It’s safe to say that the contest for the Academy Award’s best picture Oscar was never any deeper than a three horse race: The Hurt Locker, Avatar and Up in the Air were the frontrunners all along. As the weeks and months have progressed, it has become more and more apparent that Jason Reitman’s touching drama about a layoff artist looking for love has dropped off the radar. Two horses have pulled ahead as we head into the straightaway.
And it’s Avatar by a nose! If history is any indication, James Cameron’s eco-action flick will be the big winner at the industry’s annual self-love fest. Three main factors point to the bloated opus taking home the best picture statue.
First off, it’s a box office smash. Now, that doesn’t always translate into gold at the Oscars – see last year’s unconscionable failure to even nominate The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan’s critically praised film that was, at the time, the second-highest grossing film of all time – but it’s a pretty solid indicator.
Recall Cameron’s previous triumph: Titanic received decidedly mixed reviews, turning into an awards-season juggernaut only after racking up record-breaking dough at the box office. You could make the argument that Lord of the Rings: Return of the King benefited in the same way, serving as the capstone to a trilogy that grossed more than a billion dollars domestically and almost two billion more overseas.
Also consider that in recent history one of the top two grossing nominees usually picks up the win. That would suggest the most likely victor this year is either Avatar or Up; given that the Academy is even more loathe to reward a cartoon than an action picture, it’s safe to say that Up isn’t a legitimate threat to the noble Na’vi.
Second, it’s a game-changer for the medium. Return of the King was something of a lifetime achievement award for the Lord of the Rings series, a recognition that the back-to-back-to-back filming schedule, advances in computer generated imagery, and the sheer scale of the endeavor needed to be rewarded. This is what led to what was arguably the weakest entry in the series winning gold at the Oscars.
Like box office success, technological advances by no means guarantee success at the Academy Awards: Who can forget Annie Hall trumping Star Wars in 1977? But Titanic certainly benefited from the lavish spectacle and impressive advances that accompanied that picture. Given the precarious state of Hollywood attendance figures, members of the Academy might lean toward rewarding a picture that ushers in a new method of getting rear ends in multiplex seats and served as the launch point for an important new era in filmmaking: The 3-D era.
Finally, and most importantly, Avatar‘s politics are just right. If you look at the history of the Academy Awards, it’s not too much of a stretch to make the argument that the movie that appeals to the most liberal platitudes will take home the medal. This isn’t rightwing conspiracy mongering or whining so much as fact: Crash, American Beauty, Dances with Wolves, Titanic: Anytime you can paint white elites as boorish racists/classists/bigots – except for the one redeeming protagonist who realizes the folly of his people’s barbaric ways – you’ve seriously bolstered your Academy Award credentials.
Without belaboring the point too much, I find it hard to believe the members of the Academy will turn down the chance to award a movie that so appeals to the great triumvirate of modern liberalism: Environmentalism, the cruelty of military conflict, and the racism of Americans, past, present, and future.
None of this is to suggest that Avatar isn’t an entertaining popcorn picture – despite my problems with the story, which is just dreadful, I found it to be an engrossing piece of visual escapism. But without these three factors in its favor (especially the last), all talk of a best picture victory would be dismissed as so much nonsense.
There is a chance that Avatar could falter, but it has nothing to do with the quality of the films in competition. As Hendrik Hertzberg points out in the latest issue of The New Yorker, the bump from five best picture nominees to ten was accompanied by a shift in the voting procedures:
This scheme, known as preference voting or instant-runoff voting, doesn’t necessarily get you the movie (or the candidate) with the most committed supporters, but it does get you a winner that a majority can at least countenance. It favors consensus. … few people who have seen “The Hurt Locker”–a real Iraq War story, not a sci-fi allegory–actively dislike it, and many profoundly admire it. Its underlying ethos is that war is hell, but it does not demonize the soldiers it portrays, whose job is to defuse bombs, not drop them. Even Republicans (and there are a few in Hollywood) think it’s good. It will likely be the second or third preference of voters whose first choice is one of the other “small” films that have been nominated.
If The Hurt Locker pulls off the upset – a scenario I would certainly applaud, given that I considered it the second best picture of 2009 and my number one choice, A Serious Man, has no shot at winning – odds are it’ll be because of the accounting trickery inherent in the new system and not because a majority of voters chose it as the best picture of the year. Still, a win’s a win. Three cheers for consensus!