kind of pictures that should be celebrated.

Demographically, longtime Academy voters skew older, whiter and more culturally conservative. These are filmgoers whose sense of cinematic spectacle has its roots in films like “Gone With the Wind” and “Cleopatra,” “Ben-Hur” and “Lawrence of Arabia” — a sense of spectacle that’s more recently found expressions in votes for “The Last Emperor,” “Crash” and “Slumdog Millionaire.”

An unproven but firmly-held conviction: Academy members are less enamored of the movies as sounding board for ripped-from-the-headlines expressions of reality; if given a choice between a Best Picture vote for a movie that’s captive to the here & now of modern life and one that’s principally captive to the imagination, they’ll go the imagination route much of the time.

Academy voters were faced with just such a choice back in 2001. That year, the two leading contenders for Best Picture were “Traffic,” Steven Soderbergh’s brilliant multilayered study of America’s drug problem and how it got to be what it’s become; and “Gladiator,” Ridley Scott’s sword-and-sandals epic of one man’s revenge against an emperor.

“Traffic” was held in high regard as a powerful social statement, a film that masterfully examined the different dimensions of America’s chemical infatuation. Stellar cast, top-notch script, characters you cared about — all of it suggested “Traffic” would be crowned Best Picture.

“Gladiator, directed by consummate craftsman Scott, brought a lot to the table. The film starred Russell Crowe, Djimon Hounsou, Joaquin Phoenix and Oliver Reed in a story that borrowed from the grand style of the “Ben-Hur” tradition. Stellar cast, top-notch script, characters you cared about ... For its supporters, “Gladiator” was a lock.

What the Academy was looking for then may well be a clue to which film the Academy voters picks tonight.

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In the Best Picture derby, the Academy often anoints the tale well told, the big-canvas film that advances the art of the storyteller, the fabulist who invents a world of his or her own invention, the story that owes little or nothing to the world we inhabit, a world at the mercy of the body counts and disasters delivered on the evening news.

When Academy voters made their Best Picture choice in 2001, it came down to picking between the sensibilities of two distinctly different motion pictures:

“Gladiator” was a movie whose subject matter was what you go to the movies for.

“Traffic” was a movie whose subject matter was what you went to the movies to get away from.

It was that embrace of the escapist possibilities of the motion picture that gave “Gladiator” the edge that year. It’s the same embrace of escapism adored by those older, probably more conservative members of the Academy that’s likely to give “Avatar” the advantage tonight.

Anything can happen, of course, and nobody knows for sure but the folks at PriceWaterhouseCoopers, and they ain’t talking. But barring a complete upset, “Avatar” director James Cameron should hoist another Best Picture Oscar tonight. If he’s “king of the world” again, it’s because he’s king of a world: the fully conceived, animated, realized and dramatized world of “Avatar,” a world the Academy couldn’t live without.

Image credits: Avatar still: © 2009 20th Century-Fox. Gladiator poster: © 2000 DreamWorks/Universal Pictures. Traffic poster: © 2000 USA Films.

'Vox update 9 P.M.: So much for trying to figure out the mood of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences: The Best Picture Oscar just went to "The Hurt Locker." Despite an 11th-hour campaign against the film launched by Iraq war veterans who angrily condemned it as highly inaccurate and a slap in the face to the U.S. military, "Locker" also won awards for best film editing, sound editing, sound mixing, original screenplay and best director — Kathryn Bigelow, the first woman to win a best director Oscar in the history of the Academy. And good on her.

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