But whether an 'Avatar' victory is a foregone conclusion or not, one wonders, where's the passion for it? By Oscar night, 'Avatar' will almost certainly be the biggest moneymaker in movie history, but it hasn't generated one-tenth the level of devotion as Cameron's 1998 Oscar winner 'Titanic.' In fact, beyond its dazzling special effects, how many people really like 'Avatar'? With 11 days to go before the 2010 Oscar nominations are announced, it's pretty clear that the Best Picture winner will be either 'Avatar,' 'The Hurt Locker,' or 'Up in the Air.' And after 'Avatar's' double win for best drama and best director (James Cameron) at the Golden Globes, there isn't that much hope for the other two.
But whether an 'Avatar' victory is a foregone conclusion or not, one wonders, where's the passion for it? By Oscar night, 'Avatar' will almost certainly be the biggest moneymaker in movie history, but it hasn't generated one-tenth the level of devotion as Cameron's 1998 Oscar winner 'Titanic.' In fact, beyond its dazzling special effects, how many people really like 'Avatar'?
There are no conversations about its performances, not a whisper of Oscar talk for its stars Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldana. As for its one established star, Sigourney Weaver, there's been far more discussion of her smoking cigarettes in the film than there has been about her actual work in it. 'Titanic,' despite Cameron's broadly dissed screenplay, received acting nominations for both Kate Winslet and Gloria Stuart, and it made Leonardo DiCaprio an international heartthrob.
As one who has been writing about the Oscars for four decades and obsessed with them long before that, I don't sense great passion for any of this year's leading contenders. Certainly, there are fervent supporters -- at least among critics -- for Kathryn Bigelow's 'The Hurt Locker' and Quentin Tarantino's 'Inglourious Basterds.' And for reasons having more to do with sociology than aesthetics, there are many avid fans of Lee Daniel's 'Precious.'
But on the Oscar passion scale, I'd give this year's race no more than a 5. It's even lower than last year's, which at least had the emotionally satisfying 'Slumdog Millionaire' propping up one of the decade's weakest Best Picture fields.
It takes more than one audience-pleaser to create a passionate Oscar race. Two years ago, there were four nominees with extremely ardent fans: 'Juno,' which had captivated teenagers and young adults with its hipster account of the complexities of teenage pregnancy; 'Michael Clayton,' a rousing Sidney Lumet-style morality/courtroom drama; 'There Will Be Blood,' which divided people in a melodrama vs. masterpiece debate; and the eventual winner 'No Country for Old Men,' perhaps the best modern Western ever made.
I've taken a look at the Best Picture races for the last 50 years and the best of them -- the ones that created the most passion among moviegoers and Oscar lovers alike -- were those with two or more broadly admired movies with seemingly equal chances of winning. The best movie did not always win, but it was in the race right up to the opening of the last envelope.
Many of the best races in the last half-century occurred between 1967, when 'In the Heat of the Night' beat out 'Bonnie and Clyde' and 'The Graduate,' and 1977, when 'Annie Hall' took down 'Star Wars.' Not for nothing has that period been deemed the Second Golden Age of Movies. In a period of great social change and political turmoil, Hollywood called on the best and brightest filmmakers to dramatize the sturm und drang, and the Oscar races of that period show that they delivered.
In 1969, Norman Jewison's X-rated 'Midnight Cowboy' was the favorite of the escalating counterculture, while 'Hello, Dolly!' was delighting an establishment still devoted to the Hollywood musical. They'd had their way the year before, when 'Oliver!' beat another Streisand musical, 'Funny Girl.' But 'Midnight Cowboy' won, and the next musical up for an Oscar was of a very different sort. It was Bob Fosse's Holocaust-themed 'Cabaret.'
That 1972 race was indeed a 10 on the Oscar passion scale. Though 'Cabaret' won eight Oscars, including one for Fosse as Best Director, the Best Picture award went to Francis Coppola's 'The Godfather.'
Two years later, in another 10-rated Oscar race, Coppola's 'The Godfather Part II' was up against Roman Polanski's 'Chinatown,' Bob Fosse's 'Lenny,' and Coppola's other 1974 masterpiece, 'The Conversation.' Coppola won one, lost one, when 'The Godfather Part II' got the call.
That second Golden Age began to wane in the late '70s, when the studios shifted their dependence from directors to marketing experts, and the effects of that showed in the 1979 Oscar race. Again, Coppola and Fosse had two of their greatest movies on the ballot -- Coppola's 'Apocalypse Now' and Fosse's 'All That Jazz' -- but the winner was Robert Benton's divorce drama 'Kramer vs. Kramer.'
