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Can 'Avatar' defeat the Oscar curse against fantasy films?

December 11, 2009 |  7:17 pm

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Battle scenes in "Avatar" are spectacular and thrilling, but the movie's greatest fight lies ahead, off-screen – at the Academy Awards.

James Cameron's fantasy is as terrific as we Oscarologists had hoped it would be and it will surely break into the best picture race, but "Avatar" will probably trip up in the home stretch. Last year's critically cheered blockbuster — "The Dark Knight" — didn't even get nominated for best picture. But now there are 10 slots in a weak year, so "Avatar" can't be denied its due place on the derby track.

But Oscar voters are stubborn, narrow-minded graybeards. Computer-generated fantasy films, however amazing, aren't "important" in their eyes. Voters like their best pictures real. Sure, "Lord of the Rings: Return of the King" won the top prize. Indeed, it went undefeated in all 11 categories, tying the record for most wins held by "Ben-Hur" and James Cameron's "Titanic," but that was only because the franchise wore voters down over the years.

Avatar James Cameron Lord of the Rings news

The first installment, "Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring," looked invincible when it entered the 2001 derby with the most nominations — 13, which is the second most in academy history. It lost best picture to "A Beautiful Mind," which prevailed despite being engulfed in scandal as journalists kept blasting it with repeated disclosures of how Ron Howard & Co. sugar-coated the life story of its protagonist. (There was absolutely no evidence of a smear campaign against "A Beautiful Mind" so let's not rehash that nonsense again.) "Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers" (2002) was also nominated for best picture and lost to "Chicago." If the final installment of the most successful film trilogy in Hollywood history had also lost, it's safe to assume that hobbit fanboys and Oscar nuts everywhere would've nuked the academy in 2003. Voters knew that and were forced to surrender foolish old views.

But that fuddy-duddy bias against fantasy blockbusters still reigns. Nonetheless, "Avatar" can still pose a serious threat. Here's how.

Besides the expansion of the best-picture race to 10 slots, there's another curious quirk about this derby year. Due to the interruption of the winter Olympics in February, the Oscars aren't until March 7. Nominations come out on Feb. 2. That's two days after the Director's Guild of America Award winner is revealed. Usually, the final round of Oscar voting is well under way when we learn who wins DGA.

As every Oscarologist knows, the DGA winner repeats at the Oscars more than two-thirds of the time and the movie that wins best director at the Oscars usually wins best picture too. Given the stunning directorial achievement of "Avatar," Cameron could pick up his second DGA trophy after prevailing for "Titantic" (1997). However, since the odds are stacked against "Avatar" winning the top Oscar, the mirror effect between the guild and the academy may not repeat this year.

But maybe a ripple effect will. That's why I continue to bet on "Inglourious Basterds" to win the Oscar for best picture. I think the good-old-boy bias within the guild is too great for a woman to triumph (Kathryn Bigelow, "The Hurt Locker") and I don't think guild members will consider "Up in the Air" to be a grand directorial achievement (they didn't even nominate Jason Reitman for "Juno"). Thus I consider Quentin Tarantino to be Cameron's biggest threat at DGA. "Basterds" is impressive, it's cool and it's Tarantino's most successful film to date ($300 million worldwide). If Tarantino wins the DGA trophy on Jan. 30, that should set off a "Basterds" juggernaut. That's what happened to "Midnight Cowboy" in 1969. After it failed to win best picture from any awards group earlier in the derby, it got a sustained bump from DGA.

But if I'm wrong about Bigelow and she wins at DGA, her victory will be historic; no woman's ever won there. It will also launch "The Hurt Locker" to an easy win at the Oscars, of course. It will also be terrific Hollywood soap opera to witness, considering she will beat her ex-husband. Bigelow and James Cameron were married from 1989 to 1991.

Hmmm . . . do you think any of Cameron's other three ex-wives will ever get a shot at that too?


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Photos: "Avatar" (20th Century Fox), "Lord of the Rings:Fellowship of the Ring" (New Line)

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