Blogging, with apologies to the gods of journalism, is not an exact science, and trying to blog the Academy Awards through the crystal ball of one’s own expectations is really not an exact science. That said, I committed a major blunder in my attempt to size up the Oscar landscape about a month ago. I said that the Best Picture race would come down to a duel between Up in the Air and Avatar — and, what’s more, that the two movies would be competing in a kind of classic Hollywood culture war, with Up in the Air incarnating the entertainment values of the past (the exquisite humanity of great acting and classically clever writing and staging, all employed in a story at once timeless and timely) and Avatar representing the entertainment values of the future (a new kind of sensually intoxicating spectacle, with a technologically driven art so mesmerizing that it may now threaten to make those intimate storytelling virtues irrelevant). The movie I left out of this equation, of course, was The Hurt Locker. But a critic worth his salt always learns from his mistakes, and my prognosticating flub cues me, I believe, to a fascinating lesson.
First of all, the reason I completely dismissed The Hurt Locker from the Best Picture race — I noted, explicitly, that Kathryn Bigelow had a solid shot at taking the Best Director prize — couldn’t have been more basic: In its domestic release, the movie made exactly $12.6 million. No shame in that (some of the great films of our time have made less than $12.6 million), but this is the Academy Awards we’re talking about, not the Village Voice critics’ poll. Simply put: No movie that’s been seen by that small an audience during its domestic run has ever won the Oscar for Best Picture.
To get a bit of perspective, just go back to a year when the award was given to a relatively low-grossing, non-mass-audience, critically endorsed Work Of Cinema. A useful example would be the year that Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor, to the surprise of many, took home the big prize. The movie was released near the end of 1987, and by the time its run was over it had made $44 million — admittedly, a good portion of that after the awards. Nevertheless, adjusting for inflation, that stills makes The Last Emperor the equivalent (at the very least) of a $100 million grossing movie today: a major feat indeed for an aesthetically ravishing, emotionally forbidding art film about the boy ruler of China. And that, just to repeat, is a low-grossing Oscar winner.
It’s worth taking a moment to point out why, for Academy voters, the box office has always been such a crucial factor. The vulgar way to put it would be: Hollywood, in the end, is all about the bottom line, and so a movie that doesn’t “perform” isn’t eligible, according to the industry’s core values, for the most coveted of honors. Yet the eternal mystic paradox of Hollywood, for the last 100 years, has been that there’s a sneaky humanity built into the DNA of its obsession with pleasing a mass audience. Obviously, if it were just about money, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen would be one of the nominees. But the voters have always needed to know that the big movie they’re voting for is popular, because popularity is the spiritual currency of Hollywood’s art. That’s why we call it “pop culture.”
If The Hurt Locker wins this year’s Academy Award for Best Picture, it will in many ways fracture that essential crowd-pleasing code. Sure, the movie swept the critics’ awards, but that’s never been such a dominant criteria for Hollywood. (If it were, the Oscar for Best Picture would likely have gone to GoodFellas, or Nashville, or Pulp Fiction.) To me, it would be fantastic if The Hurt Locker won, because it would effectively redefine the Oscars as an arena where a work of art, its (minor) success driven by critical praise, could compete on a level playing field. (And, of course, the big structural change this year, with 10 Best Picture nominees competing on a ballot that’s weighted more toward plurality than in the past, could have a major influence on the outcome.) If The Hurt Locker wins, it will really be the culmination of a trend that began back in 1996, the year of Fargo and Shine and Secrets & Lies, when the Oscar nominations were, for the first time, dominated by “small” independent releases. Sure, a handful of indie films (like No Country for Old Men) have won Best Picture since, but before doing so they effectively crossed over and became modest mainstream hits.
I’d like to go back to the sole point I made in that earlier, myopic post that I think was accurate. I said that the battle between Up in the Air and Avatar would be the most symbolic Oscar race since Forrest Gump vs. Pulp Fiction back in 1994/1995. (For the record, many of you said that in remembering the contest that way, I’d given The Shawshank Redemption short shrift. But The Shawshank Redemption grossed only $28 million; by the classic Hollywood math I’ve just been discussing, it never really stood a chance.) Okay, Up in the Air, while a respectable hit, didn’t forge quite the emotional connection with a lot of the audience that I’d wanted it to. But even if I did have the wrong movie, I think I had the right point: With The Hurt Locker now having all but vacuumed up the year’s critical acclaim, and with Avatar having just this week become the top-grossing domestic movie of all time, Avatar vs. The Hurt Locker is an awesomely symbolic race (and not just because James Cameron and Kathryn Bigelow were once married). It’s a clash of size, values, popularity — of essential notions of What Movie Art Is in the 21st century. A Hurt Locker victory would open the door to a new definition of Oscar glory, a defiant celebration of artistry over commerce. A win for Avatar would be, in its way, a definitive assertion of the same old same old. That’s why, more than in quite a long time, I genuinely hope that Best Picture this year goes to the best picture.