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Oscar's unwritten rules
February 3, 2010 - Rick Chatenever
At least when they play the Super Bowl, everyone knows the rules. By the end of Sunday afternoon — an occasion long overdue for official national holiday recognition as Guy Day — everyone will know who won.
When it comes to the Academy Awards, it’s not that simple.
It’s hard to tell whether this is because not everyone knows the rules … or because there aren’t rules. Despite all the accounting-firm rigamarole about the secrecy surrounding counting the ballots, movies are one place where concepts like “the best” don’t exactly apply.
Following the announcement of the nominees earlier this week, the 82nd annual Oscar race brings new meaning to the battle between the sexes. Best-director nominees Kathryn Bigelow for “The Hurt Locker” and James Cameron for “Avatar” — leading the pack with nine nominations each — used to be married to each other.
It’s probably pure coincidence and nothing personal that their nominated films are both war movies. But the differences between their work show the breadth of this year’s race.
“Avatar” is an epic sci-fi metaphor about imperialistic oppression of indigenous cultures. It creates dazzling worlds and creatures on screen, redefines the medium of moviemaking, cost hundreds of millions to make and has already made twice that back at the box office.
“The Hurt Locker,” in contrast, is a clock-ticking celluloid time bomb about an elite team led by an icy-nerved dude defusing explosive devices in the streets of Baghdad. Along with its Best Actor nomination for Jeremy Renner, it marks the arrival of a woman director in this gritty, previously all-male domain.
“The Hurt Locker” cost a fraction of what “Avatar” did to make, which is good since it’s made nothing at the box office. Unlike critics, audiences have avoided it like the plague.
How you pick the best — or even the better — of these choices is beyond me. It probably has less to do with the considerable merit of either project than with how many friends — and enemies — the Titanic- egoed Cameron has among Academy voters, or how strong the sentiment is for seeing Bigelow break the testosterone ceiling.
Being more of a Maui Film Festival guy myself — liking movies that explore and celebrate characters instead of just blowing them up — there’s still a lot to choose from in this year’s Oscar field.
Yes, we’re talking Sandra Bullock and Jeff Bridges, oddsmakers’ early favorites for the best acting prizes. True, their films “The Blind Side” and “Crazy Heart” aren’t as weighty as the usual contenders, but they definitely make you glad you showed up at the theater.
Their nominations fall among those unwritten Oscar rules under the heading of long overdue, or better yet, people like them … they really like them.
Efforts to put on a happy face, led by co-hosts Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin, are another new wrinkle in this year’s ceremonies returning to Hollywood’s Kodak Theatre Sunday, March 7.
Trying to get beyond unwritten rule No. 27 (If it’s depressing, it must be good) that has rewarded projects like “No Country for Old Men,” “There Will Be Blood,” “Milk,” “The Reader” and “La Vie en Rose” in recent years, the Best Picture field has expanded to 10. This makes room for more upbeat contenders like “Up” and also makes it more likely that Brad and Angelina will show up.
Pitt’s gleeful romp as a Nazi-scalping Army Lt. Aldo Raine helped propel Quentin Tarantino’s World War II fantasy, “Inglorious Basterds,” to eight nominations.
I don’t know which unwritten rule allows Tarantino to rewrite history in the scene where a couple of Jewish-American soldiers machine gun Adolf Hitler to death, fittingly enough in a movie theater. You’ll have to ask the Oscar voters about that.
Haiti is the newest unwritten rule, determining the color of this year’s ribbons. Bullock’s recent $1 million donation to relief efforts won’t hurt her chances; George Clooney’s amazing efforts organizing a telethon-concert that raised $60 million for Haiti relief put all the nominations for him and his “Up in the Air” collaborators in perspective.
Actually, I’d give them the Oscars, too, if it were my choice.
Trying to figure out what the Academy Awards stand for turns out to be one those unsolvable riddles, like those in “A Serious Man,” this year’s Best Picture contender from the Coen brothers.
You can never know what the Oscars “mean.” That’s Rule No. 2, right behind the most important one of all: It’s all about the gowns.
• Contact Rick Chatenever at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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