I was backstage that night and remember Dustin Hoffman, who'd won Best Actor for 'Kramer,' mocking entertainment journalist Rona Barret for having dismissed 'Kramer' as "a soap opera." I love Hoffman, but Barret was right, and the soap opera's win did not bode well for future Oscar races.
The next year, Robert Redford's very ordinary 'Ordinary People' beat Martin Scorsese's masterwork, 'Raging Bull,' as well as David Lynch's 'The Elephant Man' and Michael Apted's 'Coal Miner's Daughter.' Looking back, I'd imagine most people would agree 'Ordinary People' wasn't among the three best films on that ballot. But the possibility of 'Ordinary People' beating those films created intense interest in the race, and with intense interest comes even greater disappointment.
For sheer excitement, it's hard to beat the 1981 race which included Steven Spielberg's 'Raiders of the Lost Ark,' Warren Beatty's 'Reds,' Mark Rydell's 'On Golden Pond' and Hugh Hudson's 'Chariots of Fire.' There was political passion for 'Reds,' immense nostalgia for 'Golden Pond's' geriatric stars Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn, and fresh chills for the great thrill-ride that was 'Raiders of the Lost Ark.'
In my memory, no other Oscar race was as unpredictable, and that was true throughout the show as major awards were spread among the four leaders. 'Reds' got an early edge, winning a supporting actress award for Maureen Stapleton, before Fonda and Hepburn won the lead actor awards, followed by Beatty winning for Best Director. Who would it be, 'Reds' or 'On Golden Pond'?
When Loretta Young opened the envelope and announced that 'Chariots of Fire' had won Best Picture, every writer in the press room -- including myself -- threw out our leads and started over on our Oscar stories.
That was the last Oscars race I would rate a 10 for passion. But we've had some 8s and 9s since. The 1989 race was unique because Bruce Beresford, who directed the eventual Best Picture winner, 'Driving Miss Daisy,' was not even on the Best Director ballot. The winner there was Oliver Stone, whose 'Born on the Fourth of July' was the odds-on favorite to win the big prize, as well.
In the last dozen years, the most passionate Oscar races were those driven by controversies. Spielberg's 1998 'Saving Private Ryan' had been considered a sure Best Picture winner ever since its July release, but in the weeks leading up to the Oscar show, John Madden's 'Shakespeare in Love' began to build momentum. In Hollywood, there was a furious insiders' war going on between 'Ryan's' promotional backers and then-Miramax head Harvey Weinstein, who had waged a furious campaign for 'Shakespeare.'
In the end, there was another split decision at the top. Spielberg won for Best Director, but 'Shakespeare in Love' was named Best Picture. I was on the 'Shakespeare' side of that debate -- I thought Spielberg had damaged 'Ryan' with the mawkish framing device he used for the opening and closing scenes -- and I still believe the right film won.
The Ought Decade produced some strange Oscar scenarios, beginning with the split decision of 2000 when Ridley Scott's 'Gladiator' won as Best Picture while Steven Soderbergh was named Best Director for 'Traffic.' Passions were heightened by the presence on that ballot of Ang Lee's 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,' the most popular foreign language to ever play in U.S. theaters.
There was another split in 2002 when fugitive pedophile Roman Polanski won the Best Director prize for 'The Pianist' while Rob Marshall's musical 'Chicago' won Best Picture.
Certainly, controversies create interest and, for the fan bases, a lot of passion, but the 2005 race that came down to 'Brokeback Mountain' versus 'Crash' takes the prize. Both movies had throngs of admirers and detractors, but there was a difference. 'Crash's' detractors thought it was a bad movie unworthy of consideration, and their objections have not faded yet.
On the other hand , no one argued that 'Brokeback Mountain' was a bad movie. There happened to be a lot of people -- the majority of Americans, if polls on same-sex marriage are an indication -- who didn't like the idea of a sympathetic movie about a gay couple. For all the talk of Hollywood being a liberal bastion, enough Academy voters felt the same way to stop it from receiving their biggest honor.
There's not much controversy surrounding contenders this year, though 'Avatar' will be attacked hard and often as the Oscar show nears. The critics' favorite movie is 'The Hurt Locker,' but they have had their say with their own awards; and because of the movie's dismal box office performance, it is not generating any support in Hollywood -- let alone any passion.