Saturday, February 6, 2010
Unlike the acting categories at the Oscars, the Best Picture and Best Director race are tight races between the two films with 9 nominations each – Avatar and The Hurt Locker. True, Inglourious Basterds could surprise and come up the middle in those races, especially with the Weinsteins' muscle behind it (they are renowned awards campaigners, dirty tricks and all). But Avatar and The Hurt Locker have won the lion's share of awards so far, with Avatar winning both Best Picture and Director at the Golden Globes, and The Hurt Locker winning at the Producers Guild (PGA) Awards and the Directors Guild (DGA) Awards.
It has been hyped as the battle of the exes (James Cameron and Kathryn Bigelow were married from 1989 to 1991), David vs. Goliath, and the box-office champion against the chump (adjusted for inflation, The Hurt Locker has the smallest box office of any Best Picture nominee ever with $12 million). But although it's a close race, here's why The Hurt Locker will win both categories.
There are a number of reasons. The Hurt Locker is frankly a better movie based on artistic merit. Rotten Tomatoes gives it a whopping 97% over Avatar's 84%, while the weighted rankings of Metacritic give it a 94 to 84 edge. There is the fact that the Academy does like to spread the wealth around and Cameron has already has already won 3 Oscars (editing, directing and Best Picture for Titanic). Then there’s the fact that they are trying to change their reputation as an old boy's club. Much was made of the floodgates opening up for black actors when Denzel Washington and Halle Berry won in 2002. Many within the Academy would welcome a similar breakthrough for women.
A bigger consideration, however, is how they've changed the whole process for selecting Best Picture. Everyone knows about the expansion this year to 10 nominations in the Best Picture category. Normally, this would hurt a small indie film and make it harder to stand out from the larger pack. But they've also changed the rules so that voting on the Best Picture category isn't a simple matter of picking your choice. Before, you won your category if you had the most votes, so in theory could win with just 20% + 1. Now they have a preferential ballot for Best Picture, and voters will be asked to rank their choices from 1 to 10.
The accountants at PriceWaterhouseCoopers then divide the ballots into piles according to their first picks. To win, you need 50% + 1 votes. If any film accomplishes that after one round, then they're done and the matter is decided. But with 10 nominees, that's highly unlikely. So if no film reaches a majority, then the film with the least votes gets eliminated and its ballots redistributed according to their next choices. If there is still no majority reached, they keep repeating this elimination and redistribution until one is. It probably would take a few rounds before one emerges victorious.
This approach has a great leveling effect, but it also hurts films that are polarizing. If we applied this approach for example to the year 2006 when Crash scored a surprise win over Brokeback Mountain, the results might have been different. It was probably a much closer race than people will ever know (PriceWaterhouseCoopers never divulges the voting breakdowns, only the names of the winners). Although Brokeback Mountain had won Best Picture at the Golden Globes where Crash wasn't even nominated, Crash won several major prizes too such as Best Ensemble at the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) Awards - their equivalent of Best Picture. Both shared Writers Guild (WGA) prizes in their respective categories.
But Brokeback Mountain was highly regarded by all but the most homophobic. Crash on the other hand was a love-it-or-hate it film that inspired intense passion either way. This still is the case as can be seen by recent blogs (see The Worst Movie of the Decade Relay). Personally, I loved both films and would have had a tough time deciding between the two. If I was a voting member though, I ultimately would have chosen Crash. With a preferential ballot, however, I would have chosen Brokeback Mountain as a very close number 2 choice. I think most people who voted for Crash would’ve done the same. But people who hated Crash would have ranked it at the bottom. So those who voted for Capote: Good Night, and Good Luck; and Munich would likely have seen their votes redistributed to Brokeback Mountain, giving it a majority before Crash and thus the Best Picture Oscar.
If we apply that logic to our current race, which movie is the most polarizing? I’d have to say Avatar, in spite of its immense popularity. Although much loved – to the tune of $2 billion and counting – it also gets a lot of flack from all corners. Conservatives hate it as anti-American, anti-war, anti-corporate, anti-Caucasian, and pro- everything they hate like the environment. But leftists have criticized it as racist, and yet another “White Messiah” fantasy. The Catholic Church has wagged their fingers, claiming it was "winking at the pseudo-doctrines that have made ecology the religion of the millennium.” Anti-smoking groups have disapproved of the prominence given to Sigourney Weaver’s character Dr. Grace Augustine. It’s even been accused of being heterosexist, as if other Hollywood romances aren’t.
Other factors include there being so much hype about it, that people who have seen it only recently are likely to be let down; hype has a way of creating unfulfillable expectations. There are many people who resent its success, and want to cheer the underdog. And then of course there are the silly criticisms that Cameron is just “ripping off” other stories. When Tarantino does it, he gets called a genius; but when Cameron does it more discreetly, without the constant winking at the camera, he’s accused of plagiarism. Go figure.
So while I see The Hurt Locker being at or near the top of every ballot, I see Avatar getting lots of No. 1 votes – very possibly more than The Hurt Locker – but on the remaining ballots having its ranking spread all over the spectrum. This means that The Hurt Locker will eat up the redistributed votes faster and reach majority territory sooner. Bingo! Best Picture.
The final consideration is that although Cameron and Bigelow are exes, there is not a whit of nastiness between the two. They still get along very well, and he has been very supportive of her. He wants her to win. Many people have taken an unfair dislike for the man, but when he said he hadn't prepared a speech at the Golden Globes because he thought Bigelow would win, it was not at all patronizing to her as some claimed. Rather it was intended to show his belief that she deserved it. Ebert pointed out that his enthusiastic cheering for her victory at the DGA Awards was very sincere. So don't be surprised when The Hurt Locker takes one or both of the big prizes on Oscar night, and the one cheering loudest for her will be none other than James Cameron.