Sandra Bullock, Mo'Nique, Jeff Bridges, and more highlights from the 82nd Academy Awards

By Benjamin Svetkey
Updated March 12, 2010 at 05:00 AM EST

You didn’t see it on TV, but there was a moment at the Oscars, right in the front rows of the Kodak Theatre, where the most important nominees always sit, that perfectly encapsulated the entire evening. James Cameron walked straight up to Kathryn Bigelow, grabbed at her throat, and pretended to wring her neck.

In Hollywood, apparently, that’s how ex-spouses say ”Congratulations!”

Cameron, obviously, was kidding. Throughout the awards-show season, both he and Bigelow repeatedly told the press that they’ve remained good friends since their divorce in 1991. ”The media makes it out that way, but it’s not really a rivalry between us as filmmakers,” Cameron reiterated to reporters as he marched down the red carpet into Sunday’s ceremony. ”If Kathryn wins” — which, of course, she did, becoming the first woman ever to take home a Best Director statuette — ”I’ll be cheering for her.”

Still, as the show got under way, the director of Avatar and the director of The Hurt Locker sure seemed like adversaries fighting over the most precious metal in this part of the planet — not Unobtainium, but Oscar gold. One of their films took a decade to make, cost hundreds of millions, and has grossed more than $2.6 billion, becoming the biggest global hit in history. The other was shot over a single summer in the Jordanian desert, cost a measly $15 million, and last weekend became the lowest-grossing film ever to be named Best Picture ($21 million worldwide, less than what Saw VI made). Talk about a classic David and Goliath contest. Except this David and Goliath once honeymooned together.

Of course, there were other dramas unfolding on the podium, and elsewhere in the Kodak, even if they weren’t all quite so gripping. Sandra Bullock winning Best Actress for her turn as a pistol-packing Southern socialite in The Blind Side had a bit of suspense (who knew she’d have to play a Republican to get an award in Hollywood?). On the red carpet — where Entertainment Weekly‘s managing editor, Jess Cagle, cohosted the preshow on ABC — Bullock was already planning her next career move. ”A lesbian comedy with Meryl Streep,” she quipped, referencing a jocular smooch she and fellow nominee Streep had shared earlier in the season at the Critics’ Choice Awards. But nobody was shocked that Jeff Bridges finally picked up a statue, for Best Actor in Crazy Heart, after four previous nominations. ”It’s like what the Dude says — strikes and gutters,” the star philosophized at the Governors Ball, referring to another, non-nominated role in The Big Lebowski. Nor was anybody stunned that Mo’Nique won Best Supporting Actress for her turn as the world’s worst mom in Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire, or that Christoph Waltz walked away with Best Supporting Actor for his part as a Jew-hunting Nazi in Inglourious Basterds. About the only unexpected twist: J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek became the first movie with a Vulcan in it ever to win anything at the Academy Awards (Best Makeup).

There were times during the ceremony when even some of the nominees seemed to be struggling to stay focused. A number of them, especially the ones who had lost, spent the bulk of the evening at the bar in the theater lobby, watching the show on the monitors. ”We’re done,” Matt Damon told EW, laughing, before turning back to his conversation with Stanley Tucci. Quentin Tarantino and producer Lawrence Bender ordered tequila shots as their consolation prize when Inglourious Basterds failed to win a Best Screenplay award. And Woody Harrelson, nominated for The Messenger, had a little accident with his wineglass. He bent down to clean up the broken shards himself — until a bartender came to his rescue.

Honestly, the most suspenseful part of the evening was whether anybody outside Hollywood would be paying attention. Ratings for the Oscar telecast have been mostly on a downward trend the past decade, dropping from 55 million viewers in 1998 (the year Cameron’s Titanic won) to 36 million last year (when Slumdog Millionaire took top prize). This year’s doubling of the number of Best Picture nominees from five to ten was part of a plan to lure viewers by bringing more popular films into the mix — like, say, an animated children’s feature about an old man who ties a bunch of balloons to his house (Up), or a South African science-fiction film about alien immigrants addicted to cat food (District 9), or a three-hankie studio drama about bridging the racial divide (The Blind Side). At the Kodak on Sunday night, opinions about the Academy’s rule change were not universally favorable. ”It’s probably good for the show, but I don’t know that it’s good for filmmaking,” George Clooney told EW. ”It’s sort of like making the basket bigger on the basketball court so more points can be scored. Takes a little bit of the fun away.”

As it turned out, the 82nd Academy Awards ended up being the highest-rated in five years, with 41.3 million viewers — but it’s hard to say it was any Academy rule change that made the difference. There were other reasons people might have tuned in this year, such as cohosts Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin (their shtick included a Paranormal Activity spoof and a cutaway to the two backstage wearing matching Snuggies). The John Hughes tribute was worth watching too; it was genuinely moving — if a little alarming — to see the late director’s young actors together again, now definitively older (the crowd at the Elton John AIDS Foundation party gasped when Judd Nelson appeared on the screen). Neil Patrick Harris’ exuberantly campy opening song-and-dance number wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but hey, the guy certainly didn’t hurt the Emmy ratings last year.

”I think everything just conspired to make a good evening of television,” theorizes Oscar producer Adam Shankman, who’s been a judge on TV’s So You Think You Can Dance (those were the show’s dancers doing the robot hip-hop routine that introduced the Best Score nominees). ”The [rule change] contributed a lot. It made the Academy think outside the art-film box and opened it up to all these other kinds of movies. But there was also a lot more Internet work. I know through Twitter that people were telling me, ‘I’ve never watched the show, but I’ll watch it now.”’

But let’s get real. People watched the 2010 Oscars for the same reason they watched in 1998, the year Titanic won: Because, once again, the Academy nominated a hugely popular special-effects extravaganza, which also happened to be directed by Kathryn Bigelow’s ex-husband. After all, until it won Best Picture last weekend, most moviegoers didn’t know The Hurt Locker from a sporting-goods chain, let alone had seen the film. But there’s hardly a humanoid left on Earth who hasn’t visited the moonscape of Pandora. In 3-D, no less.

The irony, of course, is that this time Cameron’s gigantic movie lost. Even with 10 nominees this year, it was the small indie film with no stars and a plot about the Iraq war that ended up getting the gold. Depending on how you look at it, that’s either depressing proof that the Academy is full of snobs totally out of touch with the tastes of ordinary moviegoers, or an encouraging sign that, even today, simple cinematic excellence can triumph over razzle-dazzle spectacle. That debate was being waged even before the first envelope was opened on Sunday night. ”I think the public sees [Hollywood and the Academy] as a little elitist, when in fact they’re just trying to make people aware of the global level of films they should be celebrating,” Cameron said just before entering the Kodak. ”But it doesn’t make much difference in the long run. There’s still only one winner.”

Mo’Nique: She Did it Her Way

The Precious actress played the Oscar game by her own rules. In other words, she didn’t play at all.

”I would like to thank the Academy,” said Best Supporting Actress winner Mo’Nique, ”for showing that it can be about the performance and not the politics.” Ouch. The actress, 42, drew attention last fall for requesting fees to promote her film. Her speech rebuked those who’d argued, in effect, that she deserved to lose because she didn’t schmooze. In a closer race, agreeability might have mattered, but not this time. Still, Mo’Nique’s victory was almost overshadowed by her Oscar-night interview with Barbara Walters, in which she confirmed that she and her husband, Sidney Hicks, have an open relationship. For the couple, who manage Mo’Nique’s career together, the Oscar win seemed like vindication after much scrutiny. In her speech she said to him: ”Thank you for showing me that sometimes you have to forgo doing what’s popular in order to do what’s right.” — Dave Karger