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David vs. Goliath: Can 'Hurt Locker' beat 'Avatar'?

Michael Phillips
Chicago Tribune (MCT)

The company picnic known as the Academy Awards will be held Sunday at the Hollywood Kodak Theatre, just down the boulevard from the famous handprints in concrete in front of Mann's Chinese. This year's tuxedoed and sequined picnic is laying out double the usual best picture nominees. Not since1944 — the year "Casablanca" won for best picture of 1943 — has this happened.

A few weeks ago, I thought the Oscar was "Avatar's" to lose. Once the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced plans to expand the picture roster to 10, it seemed like destiny. We're hacking our way out of a recession. We needed a box-office hero, and in the Oscar bash producers' quest for ratings fire, what could stoke it better than a big blue hit?

If "Avatar" does indeed win the top prize Oscar night, it will be the highest-grossing picture ever to do so. It is, after all, the highest-grossing film of all time, having zoomed past the $2 billion mark.

But now I wonder. I wonder if the Oscar voters, having paid lip service to the big tent idea with 10 best picture nominees, will favor "The Hurt Locker" after all. Various oddsmakers keeping book on the matter peg it as an extremely close race. If "The Hurt Locker" wins, by most measurements it will be the lowest-grossing Academy Award winner in history.

Critics groups worldwide have lauded director Kathryn Bigelow's drama, set in the worst of the Iraq war among a group of bomb tech experts. But when the Hollywood-centric Producers Guild of America chose "The Hurt Locker" over "Avatar" on Jan. 24, the winds shifted.

At an event recently, a member of the Writers Guild of America came up to me and we chatted, and he said that while he admired "The Hurt Locker," he didn't love the movie — it's just not "built" enough for his tastes. Others feel differently. I think the script's lack of customary war-movie narrative machinery makes it stronger, not weaker.

The voting rules have changed this year. In The New Yorker, Hendrik Hertzberg explained it this way: Voting members of the academy, 5,800 of them, "are being asked to rank their choices from one to 10. In the unlikely event that a picture gets an outright majority of first-choice votes, the counting's over. If not, the last-place finisher is dropped and its voters' second choices are distributed among the movies still in the running. If there's still no majority, the second-to-last-place finisher gets eliminated, and its voters' second (or third) choices are counted. And so on, until one of the nominees goes over fifty percent."

Does this mean an upset or two in the making? I would like that. The show, to be hosted this year by Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin, is always better for it.

But at this point a win for "The Hurt Locker" would not qualify as an upset. As Tony Bennett says in "The Oscar" (1966), the last word on this or any other subject: We'll see who's sitting on top of the glass mountain called Success, come March 7.

———

The 82nd Academy Awards will be broadcast at 8:30 p.m. EST Sunday on ABC.


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