Monday, March 8, 2010

The Academy’s ‘Best Picture’ Screw-up

AVATAR: Got the proverbial shaft on Sunday evening - and probably mostly due to votes from insiders in assorted producers groups- who were infatuated with the war in Iraq.

(Spoiler Alert! If you haven’t seen ‘The Hurt Locker yet you may want to postpone reading this!)

Both my wife and myself, and I suppose tens of millions of others, were appalled last night when the ‘Best Picture’ Oscar was awarded to ‘The Hurt Locker’, rather than AVATAR. What this does is essentially explode any credibility the Academy’s minions have to select a picture based on what it has accomplished – as opposed to political correctness (as well as providing belated economic buoyancy to a flick that has so far barely covered its expenses of $14 MILLION.

Now, make no mistake that ‘The Hurt Locker’ (which we saw on Saturday night over Pay per View, is a fine film. But, “best picture” of the year? No freakin’ way! Indeed, this war flick doesn’t even come close to the standards of previous war Best Picture winners, including ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai’ (1957) and ‘Platoon’ (1986). In each of those the plots were woven tightly and the acting was what acting ought to be, not minimalist.

Even The Wall Street Journal (March 5, page W5), which insisted “Hurt Locker should win’ (never giving any coherent reasons why) noted this about Best Actor nominee Jeremy Renner (who had previously starred in such flicks as ‘Dahmer’):

A star who didn’t perform like a star because he knew he didn’t have to. Both he and his director agreed on the meaning of minimal and lean.”

Which translated to the rest of the cast, who ended up being mere supporting flanks for the REAL “actors” in this film, the bombs! Especially the octoplet bomb that Renner’s adrenalin addicted character (Sgt. James) had to disarm- though the one planted inside the Iraqi kid’s torso comes a close second!

In effect, the bombs created all the suspense, not the acting per se, or the plot (which basically was one bomb defusing or neutralizing after the other). The trick was to show early the sort of carnage these IEDs could wreak, and this was done in order to jack up suspense later when every bomb removal occurred (most without blowing up)

By comparable matching, the acting of William Holden and Sir Alec Guinness in ‘Bridge on the River Kwai’ was sterling, as was the acting of Willem Defoe and Tom Berenger in ‘Platoon’. In terms of a real war-addicted crazy, Berenger’s character in Platoon eats Renner’s in ‘Hurt Locker’ for lunch. But that’s just my opinion. As for the plots, in each case with these war films it was the writing of the plots in concert with the consummate acting which carried the movies, not gimmicks like bombs.

And what of AVATAR? This movie set new screen standards for just about everything – including its novel cgi format and a 3D which for once really looked the part (we saw it twice and are thinking of going again) Indeed, Jim Cameron didn’t just make a sci-fi flick but broke NEW ground for what is sure to be a series of Real D-3D movies that will no doubt help Hollywood survive many more lean years as we climb out of recession. And how did Hollywood’s Movie Academy of Arts and Sciences pay him back? With a slap in the face – which was more like a gut punch.

Note again, I am focusing here not on how much moola Cameron’s effort made, but how genuinely CREATIVE the effort was. Let’s not mix chalk and cheese.


While we're on how much it earned in the Box office, let’s please leave out this crap (another sly means of knocking Cameron, to me) that “in 2010 dollars the movie is still behind ‘Titanic’ and ‘Gone with the Wind’” – which fulsome dreck was trotted out in the PARADE magazine yesterday (as well as some weeks earlier in a WSJ piece).

In truth, if one is going to use the “2010 dollars” nonsense, he had also better reference the 2010 WAGES compared to those earlier years. So, in 1997, the comparative higher earnings at the box office by Titanic were balanced by the ticket buyers’ higher wages- compared to now. With over ten years of dollar devaluation – today’s wage earners are actually in worse shape in terms of buying tickets (even factoring in their inflation) than Titanic’s buyers were in ’97.

These silly box office earning comparisons remind me of the idiotic way some tourists talk when they visit Barbados. (Where $1 BDS = $ 0.50 U.S.). They go to a store, see a box of Cheerios for BDS $10, then make the conversion in their tiny heads and say something like: “Well it’s a bit high at $5 a box, but still not too terrible”. But they forget that for earners in Barbados that is what THEY pay all the time, and their earnings are in BDS dollars- NOT U.S. dollars!

So, the best approach is leave all the inflation-corrected comparisons out of the comments. Compare each year’s box office earnings to former ones, as they are – unless you plan to factor in the respective wages’ values too. To me, that’s more trouble than profit.

Back to ‘The Hurt Locker’. In the wake of its original release, this film flubbed in its attempted wider circulation at the cinemas. At its maximum exposure, last August , it reached about 155 cinemas compared to around 3,600 for AVATAR in December. Much of the blame is probably on the poor (cheap?) marketing. I didn’t even hear of this movie until two weeks ago when I saw a Golden Globes’ reference to it. They re-released ‘Hurt Locker’ in December, but again it went nowhere, and was on the verge of losing money.

Some recent ppv earnings have probably got it to the point it will do a bit better than breaking even. We also know, as per past history, that when a film wins ‘Best Picture’ that immediately ramps up its profile, more people either go to see it on the big screen – or elsewhere. (Likely on DVD, or ppv). As a WSJ piece noted, the earnings post-Best Picture are often 4 to 5 times what it made previously.

In this light, one can perhaps don the cynical view that ‘Hurt Locker’ received its award to give it instant high profile respect, and a lot more economic heft than it’s accomplished so far. At the same time, some Academy members probably got their shots in at Cameron (many actors have complained of his “big ego” to some recent media pieces- but that ought not be a factor in selecting a Best Picture) and others (perhaps driven by a corporate –military worship meme) bought the schlock that his picture was just a big screen “ripoff” of the Pocahantas legend, or ‘Dancing with Wolves’ (both idiotic claims) or that it “attacked our troops”. The last is especially odious since it did nothing of the sort, it rather went after corporate mercenaries prepared to rape and plunder a whole planet.

All in all the evening went well up to Best Picture. The Academy, had it not allowed irrelevant matters to cloud its judgment, would have given ‘Best Director’ to Bigelow for her movie (also paving the way for first woman director to get the Oscar) but given ‘Best Picture’ to AVATAR and Cameron for his ground breaking work whose benefits Hollywood will now reap for decades.
Personally, if I were Cameron – after this snub- I’d never help Hollywood out again. Let them go pound sand….or whatever! In the meantime, I have to basically concur with Erik Nelson's take at
"If the Oscars actually meant anything of consequence, last night's verdict would be tragic. But they don't, haven't ever, and this is example 753 (approximately, your results may vary) of why.
In essence: The one year the academy awards the plucky underdog "indie," it is the wrong "indie," in the wrong year.

But should we expect anything more? The Oscars are, as ever, a shabby high school popularity contest and a new, soon-to-be-forgotten head of student council has just been elected: Long live the King of the World. He wuz robbed by Tracy Flick."

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