Ironically, all of the prize frenzy of the preceding week has boiled down to what feels like a two-movie race. An Oscar for Avatar, which became the highest-grossing film in U.S. history the very day the nominations were announced, would represent a chance for Hollywood to reassert its cultural centrality in dire times. An Oscar for The Hurt Locker would be a forceful assertion that when it comes to rewarding a singular and uncompromising vision at the Academy Awards, the bottom line does not always have to be about the bottom line. Avatar would shatter precedent by becoming the first Best Picture winner since 1933 to take the prize without any acting or writing nominations. The Hurt Locker, which has taken in just under $13 million at the U.S. box office, would shatter precedent by becoming the lowest-grossing winner since the fifties.
As the usual suspects gather for the next night’s Producers Guild Awards at the Hollywood Palladium, gossip is that, of the ten nominees (eight of which make the eventual roster of Oscar contenders), Avatar is a shoo-in. Nobody doubts this. And then—nothing more gratifying can happen during Oscar season—everybody turns out to be wrong. The Hurt Locker wins.
“It was beautiful,” a veteran executive says the next morning. “Kathryn Bigelow had to walk right by Cameron’s table. I know they’re friendly. Whatever. But still, the look on her face was so wonderful. It was surprise, and it was affection for him, but maybe there was just a little defiance too. You know, like ‘Not so fast, Jim.’ ” One week later, she does it again, beating Cameron for the Directors Guild of America Award. By all reports, the room, and even her competitors, approved. And it’s easy to imagine what many of them were thinking: It’s her turn. It’s time.