How ‘Hurt Locker’ bested ‘Avatar’

NEW YORK — For Hollywood pundits, industry folk and Oscar fans, a major question remained: How did David slay Goliath?

For as much as “The Hurt Locker” was the critics’ darling, it had three major strikes against it in its battle against the mighty James Cameron’s “Avatar.”

First, the box office was paltry — it’s taken in just $14.7 million domestically, compared to an amazing $720.6 million for “Avatar.” That makes “The Hurt Locker” the lowest-grossing best picture winner since accurate records have been kept.

Second, it had no big acting names, usually an important factor in Oscar victory.

And third, it was about the Iraq war, a subject moviegoers traditionally just don’t want to deal with. “Iraq is usually the kiss of death at the Oscars,” said Tom O’Neil, blogger for the Los Angeles Times’ Envelope, an awards site.

How did “The Hurt Locker” win out? Theories abound.

A nonpolitical film about Iraq: Many films about the Iraq war have fallen into a trap of appearing preachy or at least having a strong point of view. Viewers may or may not agree with that view — that still doesn’t mean they want to get it at the movies.

But “The Hurt Locker,” a story of three technicians on a bomb-defusing team in Baghdad, is at heart an action movie — a documentary-style close-up of the men, their relationships, their missteps and the almost unbearable tension inherent in their exhausting, terrifying, tedious work.

“This isn’t that kind of muckraking film aiming to show torture or violation of rules of war,” said Robert Sklar, film professor at New York University. “This is a film about men trying to save lives rather than take them. It’s also a buddy story. It has classic war-movie themes.”

Oscar likes films with an important message: Often the Academy honors big, sweeping films, which “The Hurt Locker” is certainly not. But it also looks for films with a substantial message. “Oscar likes films of importance, with a capital I,” said film historian Leonard Maltin. “Often they’re big films, but this is a small film that dealt with a really important subject.”

Oscar voters don’t care about box office: Who says Oscar cares about box office? “The Oscars don’t pay attention to that at all, and nor should they,” Maltin said. In fact, he added, they’ve often been accused of being too elitist, favoring independent movies over big films favored by the broader public.

The woman factor: As compelling as her movie was, director Kathryn Bigelow had a compelling story of her own. This director who specializes not in female-oriented films but in big action thrillers had a real shot at becoming the first woman in Oscar history to win the best director prize, with her film winning best picture, too.

“Bigelow refused to capitalize on the woman factor, and to her credit,” Maltin said. “Everyone else wanted to make it a story but her. Still, you can’t deny it had some impact.”

The voting system: Then there was the new system for choosing best picture, with 10 nominees this year instead of the usual five. In previous years, a voter would simply make one choice for best picture. But this year’s ballots had a preferential system, meaning voters ranked their choices. “ ‘Avatar’ is polarizing,” postulated Hendrik Hertzberg in The New Yorker magazine last month. “So is James Cameron … these factors could push ‘Avatar’ to the bottom of a choice-ranked ballot.”

How about it’s just a really good movie: “Look at all the awards this film won — screenplay, sound, editing,” Sklar noted. “It’s just such a well-made movie from aesthetic and technical point of view, it overcomes all those other concerns.”

And so maybe it’s this simple: In the end, good writing, superb acting and just plain excellent filmmaking do win out in Hollywood. Sometimes.

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