As we approach this weekend’s Oscars, there are two predominant takes on the Best Picture category: Either it will be a close race between James Cameron’s 3-D (and nearly 3-hour) money-mill Avatar and Kathryn Bigelow’s Iraq indie The Hurt Locker, with the latter a slight favorite (as this gambling site submits); or Bigelow’s picture already has the award in the bag. (New York’s estimable Vulture staff has left the race off their “still competitive” list and placed it among those categories “most Oscarologists seem to think are locked up.”)
It’s a dramatic turnaround from the aura of invincibility that Avatar wore just a few weeks ago. And it’s true that insofar as “momentum” matters, The Hurt Locker has all of it, having swept pretty much every awards ceremony there is (PGA, DGA, the “Eddies,” WGA, BAFTA) since Avatar’s Golden Globes win back in mid-January. Some have argued, pretty persuasively, that this year’s weighted, ten-nominee format could hurt Avatar if few Academy voters give it a second-place nod; others, that the actor bloc, which makes up nearly a third of the Academy, will rebel against a film in which half the cast was generated inside a computer.
I’m rooting for a Hurt Locker win as much as anyone this side of Jeremy Renner. I hated Avatar from top to bottom, beginning to end. If it wins, the industry will only have ratified Cameron’s cynical conceit that dialogue, spontaneity, individual performances, narrative ingenuity, and pretty much every other cinematic virtue may be sacrificed without cost on the altar of CGI thaumaturgy. But I still find this particular upset—if it can be called that now—hard to envision. (I am on board with the conventional wisdom, though, that Best Director is Bigelow’s to lose.)
Avatar fed a lot of mouths in Hollywood this winter, and it was the prohibitive favorite for a good long while. Cameron, moreover, has been viewed as a game-changing cinematic visionary ever since his billion-dollar Oscar boat Titanic. (For a sense of how Hollywood kowtows to him, take a look at this Vulture piece revealing that the Academy abruptly disinvited Sacha Baron Cohen from presenting at the weekend’s ceremony out of fear that his planned Avatar sketch with Ben Stiller might offend the famously thin-skinned director.) The Hurt Locker, by contrast, was seen by almost no one (its $12.7 million domestic gross was less than one-fiftieth of Avatar’s) and, until its recent run, was barely on the radar as a serious contender to win. (Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air was initially perceived as the strongest challenger to Avatar’s award-season hegemony.)
Still more relevant to this year’s race, though, may be the fact that, like many large, hidebound institutions, the Academy is often a step behind, fighting yesterday’s war today. Had it had the courage to give Brokeback Mountain the nod over Crash in 2005, to cite one example, it might not have felt the need to advertise its enlightenment by crowning Milk’s Sean Penn in 2008 over the feel-good, comeback, sure-to-give-an-awesome-speech, and overwhelmingly deserving Mickey Rourke of The Wrestler. The problem for The Hurt Locker—and any other non-billion-dollar earner this year—is that much as the Academy was criticized after Brokeback for being afraid to reward a “gay” film, following last year’s awards it was chastised for being biased against commercially successful films. Indeed, the Academy took the complaint so much to heart that it tossed aside 65 years of practice and expanded the Best Picture field to ten specifically to ensure that some crowd-pleasers made the cut. Alas, the evidence for the whole the-Academy-hates-blockbusters complaint derived entirely from 2008, when critically acclaimed megahits Wall-E and The Dark Knight were passed over for more modest, high-minded fare. And, as theories based on small sample sizes so often are, the claim was, on its face, completely ludicrous.
The truth is that the Academy loves blockbusters, and always has: Three of the top six all-time box-office-grossers adjusted for ticket price (Gone with the Wind, The Sound of Music, and Titanic) won Best Picture, and the other three (Star Wars, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, and The Ten Commandments) were nominated. Indeed, you have to drop all the way down to number ten to find a film that wasn’t nominated—1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs—and that omission is hardly one that looks wise in hindsight.
Nor has that trend abated, 2008 notwithstanding. The Lord of the Rings movies each grossed more than $300 million domestically, and that didn’t stop all three from being nominated for Best Picture, nor the final one from winning it. Likewise, it seems unlikely that the (generally unanticipated) commercial success of such Best Picture winners as Slumdog Millionaire ($141 million), Chicago ($171 million), A Beautiful Mind ($171 million), Gladiator ($188 million), Forrest Gump ($330 million!), Dances with Wolves ($184 million), and Rain Man ($173 million) acted as rein rather than spur on their victory laps. And anyone who imagines that The Blind Side would have a Best Picture nomination—and that Sandra Bullock would be a narrow, terrifying favorite for Best Actress—if the movie hadn’t earned $249 million and counting, well, that’s some imagination you’ve got there.
Again, the issue is not merely, nor even primarily, that Avatar made so much money; it’s that The Hurt Locker made so little. The all-time lowest-grossing Best Picture winner to date (adjusted for inflation) is Crash, which made $55 million in 2005—more than five times Hurt Locker’s adjusted box office. About half as many people saw Bigelow’s picture in its entire theatrical run as saw Cameron’s on its opening day. For the Academy to elevate so small a picture over one so big would be wildly out of keeping both with its recent, much-discussed desire to keep the Oscars “relevant” to a mass audience, and with its lifelong prejudice in favor of films that succeed commercially.
To whit: Over the past 20 years, the highest- or second-highest-grossing of the five Best Picture nominees has won 19 times. The third-highest-grossing has won once—in 1999, when American Beauty’s $130 million box office narrowly trailed The Green Mile’s $136 million. The fourth- and fifth-highest-grossing nominees have not won a single time in over two decades. Where does The Hurt Locker stand in this year’s overcrowded field of nominees? Number eight out of ten. (Thank you An Education and A Serious Man!)
Or ponder this: Of the last 30 Best Picture winners (beyond which comprehensive data is less easy to come by), eleven were among the top five grossing films of their respective years. Only two (Crash and No Country for Old Men) were outside the top 25, and none were outside the top 50. The Hurt Locker was the 131st-highest-grossing film of 2009.
The question, I think, comes down to which will be a better predictor of this year’s Oscar race: the behavior of the other awards groups over the past six weeks or so, or the behavior of the Academy itself over its 80+ years of existence? I dearly hope that Vegas and the Oscarologists are right, but for my part I’m betting on history.
Christopher Orr is a senior editor of The New Republic.