For actors, other narratives include The Foreigner We’re Discerning Enough to Single Out (that’d be Inglourious Basterds’ Christoph Waltz), The Kid With a Future (Up in the Air’s Anna Kendrick), and The Comeback (unused this year—perhaps The Wrestler’s Mickey Rourke is still holding on to it). But only one is bulletproof: It’s Time. This year, the owner of It’s Time was supposed to be Firth, who gave one of 2009’s most admired performances. But with Crazy Heart, possession shifted to Bridges, who is seen as having been more unfairly ignored (an essential element of It’s Time), having lost the Oscar four times, whereas Firth has never been nominated and therefore has never lost. Get control of It’s Time and make it sing (rather than whine) to voters, and, whether you are Kate Winslet for The Reader or Martin Scorsese for The Departed, you have the Oscar in your hand.
At Lincoln Center, a smiling Bridges strides onto the stage. He speaks with mellow affability about how his father taught him to act. He mentions that he’ll soon take on John Wayne’s role in a Coen brothers’ remake of True Grit (a part for which, incidentally, Wayne won one of the most debatable It’s Time Oscars ever). He explains that his acting is not “effortless”—a word frequently applied to him—and that sometimes the hardest parts to nail are those that seem to be the most natural fits. He is so calmly charming that tonight, he may be the only star in the business who can make George Clooney look like he’s trying too hard. During the talk, his Oscar prospects are never mentioned; Lincoln Center, after all, is above such West Coast crassness. Well, at least above admitting to it. But there’s little doubt that when the evening ends, the attendees—in whose ranks I can spot several Academy voters—are firmly on Team Jeff.
Do these campaigns actually work? After all, they represent an insane per capita expenditure designed to do nothing more than influence a tiny pool of undecided film-industry voters in a contest that often has only a negligible effect on the box office and a transient one on winners’ reputations. So why bother? Because winning is the only thing in Hollywood other than money that reassures the studios (though almost never the winners themselves) that they did something better than everyone else.
And in an era in which a dozen bloggers chronicle every who’s-up-who’s-down microtwitch, the Oscar race has become a year-round phenomenon. Maybe even longer: This season arguably began seventeen months ago, when the fledgling indie Summit Entertainment acquired The Hurt Locker after the 2008 Venice Film Festival and made this campaign’s first good call: They sat on the film for the rest of the year, keeping it out of last season’s Slumdog-juggernaut awards contest. “With choices like that, you really never know,” Bigelow tells me. “It turned out to be a great decision.”
But this year’s competition was already highly charged by the time The Hurt Locker opened in June. It amped up the minute the Academy announced that, for the first time since 1943, ten movies would compete for Best Picture. The decision, made in response to last year’s omission of the hugely successful Dark Knight, occasioned instant complaints about the devaluing of a nomination and the apparent underlying mandate to pander to popular taste. But when the ten nominees were revealed—however debatable you may find some of the choices—one thing became instantly clear: Barring something completely unexpected, this change is here to stay.
Consider the lineup: The “top five” of the top ten—meaning the five that also received Best Director nominations—includes one big-studio blockbuster (Avatar), two indies (The Hurt Locker, Precious), Inglourious Basterds (a big-budget indie with a big-studio movie star right at the center), and Up in the Air (a studio movie with some of the traits—quirky supporting casting, ambiguous ending—of an indie). It’s an appealing mix—and one that’s preserved and even deepened by the expansion to ten movies. The studios can cheer the spreading of the wealth; the movies come from ten different companies. Old-guard populists can point to big hits like Up (only the second animated film to score a Best Picture nomination) and The Blind Side (a groaner, but no more so than a lot of past nominees). Lovers of quality over commerce can cheer the low-grossing An Education and A Serious Man. Pretty much everyone can delight at the inclusion of District 9, an independently made sci-fi–horror mockumentary that turned into a studio blockbuster. And ABC, which airs the show on March 7, can celebrate a Best Picture roster that boasts five movies that took in more than $100 million.