Now that the worst of the crowds have died back, the Spousal Unit and I went to see Avatar in all its 3-D IMAX glory. He really loved it, and I… thought it was better than my worst fears. There were at least two joke-shaped lines. I always enjoy Sigourney Weaver, and am glad that both CCH Pounder and Michelle Rodriguez got paychecks & exposure. I said that it was less an actual story than a big lumpy bag of shiny narrative-objects and worldbuilding-trinkets, and my husband the gamer enthusiastically agreed that, yes, that was kinda the point, Ms. Obvious. I also thought Frank Frazetta should have gotten his own line in the credits, at least, but the Spousal Unit says that Frazetta has influenced so many sf/fantasy/comix/gamebuilder artists over the last sixty years that he’s become an essential part of the genre vocabulary, like van Eyck to sixteenth-century artists. (Also, from the previews, I am really looking forward to Hubble 3D: IMAX.)
But in the New Yorker, Hendrik Hertzberg tells me something about Avatar’s chances at Oscars that I did not know:
Who’s going to win Best Picture? Among Oscar touts, the consensus is that it’ll be one of the two top nomination-garnerers, with “Avatar” the heavy favorite…
Even so, there is a distinct possibility of an upset… From 1946 until last year, the voting worked the way Americans are most familiar with. Five pictures were nominated. If you were a member of the Academy, you put an “X” next to the name of your favorite. The picture with the most votes won. Nice and simple, though it did mean that a movie could win even if a solid majority of the eligible voters—in theory, as many as seventy-nine per cent of them—didn’t like it. Those legendary PricewaterhouseCoopers accountants don’t release the totals, but this or something like it has to have happened in the past, probably many times.
This year, the Best Picture list was expanded, partly to make sure that at least a couple of blockbusters would be on it… To forestall a victory for some cinematic George Wallace or Ross Perot, the Academy switched to a different system. Members—there are around fifty-eight hundred of them—are being asked to rank their choices from one to ten. 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 per cent.
This scheme, known as preference voting or instant-runoff voting, doesn’t necessarily get you the movie (or the candidate) with the most committed supporters, but it does get you a winner that a majority can at least countenance. It favors consensus. Now here’s why it may also favor “The Hurt Locker.” A lot of people like “Avatar,” obviously, but a lot don’t… “Avatar” is polarizing. So is James Cameron. He may have fattened the bank accounts of a sizable bloc of Academy members—some three thousand people drew “Avatar” paychecks—but that doesn’t mean that they all long to recrown him king of the world. (As he has admitted, his people skills aren’t the best.) These factors could push “Avatar” toward the bottom of many a ranked-choice ballot.
On the other hand, few people who have seen “The Hurt Locker”—a real Iraq War story, not a sci-fi allegory—actively dislike it, and many profoundly admire it. Its underlying ethos is that war is hell, but it does not demonize the soldiers it portrays, whose job is to defuse bombs, not drop them. Even Republicans (and there are a few in Hollywood) think it’s good. It will likely be the second or third preference of voters whose first choice is one of the other “small” films that have been nominated. And “The Hurt Locker” has special appeal with two important and overlapping constituencies. If it’s picked, its director, Kathryn Bigelow, will become the first woman to have directed a Best Picture winner. This would please women and men who like to see glass ceilings smashed, whether or not they were Hillary Clinton supporters. The other group is ex-wives, who are numerous in the movie colony. James Cameron has four. No. 3 is Kathryn Bigelow. She and her ex-husband are said to get along fine. Still, there’s such a thing as identity politics…