Oscars: Hollywood's war against itself (continued)

Oscar voters picked the lowest-grossing winner in history -- artistic integrity or commercial suicide?

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published March 8, 2010 9:09PM (EST)

I'm grateful to have been thoroughly and completely wrong about the best-picture race -- as were a great many other supposedly knowledgeable stooges -- for a whole bunch of reasons. First and foremost, Kathryn Bigelow's historic sweep was a genuinely moving and surprising capper to one of the most tedious Oscar broadcasts in recent memory. All that industry hand-wringing, a much-touted new production team, and what do we get? Interpretive dance numbers set to fragments of the nominated scores. Seriously? If they'd hired the Sparkle Motion dance team out of "Donnie Darko," it couldn't have been any lamer. (Actually, that would been a lot more fun to watch.)

Although I have mixed feelings about "The Hurt Locker" itself, and about the cultural-psychological reasons for its ascendancy, Bigelow herself is a genuine and strange cinematic genius who has paid her dues several times over and richly deserves her moment of triumph. (Is "Hurt Locker" her best film? Probably not. Her second-best? Not even sure about that.) I wish producer-screenwriter Mark Boal hadn't complicated Bigelow's big moment on the stage of the Kodak Theatre by persistently tugging on her elbow, like a kid in a department store who needed to use the john. That was odd.

Did it take a grueling, ¿Quién es más macho? war thriller for a female director to win a pile of Oscars? I know there are counter-arguments -- mainly, there just haven't been that many Oscar-scale movies made by women -- but I kind of think, yeah, it did. This may have more to do with the Academy's recent preference for "serious," male-coded film genres than with simplistic sexual discrimination. Hollywood legend Joseph L. Mankiewicz won back-to-back writing and directing Oscars in 1950 and 1951 for "A Letter to Three Wives" and "All About Eve," but it's difficult to imagine such female-centric movies garnering those kinds of honors today.

Taking the longer view, this year's Oscar campaign and its conclusion offered some crucial flashes of insight into how the Academy works in the 21st century, which is a whole lot different from the way it used to work. Although this goes against nearly everything I believe about life on Planet Earth, I have concluded that Academy voters as a group are less cynical and calculated than I thought -- but also that there is a conflict or schism between the membership and the needs and desires of the Academy's leadership, or at least its image-management and P.R. teams.

I exchanged e-mails late on Sunday night with a critical colleague, one who'd made the same misguided assumptions that I had about the inevitable victory of "Avatar," notwithstanding the accolades heaped upon "Hurt Locker" by every critics' group and industry trade organization. Our fundamental error, we concluded, lay in believing that after several years of victories by mid-budget Indiewood pictures the Academy's collective thinking, and voting behavior, would at some point return to "normal." What we meant by normal, of course, was an ingrained institutional preference for big-budget spectacle. But that old normal is dead, and here's the new normal: Hollywood's central trade group doesn't like its own movies that much.

Allow me to quote an esteemed expert: "One thing that's become clear is that the film industry feels no confidence about the cultural significance of its own products. Hollywood's self-appointed division of self-importance, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, passed up the chance to honor one of the most ambitious and successful films the American movie factories have ever made in order to hand out hardware to a mid-budget, semi-independent production made in Jordan without movie stars."

OK, the expert is not all that esteemed. It's me, and other than replacing "India" with "Jordan," that's taken verbatim from the article I wrote last year about the Oscar victory of "Slumdog Millionaire" and the shunning of "The Dark Knight." If anything, the contrast is even starker this time around. "Avatar" is, of course, a much bigger hit than TDK, and its use of motion-capture technology and 3-D clearly points toward the Hollywood future. "The Hurt Locker" is a genuine indie production, financed and made entirely outside the studio system, which grossed less than $15 million in the United States.

Comparing different eras of financial and cinematic history is rife with pitfalls, but that clearly makes "Hurt Locker" the lowest-grossing best-picture winner in Oscar history. (No. 2 is probably "The Last Emperor" from 1987, but when you adjust for inflation, Bernardo Bertolucci's costume drama made almost three times as much money as Bigelow's war epic.) It's delicious and strange and at least potentially ironic that this happened in the year when the Academy expanded the best-picture category from five to 10 nominees, in an evident effort to make the competition more commercial and more attractive to mainstream audiences.

Honestly, the only conclusion I can draw is that Academy members are voting with their hearts. Who'da thunk it? Maybe an earlier generation of Oscar voters was more persuaded by box-office numbers, mass popularity and marketing muscle -- or was simply more in tune with mass taste -- but they evidently don't give a damn about those things now. Personally, I'd have ranked a couple of other nominees above "Hurt Locker" -- definitely "A Serious Man," maybe "An Education" -- but it's an idiosyncratic film made by a genuine visionary. Even setting aside the history-making element of this vote (which was surely a consideration) it's a respectable choice.

Now, the Academy brass, especially its marketing mavens and the shepherds of its lucrative contract with ABC, may take a more jaundiced view of the membership's sudden attack of integrity and independence. Oscar's long relationship with the wider moviegoing public has always been tempestuous, but both as a television franchise and a touchstone of cultural relevance, the Academy Awards cannot afford to be seen as some elitist, out-of-touch coastal bastion of indieness. If we allowed ABC execs a free spin in the time machine, and a chance to replace the last four or five years' worth of Oscar-winners with movies heartland consumers actually paid to watch, they'd take it in a heartbeat.

Still, at least in terms of water-cooler controversy, this year's Oscars were largely successful. Mind you, the telecast was a misbegotten mishmash, and the toxic, unfunny repartee of Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin made Hugh Jackman's 2009 song-and-dance numbers look like the height of showbiz professionalism. But viewership was up, reaching the best numbers since the "Crash on Brokeback Mountain" showdown of 2006, and the huge roster of nominated films yielded contradictory but complementary results: Multiple nominations for hugely popular films, and an underdog victory. A lifetime achievement award for Jeff "The Dude" Bridges (let's be honest; that's what it was), and shocking proof that Sandra Bullock is not just a human being but a funny, warm and generous-spirited one as well.

But the repercussions of "The Hurt Locker's" victory over "Avatar" go well beyond Kathryn Bigelow's historic breakthrough, and well beyond questions of which movie you or I like better, or which one made more money. It's another salvo in Hollywood's peculiar, long-running war against itself, a war unlikely to have any winners.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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