Update: This post was written by BW contributor Jeremiah Robert Wierenga and posted by Amy Atkins. Sorry for any confusion.
You couldn’t have designed a more delicious dilemma than that which faced this year’s Oscar voters. Leading in nominations with nine nods apiece are two films that highlight the dichotomy of the Academy’s subtitle—that is, the difference between art and science. It’s hard to imagine two frontrunners more unalike—one an inventive small-budget tale of the current Iraq conflict, the second a futuristic fantasy with a recycled plotline—Pocahontas, anyone?—and likely the most expensive movie ever made. But the most dramatic piece of this accolade head-to-head? The dueling directors are divorced couple Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker) and James Cameron (Avatar).
The marital rift, which occurred seven years before Cameron crowned himself “King of the World” at 1998’s Oscar ceremony, is a picture of the disjointed focus of the Academy itself. With an ambiguous aim of promoting “the advancement of the arts and sciences of motion pictures,” the Oscars have a history of touting big-budget mainstream films with spectacular technical production over smaller independent features that many critics would consider narratively superior.
Consider the few categories in which Avatar and The Hurt Locker aren’t co-nominees. While both are up for Best Picture, Director, Cinematography, Editing (film and sound), Original Score and Sound Mixing—a mix of aesthetic and technical honors—Bigelow’s film has a Best Actor and Original Screenplay nod, while Cameron’s is in consideration for Visual Effects and Art Direction. Don’t be fooled by the word Art in the latter category—it’s largely a bureaucratic position. In essence, the two films represent the yin and yang of the Oscar mission, one a thoughtful work of art and the second a sensationalist technological wonder. But I have little doubt that Avatar will emerge with a bigger armful of statues.
So what is the relevance of the Academy Awards? Is it to honor art or science? One often seems to preclude the other. As Boston Globe critic Ty Burr points out, the Academy hasn’t always been considerate of advancements in the machinery of movies. The first Best Picture winner was silent film Wings (1927) which benefitted from the Academy’s disqualification of talkie The Jazz Singer due to worries that it might make a sensationalist sweep of the awards. What’s different now that the tech is 3-D animation, not voice recordings? For that answer, I think we need to consider the cash involved.
With adjusted costs for technological developments, Avatar’s budget could have financed about thirty-two films like The Hurt Locker. Of course, with it’s current box office gross, Avatar could have made itself ten and a half times, while The Hurt Locker would only manage to make four fifths of a twin. As any indie director could tell you, it’s the Avatars of the industry that make The Hurt Lockers happen. To ignore Cameron’s film would be a black mark against the Academy and a grave oversight—it is a remarkable technical achievement—but its inclusion in the Best Picture category makes for an odd addition, perhaps a concession to its popularity and not its overall artistry. The outcome of the Best Picture and Best Director awards will be a telling sign of the attitudes of Academy members. While the Oscars have somewhat successfully maintained a balance between honoring art vs. science, its an uneasy high-wire act that may, this year, result in a really splendid smashup. While hesitant to make predictions, I’m guessing the Academy will split the top two honors, giving Bigelow the gold man for Best Director before Cameron walks away with Best Picture. Anything else in this race is fair game.