There have been a very small handful of women who have gotten Directors Guild nominations. None had any chance of winning. Sixty two years of awards and not a single woman or black man (or black woman) has ever won the DGA. The DGA is the single most important guild in the Oscar race. Regular readers will recognize one of Awards Daily’s mantras clearly in play this year: the director is the star of the Best Picture race.
The best picture race is not over, however. We do have, without a doubt, our bonafide frontrunner. As we enter what advertisers like to call Phase II, we now have a true competition on our hands for the top prize. How do we know this? Jim Cameron did not win last night. Avatar did not win the PGAs. Had it won both of those awards, this race would only be a matter of the clock ticking down. That is because it would have been business as usual in Hollywood — the rich get richer and the white men prevail. It is unheard of, not only in the last ten years that I’ve been Oscar watching, but in all of Oscar’s history, to anoint a film that has not made a good amount of money for the industry that birthed it. In a year with ten Best Picture nominees and a desire to up the ratings, it seems even more shocking that this tiny film, this brilliant, unforgettable masterpiece is making its way through a very difficult awards season and coming out the winner.
It seems impossible, and yet here we are. Part of it is due to Jim Cameron’s already having made this trek. When we last visited David O’ Selznick and Gone with the Wind, even he could only barely pull of a Best Picture win after the Gone with the Wind success. Cameron’s Titanic did everything Avatar is doing and more. The key factor with Avatar is that voting for this film is a strange commitment to an innovation that can either be enthralling or threatening, depending on who you are and what you do. Titanic did not threaten in the same way.
Many critics of Kathryn Bigelow’s success hurl forth the claim that “she’s only winning because she’s a woman.” But anyone who knows this race knows that she’s winning despite being a woman. Perhaps the nagging detail of box office is the part that is evened out by her being a member of the opposite sex, but make no mistake, my friends – The Hurt Locker is the kind of film that filmmakers love. It is a director’s movie, a writer’s movie, an actor’s movie. One could argue that so are all of the other four nominees of the DGA awards and that would be mostly true.¬† Of these five brilliantly directed films, each one a pure vision of its maker, the one that stretches out and tells the most universal story, though, is The Hurt Locker.
I am not going to say that The Hurt Locker, a film hardly anyone has seen (although we know for a fact that is changing – and we know that when people get whiff of the news that a woman has at last stood up on the DGA stage and accepted a DGA award, Kathryn Bigelow is not only going to be known the world over, but demand for The Hurt Locker is going to skyrocket) has a clear path to victory, though this does sort of remind me of the year The Departed won everything. It still has the nagging fact that it just didn’t profit enough to justify its winning before an audience of millions of people who not only don’t want to see a movie about the Iraq war win (on ABC no less), but also are tuning in specifically to see Avatar win. How angry are they going to be if they see The Hurt Locker win instead? Ah, but you see, that’s the kind of drama you can’t pay enough money to see.
That the tiny little number of $12 million is still stamped to the film’s forehead, but this achievement and the Producers Guild before it – renders the label of “little movie” and “obscure film that no one saw” moot. After last night, almost everyone who reads news online will have heard of Bigelow. Maybe now when I say to people those three words, “The Hurt Locker” they won’t say “the what?”
So that means, the luxury of being the underdog is probably not as useful for the Hurt Locker team a it once was. We should point out, though, that Slumdog Millionaire was seen as the underdog throughout the entire race, even when it was winning every award that came into its path, including the SAG ensemble.
And so it brings us back to the race. Kathryn Bigelow is now most likely going to be the first woman in 82 years of Oscar history to accept an award for having directed what they think is the best film of the year. They won’t give it to her just because she’s a woman – they could have given it to Jane Campion and Sofia Coppola if they were inclined to do so. No. The Hurt Locker is winning for the same reasons directors often win — a reward for a long career of paying dues, a film that is a career highpoint, that received rave reviews (still the highest on the Metacritic of the non-animated films, I believe) and is winning many awards.
The other thing to remember here is that two of these directors are still considered freshmen. They are new on the scene and haven’t paid enough dues yet for the big win. That’s just how I see it. If Up in the Air was catching fire like Slumdog (as some kind of hinted at back at Telluride) maybe that could overcome Reitman’s relative newness. Lee Daniels is brand new. Quentin Tarantino is nearing the stage where they will throw a whole bunch of awards at him. There is a lot of love for him as an uncompromising artist, an American original and a repeatedly successful director who has yet to become a “gun for hire.” When he makes “that movie” he will be rewarded for all of the films that came before, just like Scorsese was. The tricky part for Tarantino is that he writes his own stuff – and I think we can say that writer/director winners at the Oscars for original screenplays are very rare. Woody Allen is one of the few I can think of.
So that leaves us with Jim Cameron and Avatar and Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker. One is traditional, one is innovative. One is the future (or a version of it), the other is the past and the present. One is the Iraq war – the Academy has a long tradition of rewarding war films and no film about Iraq has yet won Best Picture. There was never going to be a Platoon-type story told about this war, because it is ongoing. Not only is it ongoing but we are stuck there for god knows how long – we can’t leave because the country will fall into chaos. We have hit a hornet’s nest with a stick and there is no fantasy story that is going to rescue us or the Iraqis from the quagmire. On the other hand, you have the ultimate escapist story with flying dragons and ten feet tall blue humanoids. It’s a love story. It’s going to become the highest grossing film of all time in a matter of days. Highest grossing, lowest grossing, groundbreaking technology, nuts and bolts filmmaking with hand-held cameras and hardly any effects.¬† If you put yourself in the minds of voters within the industry you might eventually come to the realization that maybe these are nuts and bolts filmmakers and that maybe, for some of them, the 3-d performance capture thing is leaving them behind – maybe they don’t want that to be THEIR future.¬† I’ve always believed that the Oscars needed Jim Cameron more than he needed them – what does he need with another Oscar on his shelf (as he’s always quick to point out, graciously supporting Bigelow at every turn).
One doesn’t need to “take down” Avatar to appreciate the success of The Hurt Locker, success that could be seen more as the desire to keep filmmaking cheaper, more story-based, and using real actors. I think there is room for both. I loved each of these movies for different reasons.
The Hurt Locker is easily Bigelow’s best film. And when a director who has been kicking around that long directs his/her best film? Usually he/she is rewarded for it. So anyone who wants to toss out the “because she’s a woman,” you’ll have to show me a time, one time, in 82 years any Director winner won because of their minority status. Has it ever helped black men? Nope. Gay men? Maybe Asians but is anyone really going to say that Ang Lee won Oscars because he was Asian?
Complicating matters slightly is the simple fact that Inglourious Basterds is, to me, Tarantino’s best film, and Avatar is Cameron’s best film. Still, for the reasons I’ve laid out already, The Hurt Locker has the least amount of baggage and is the most well-liked across the board. The Oscar race can often be as simple as that. Still, we have a race on our hands, folks. Will it be a sweeps year or a split year?
Watch this scene below. Watch how the characters interact – the desperation, the kindness offered up, the way the bomb techs have to protect what appear to be British SAS. This is just one great sequence in a film full of them.