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The Red Carpet Campaign

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Tonight Avatar finally steps up. A pair of wins for Best Picture and Best Director provide the first hard evidence that the sheer scope of the movie’s success just might stop The Hurt Locker in its tracks. For most of the evening, the mood in the pressroom has been bored—lots of “What are you wearing?” questions, and one single-minded reporter beginning an inquiry with, “There is a reluctance tonight to talk about Tiger Woods … ” Some journalists are already packing up when a triumphant Cameron walks in, his cast in tow.

“I would ask you not to be humble,” the first questioner begins. No problem. Cameron quickly advances what amounts to a three-pronged case for why Avatar should win the Oscar. Ebulliently, he muses that the film’s technological leaps could “give permission to other filmmakers” to take 3-D out of the ghettos of “high-end animation and lowbrow live-action”; he points out that the movie, which he envisioned as a “shameless engine of commerce,” is only the second sci-fi film to take this prize; and he notes that it’s “very interesting that a major Hollywood commercial film is in some way controversial, whether it’s the environmental theme or some of the political themes.” It’s an aggressive sell: Tonight, he wants all of the Oscar narratives—The Chance to Make History, The Popular Favorite, The Movie That Speaks to This Moment.

And then, he goes too far. He keeps talking. And he does the one thing that no winner should ever do in a roomful of journalists: He disses Meryl Streep.

A reporter asks him why Avatar’s motion-capture performances haven’t gotten more respect from actors. “I’m going to give you an example,” Cameron says, clearly recalling the encounter I witnessed with the actress after the Critics’ Choice Awards. “I had always wanted to meet her—and I was talking about the performance-capture stuff and I was mentioning how all the actors love doing it. And she said, ‘Oh, yes, I know. I had such a great time doing Fantastic Mr. Fox.’ I thought ‘Oh, my God, this is a perfect example of what’s wrong!’ She didn’t perform the character physically over a period of months. She did a voice performance maybe for a day, maybe for two days, on a lectern!” From far away, I can feel Fox executives emitting psychic beams: “Stop talking now.”

“It’s almost like Asperger’s with him,” a producer tells me later. “How many years has it taken him to live down ‘I’m the King of the World!’? When he shifts into that mode of talking about how great his movies are and how other people just don’t get it, he is literally incapable of understanding how he sounds. And I say that as a fan! He makes it incredibly hard to vote for him.”

Five different distributors have staked out various spots in the Beverly Hilton for Globes after-parties, which range from the buoyant, everybody-wants-in Warner Bros./InStyle fête to the NBC Universal non-celebration, which thins out fast. Even Tina Fey splits by 9:30, saying, “I am turning the corner into foot pain. These shoes are taking me to Buniontown.” And then the stars disappear, back to the hills or the canyons or New York or London.

The rain continues for five more days, and when the contenders reconvene the following weekend for the Screen Actors Guild Awards, they look like foot-weary marathoners. Homegrown Day of the Locust types wait hours in order to scream names from the bleachers. But by now, the movie people have developed self-preserving selective deafness and just march by. The SAG Awards start at 5 p.m. PST—the exact minute that Oscar-nomination voting ends—and the sense of exhaustion and relief is palpable. Whatever they can do, they’ve done it. And now, one more time, Vera Farmiga and Kendrick and Renner and Harrelson and Mulligan must watch politely as prizes go yet again to Bridges, Waltz, Mo’Nique, and Bullock—who, for the first time, tops Streep in a head-to-head contest. Who’da Thunk It?!, as an Oscar narrative, appears to be working out well for her. But, this time, she isn’t quite as beguilingly shocked. And a few days later, when The Blind Side scores an unexpected (to put it kindly) Best Picture nomination, the first stirrings of the enough-already backlash are felt. Her road to the Oscars now becomes trickier, since holding onto your status as an appealing underdog is hard once you actually start to win.

The night’s other winner, of sorts, is George Clooney. When SAG’s president Ken Howard commends him for his work on the previous evening’s Haiti telethon, it becomes clear that Clooney’s status in Hollywood has been transformed in the last two weeks. There’s always one actor who the industry wants representing it—not necessarily the highest grosser or the hottest star, but the most natural leader, the guy who figures out what Hollywood should be doing. For fifteen years, that’s been Tom Hanks. This year, the mantle may have been passed. He’s probably not going to win next month, but in the last couple of weeks, osmotically but unmistakably, George Clooney has been elected the industry’s new class president.


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