The Oscars’ war of the worlds

Kathryn and James spar for Oscar custody in a David and Goliath duel

The new and improved, fluffed-up Oscar nominations were announced this morning, and surprise! . . . there were virtually no surprises. The Academy Awards are now so heavily upstaged by the glut of awards leading up to them that the Oscar campaign is like an election that just ratifies the results of the advance polls. The race comes down to a David and Goliath duel between Avatar and Hurt Locker, which have nine nominations apiece—and between their once married directors, James Cameron and Kathryn Bigelow. Aside from the Battle of the Exes, a showdown tailor-made for Entertainment Tonight, we have a battle between two very different war movies, and two opposite worlds of high-risk movie-making—a duel between indie nerve and blockbuster brawn. Cameron has made a ideologically tinted, eco-minded anti-war epic that champions Mother Nature’s feminine spirit.  Bigelow has made a gritty, no-nonsense, ultra-masculine Iraq thriller that’s remarkably free of any anti-war sentiment.  The traditional polarity of male-female sensibilities is reversed. So that’s shaping up to be quite a battle.

Oscar’s big makeover this year, of course, is the expansion of the Best Picture category from 5 to 10 nominees. So let’s see how that played out. We can separate the 10 nominees into two halves. Had there been just 5 nominees,  they would likely be, in roughly descending priority: Avatar, Hurt Locker, Up in the Air, Precious and Inglourious Basterds. So the five “extra” nominees are An Education, District 9, A Serious Man, The Blind Side, and Up. The Academy expanded the category to make room for more boffo popcorn movies, in the hope of bumping up TV ratings for the show. That seems to have worked, up to a point. District 9, Up and The Blind Side all grossed over $200 million worldwide. But the other three films that squeaked in are all relatively small. And Star Wars Star Trek, the year’s best popcorn movie aside from Avatar, didn’t make the cut. It’s nice to see A Serious Man and An Education nominated. The Blind Side, one of the phoniest “true” stories ever filmed, has no business being there. And Up‘s nomination all but guarantees it will win in its native category, Best Animated Feature.

No matter how many movies are nominated for Best Picture, however, the number is beside the point. This is Hurt Locker vs. Avatar. Bigelow’s low-budget masterpiece has been winning the industry’s major awards. Yet Avatar is such a historic feat that Hollywood, a company town, may rally behind it. After winning the Directors Guild prize, however, count on Bigelow to take home the Oscar for Best Director, which would be a historic feat in its own right—she’d be the first woman to win that honour.

As for the acting nominations, no surprises there. Well, almost none. Why on earth is Christopher Plummer nominated as Best Supporting Actor for The Last Station? Starring as the guy who dies in the story of Leo Tolstoy’s death, he owns as much of the movie as Helen Mirren, who plays his long-suffering and very supportive wife, but she is nominated for Best Actress. Clearly the movie’s campaign was directed at the lesser category so Plummer might have a fighting chance. It’s all academic anyway. Christoph Waltz will win for his trilingual tour de force in Inglourious Basterds, and Mo’Nique has a lock on Best Supporting Actress for Precious. Good to see Penelope Cruz emerge from that stampede of movie queens in Nine to get a supporting nod, even though the movie was such a stinker it got shut out of the expanded Best Picture stable.

Jeff Bridges and Sandra Bullock have emerged as the favorites in the lead acting categories. Both play stubborn Southern mavericks. To me, that proves once again that the Academy votes for characters, not for actors. Bridges will likely win for his wonderfully gnarled, slow-burn performance as an alcoholic country singer, although Crazy Heart (which is weak) was shut out of Best Picture. Oscar adores actors who can actually sing, and are cast as salt-of-the-earth music legends who overcome tremendous odds—witness Ray and Walk the Line.

Bullock will have a more of a fight, up against Meryl Streep for Julie & Julia. But again, this is a duel of characters, between two indomitable real-life women. As a rich, pistol-packing Christian mom with too much makeup who adopts an African American gentle giant, Bullock plays a kind of Erin Brockovich crusader dame; as the hysterical Julia Child, Streep portrays an outrageous cooking diva.  It comes down to a red state/blue state battle between two populist styles of larger-than-life American womanhood.

As for the other categories, Best Documentary Feature is unusually lively. It sports a range of almost uniquely activist, if not agit-prop, movies. I would expect The Cove‘s masterful investigation into Japan’s dolphin slaughter to beat out other contenders, which include Burma VJ and Food, Inc.

The Foreign Language category, with its Byzantine voting process,  is always a bit of a mystery. I’ve seen just two of the five nominees: A Prophet and The White Ribbon. Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon has the momentum of other awards, including the Palme d’Or, behind it, along with a critical groundswell. And it deals with the roots of Nazism, a subject close to Oscar’s heart. So expect it to win.

One can always hope that between now and March 7, when the Awards are telecast, momentum might shift and opinions might change, and there could still be some surprises and some suspense. But don’t count on it. And prepare yourself for a powerhouse acceptance speech from Mo’Nique. It will come early in the evening and will likely be the show’s emotional highpoint. . . unless you’re waiting to hear James Cameron to proclaim he’s king of the world in Na’vi.