In the context of a race this crowded, The Hurt Locker’s staying power with voters has been astonishing—even more so because it seems impervious to backlash, the biggest landmine (so to speak) of the whole Oscar process. It hung in from the summer, when The Hangover, Star Trek, and Julie & Julia were bandied about as potential contenders, all the way into winter, when, for a while, anticipatory noise about typical looks-good-on-paper year-end Oscar bait like Invictus, Nine, and The Lovely Bones threatened to drown everything else out. The Hurt Locker is precisely the sort of movie some people feared the push for a more populist Oscars would marginalize. Yet it strengthened its hand when, over a few weeks in December, it took a vast number of prizes from the 27 critics’ groups that were handing them out. And it may even survive the onslaught of Avatar, which spent most of last year as an unseen grandiose joke, yet by early January was the big-footed behemoth about to obliterate the competition.
Which brings us to the moment, two weeks before balloting for nominations ends, when things get really rough-and-tumble. In the strange etiquette of Oscar competition, a hard-core, balls-out campaign to get Academy Award nominations is permissible, under the justification that everyone is just helping their movies, whereas pushing hard for an actual win not only looks narcissistically needy but also may be pointless, since most voters decide whom they want to win before the nominations are even announced. So the real work happens during a mid-January sprint, when actors, writers, and directors suspend their lives to embark on an ego-bruising bi-coastal nightmare carnival of awards and lunches, brunches and teas, screenings, Q&As and tributes, diving into the soul-depleting madness of what Evelyn Waugh long ago called Hollywood’s “continuous psalm of self-praise.” Movies that don’t join the fight get lost in the shuffle. And that’s why Bridges is the sheepish but willing star of “an evening with … ” himself, a service he will repeat the very next day at another venue.
A week later, in Los Angeles, I ask Bridges about how it feels to spend more time selling Crazy Heart than he did making it (the film was shot in 24 days). “And not getting paid for it, by the way,” he says with a grin, “which is funny, because this is harder work! The acting … that’s something I would pay them, at least a little, to let me do.” He makes these comments while standing on a red carpet, a location in which he will find himself four times in two weeks. “Is all this a good thing?” He squints bemusedly at the exploding cameras. “It’s a weird thing. I guess I don’t love the show-business aspect, the barker-at-the-carousel side. But with a movie you’re pleased with, and you want people to see, I’m enjoying it.” Bridges is an Oscar voter, and when I ask if he’s caught up on the dozens of DVD screeners that are vying for his vote, which he has to cast in just a few days, he laughs. “No way,” he says. “I’m way behind.”
There are actually some Best Actor awards Bridges hasn’t won. The Monday after his weekend doubleheader, the New York Film Critics Circle hands its prize to George Clooney. (The Hurt Locker wins Best Picture and Director, and other acting citations go to Meryl Streep, Waltz, and Mo’Nique.) The Circle dinner is traditionally a lively, alcohol-lubricated convergence of two alien species—moviemakers and critics—and the mood can range from that of a convivial summit meeting to a grudging cease-fire. Tonight, it’s tilting toward sourness. The group’s chair is Armond White, the severe and iconoclastic critic for the New York Press, who opens by giving the room a stern talking-to about the decline of art, morality, literacy, cinema literacy, and journalistic integrity. He makes some disparaging comments about the Internet. No applause. “We are all that stands between the viewer and advertising,” he says. Silence. Well, it’s expecting a lot to ask movie people to applaud critics, even critics who give them awards.
If White seems grouchy, it may be because the narrative of the evening is running away from him. “There are too many awards,” he insists to the crowd. “This one is the real deal.” But even the winners and presenters can’t seem to stop mentioning one particular set of prizes. When Christian Berger accepts his Best Cinematography certificate for The White Ribbon, he makes the night’s subtext hilariously explicit by remarking, “I hope it’s a little kick to an Oscar nomination.” (And in fact, it is.)
The grimness peaks with the presentation of Best Supporting Actress. The winner, Mo’Nique, is absent—she’s expected in Atlanta the next morning to resume her BET talk show. Her failure to change her plans has served as the final helping of red meat in a notably ugly anti–Mo’Nique Internet campaign that suggested the actress was not only refusing to campaign but even demanding money to promote Precious. “Teach her a lesson” by denying her the Oscar, snarled one website. Another criticized her “diva fit.” There’s no evidence that this tiny tempest influenced a single Oscar voter, but the noise level spooked Lionsgate. “Oscar campaigners,” says a veteran of the process, “are, like, the Three Stooges of overreacting. They went into damage control over Mo’Nique before there was even any damage—and it happened because they were dumb enough to read these blogs and think there was an actual crisis! Suddenly, they were like, ‘We need triage! We have to fly reporters down to Atlanta!’ ”