Friday, March 5, 2010

Best Picture vs. Best Director – The case of Cameron v. Bigelow

It’s funny, because only a decade or so ago such a case title would have held a completely different meaning. But these days the former spouses are at the forefront of one of Oscar’s greatest battles – the populist, studio driven power vs. the indie film eccentricities. We’ve seen it year after year, with wins awarded to each team. Last year, Slumdog Millionaire‘s little movie that could won out over Benjamin Button and the like (and rightly so). In 2006, The Departed notched a win for the studios, bullying Little Miss Sunshine (and rightly so). 1998 saw indetrendy Shakespeare in Love over the big, brute power of Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (wrongly so). 1994’s big picture Forrest Gump over risky, indie-spirited Pulp Fiction (…push). Heck, James Cameron himself won with Titanic in 1997, backed by a positive populist response and a then Box Office sales record.

And now, more than a decade later, here he is again in a similar situation, except this time opposing his ex-wife Kathryn Bigelow and her Hurt Locker, a film devastatingly more powerful in heart and spirit, but dwarfed by the shadow of Cameron’s big, expensive and arguably ground-breaking picture show.

That last bit is the reason Avatar is favored to win it all this year – it’s new, it’s shiny, and it’s exciting. And most importantly, it’s gotten people excited to go to the movies again (although far fewer people than 1939’s Gone with the Wind, not to be forgotten as the biggest crowd-pleaser of all time). You can’t take that achievement away from Cameron, and you can’t belittle what Avatar means to the industry.

But is that reason enough to give Avatar the big prize? Do we need to repeat history, just because Avatar won over a Titanic-sized crowd? And more importantly, had it been given the chance, would Hurt Locker have wowed the same crowds?

We live in a world where we’ll never know, and as a result, the Academy is likely to play it safe, rewarding the big, expensive crowd pleaser with Best Picture, and tagging Bigelow with the comparative booby prize of Best Director. It might seem wrong to label that award a door prize, since it really is a prestigious honor. But in this situation, that’s exactly what it is – second place. Honorable mention. Recognition that “you did a great job directing AND producing a great film, but Avatar is prettier and nicer and a more public appropriate choice.” That’s what they’ll be saying when they give Cameron and producing partner Jon Landau the best picture statue, and by Vegas standards, it’s a safe bet they will.

And when they do, they’ll split the award and make Bigelow the first female Best Director winner, making history and keeping their diplomatic cool. But what if…

What if it went the other way? What if they rewarded Bigelow for her amazing work bringing the most powerful, honest and realistic Iraq war film to date to the screen (not counting the stateside drama of The Messenger, which is at least a close second), constructing those amazing intense and thrilling scenes, sending audiences into stunned silence as the credits roll and they digest what they just experienced. What if they recognized Hurt Locker as the Best Picture it is, and gave Cameron the director award in recognition of his directorial and technological achievement? Because that’s exactly what Avatar is – an achievement. Hurt Locker is a film. Complete, from beginning frame to end. Avatar has ups and downs, and wins with wow. Hurt Locker wins by being the best.

Like I said, you really can’t knock either film. Well, I guess you CAN mock Avatar, but you’ll have a harder time doing that with Locker, and that’s probably saying something right there. Personally, having finally seen Hurt Locker, I think Bigelow and co. deserve to win BOTH awards. But they won’t.

In Cameron v. Bigelow, the prizes will be split, distributed like possessions in an amicable divorce hearing. There’s still a chance the judges will make the right choice, and give the biggest and most important possession to Bigelow. I’m sure Vegas will take you up on those odds any day.

Any day but Monday.

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