Is it because I thought it was the year’s best film? No, not really. In the category, I preferred Up, An Education, and District 9, but those films had no hope of prevailing; they were swept up by the category’s expansion to ten nominees. I admit to being in the minority on The Hurt Locker, which is one of the most critically lauded films in the last ten years; I thought it was effective, but too fragmented and familiar to be called great.
Neither was I rooting for it because of the history it would make by its director, Kathryn Bigelow, becoming the first woman to win her category; you could hear the subtext throughout the evening, culminating in Barbara Streisand presenting Best Director by declaring the historic possibilities: the first woman ever to win, the first African-American to win (Lee Daniels for Precious, who didn’t have a chance) … or one of the three white guys.
No, I was rooting for The Hurt Locker because it made so little money. In recent years, the nominees and winners of Best Picture have favored smaller, less populist stock: the likes of Slumdog Millionaire, No Country for Old Men, Crash, and Million Dollar Baby have prevailed along with more conventional studio productions like Chicago, Gladiator, and The Lord of the Rings. Audiences increasingly complain that the Oscar nominees don’t reflect popular tastes; the expansion of the Best Picture category was in large part a reaction to last year’s snubs of WALL-E and The Dark Knight. So this year, with the nominees including Avatar, now the highest grossing film of all time, the top prize went to … the lowest grossing film ever to win it.
The Hurt Locker was not a commercial success. Produced for $15 million, it has made only $21 million worldwide. How bold and gratifying then for Hollywood to hold it up as its gold standard of filmmaking, declaring that there’s more to good movies than good box office. Audiences will probably grumble that no one has seen The Hurt Locker. True. But we shouldn’t ask why the Academy picked The Hurt Locker. We should ask, why didn’t America?
The Academy Awards shouldn’t exist to validate audience viewing habits, to pat us on the back and compliment our collective good taste. If that were so, Best Picture would have been a race between Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, The Twilight Saga: New Moon, and Paul Blart: Mall Cop. Rather, the Academy Awards should strive to inform and improve our viewing habits. If you didn’t see The Hurt Locker — or Precious, or An Education, or A Serious Man — perhaps it’s time you did. Those films that aren’t currently in theaters are on DVD or soon will be, so naysayers should stop complaining that no one has seen it (proudly turning up their nose at highfalutin art films), and see it.
Perhaps Avatar is the future of motion pictures, but if so we should celebrate it with caution. It’s visually glorious, and deservedly won Oscars for its visual effects, cinematography, and art direction. But its lack of a screenplay nomination reflected what most of us, even the film’s fans, already knew: story isn’t its strong suit. Its victory would have affirmed the future of filmmaking as a bold leap forward in technology, but also a de-emphasis of narrative, character, and theme. By its decision, the Academy established that those qualities still matter, and that’s a good thing.
As for the rest of the telecast, the winners were mostly as expected, with the only major upset being the victory of Precious writer Geoffrey Fletcher over Up in the Air scribes Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner, who were considered near-locks. Sandra Bullock’s funny, gracious, and genuine speech made it hard to begrudge her the honor, though I admit I’ve been avoiding the treacly-looking The Blind Side even as its awards hopes brightened. I suppose I’ll have to rent it now. (On a related note, Bullock’s joking insinuation that she and Meryl Streep were lovers made me long for a movie in which they played just that — perhaps a thriller directed by Kathryn Bigelow.)
Hosts Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin are very funny men — sadly less so as a team. Awkward timing and strained punch lines befell them, especially Baldwin, who appeared uncomfortable throughout. The show began with an unnecessary number from another very talented man, Neil Patrick Harris, whose song about Martin and Baldwin working as a team was the musical equivalent of exposition.
History has proven that interpretive dances are deadly on an Oscar telecast, so wouldn’t you know they tried it again. The obviously skilled dance troupe LXD performed impressive, acrobatic routines, embarrassingly mismatched to the Best Original Score nominees: to wit, the Hurt Locker break dance, and doing the robot to Up, as if the choreographers mistook this year’s Pixar hit for last year’s, WALL-E.
Last year’s sensational presentation of the acting categories — having previous winners of the category address each nominee directly — was repeated for the lead acting races, but with former collaborators doing the honors instead of former winners. Precious executive producer Oprah Winfrey spoke to a tearful Gabourey Sidibe with a command that probably made Academy members want to take their ballots back and change their votes. I still long for this format to be repeated with directors — imagine the likes of Spielberg, Scorsese, and Eastwood lavishing praise on the nominees, or the stars of the films honoring their maestros.
There were a few non-sequitur clip packages. A celebration of horror films was put together by someone who needed a schooling on what horror is. The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby? Yes. Edward Scissorhands and Twilight? No. Members of the Brat Pack paid tribute to the late John Hughes, director of ‘80s teen classics Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. A filmmaker worthy of tribute, but it seemed ironic considering that Hughes was never nominated for an Academy Award. Neither were most of the featured horror films. Wouldn’t it be witty if the Academy poked fun at itself next year with a clip package of great films they never honored?
Among presenters there were two notable highlights: Ben Stiller, made up like one of Avatar’s Na’vi to present Best Makeup with his tail operated by a fishing pole; and proving tandems can work with the right material and chemistry, Tina Fey and Robert Downey Jr. explained the writer-actor relationship while presenting the award for original screenplay: said Downey, “It’s a collaboration between handsome gifted people and sickly little mole people.” Maybe they should have hosted.