The Hurt Oscar
March 10, 2010 - Rick Chatenever
Even after the big Oscar blast, I bet people won’t be lining up to see “The Hurt Locker.” I’d put money on it.
Even after the Academy Awards for best screenplay, best director and best picture, along with three more in the technical categories, watching adrenalized war junkies defusing bombs in the streets of Baghdad isn’t most audiences’ idea of a fun time, or even something they’d care to watch, at the movies.
Not to mention, it’s been out in DVD for months.
As of last weekend, prior to the Academy Award ceremony, “The Hurt Locker” was 20th at the box office. It had made just under $15 million since its release last June … as compared to $115 million for “Alice in Wonderland” since its release last Friday.
Which isn’t to say box office numbers have anything to do with whether a movie is good or not. It they did, this column would be about “Avatar.” But it is to say that at Oscar time, Hollywood gets this schoolmarm mindset that equates movies with Brussels sprouts, heaping prizes on what it thinks is good for you, even, or especially, if you don’t like the taste.
I read recently that movie stars have this quality to make audiences feel like we know them … or know that we like them. Just look at best-actor winners Jeff Bridges and Sandra Bullock to see how it works.
Watching them — their humility, humor and unabated happiness — was one of the delights of Sunday’s broadcast, going a long way to make up for the mindless, sycophantic prattle that passes for journalism on the red carpet.
I also got a kick out of odd couple Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin’s cut-to-the-chase punch lines as the show’s co-hosts, making millions of nobodies in the TV audience feel like we were in on Tinseltown’s best in-jokes.
What makes the Oscars great each year, I have finally realized, is the movies. Despite the format that pits them against each other in one “race” after another, it’s their cumulative weight that reminds us what “best” really means on the silver screen.
Oscar night is a film-fan feast, saying farewell to a year as it appeared over 12 months on screen.
This year’s awards surpassed even the usual overload of industry hype to reach the designation of historic. For the first time, it broke unwritten racial and gender barriers with the adapted screenplay prize going to a black man (Geoffrey Fletcher for “Precious”) and the best director Oscar going to a woman (Kathryn Bigelow for “The Hurt Locker”).
And yet it all felt strangely preordained, staged, stripped of anything like real surprise or passion. Oscar predictions feel more like rocket science these days, with handicappers breaking the field down into percentages.
Entertainment Weekly’s annual Oscar forecast edition should come with spoiler alerts. The time-honored practice of rooting for your favorites on Oscar night has been replaced by something more cold and calculating. Worse is the sense — reinforced by next-day advertising already in place to announce the winners — that the whole thing has been carefully manipulated by marketing departments and ad campaigns.
Last fall —according to the Hollywood buzz mill — “Up in the Air” was the film to beat at awards time. Then it was “Precious,” then briefly, “Nine.” In recent weeks, the publicists guided the journalists through a David-vs.-Goliath scenario between director Bigelow and her former husband, “Avatar” director James Cameron.
When Oscar night finally rolled around, wasn’t it convenient that it was Barbra Streisand —herself a former best director nominee — giving Kathryn Bigelow her Oscar? All the prizes for “The Hurt Locker” — despite so obviously not being the viewers’ choice —felt less like artistic recognition than muddled stabs at a political statement.
Yes, it’s definitely a good movie that haunts and stays with you. But the best of the year? Explain that one to us, Steve and Alec.
Between the ambivalent message “The Hurt Locker” delivers on the subject of war, the differing opinions it has spawned among the real guys it’s based on, the charges of plagiarism and the controversies it sparked among Oscar voters, its victory reinforces the sense that Hollywood isn’t really in California at all, but instead is in a galaxy far far away. It plays by its own rules, invisible to mere mortals on this planet.
Sharing many of the political views Hollywood likes to champion, I still get nervous leaving these matters in the hands of the beautiful people. We keep getting reminded that conscience, Hollywood-style is a contradiction in terms.
Not that many people will take that message away from “The Hurt Locker.” They’re not going to see it.
• Contact Rick Chatenever at firstname.lastname@example.org.