The Red Carpet Campaign

Quentin Tarantino being interviewed before the Critics' Choice Awards, in L.A.Photo: Brigitte Lacombe

Portfolio by Brigitte Lacombe

The crowd inside Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater on January 9 is awaiting what is being billed as “An Evening With Jeff Bridges.” And officially, that’s how things are going to unfold: A brief set of highlights from the actor’s 40-year career will unspool, after which Bridges will take the stage for a Q&A, to be followed by a screening of his 1971 breakthrough, The Last Picture Show. It’s all been skillfully designed to permit film buffs to pretend that they are not participating in an Oscar campaign. The only problem is, nobody’s buying it, least of all the audience, which fills the air with gossip about the Academy Awards chances of Bridges’s new film, Crazy Heart.

“This is all part of his Oscars push,” the woman behind me tells her friend. “If Jeff Bridges weren’t in the running, I would be all for Colin Firth for A Single Man. But it’s Jeff’s turn.”

“Did you see Brothers?” her friend ventures. “Tobey Maguire in that movie made me cry.”

“It’s not his turn.”

“But he was wonderful!”

“It’s not his turn.”

“Is that the way it works?”

“In my mind it works that way.”

It would be fun to report that the nominations for this year’s Academy Awards, which were announced February 2, were the result of brilliant maneuvering or diabolically clever stratagems, of masterstrokes and counterthrusts carefully planned in studio war rooms. But despite often justifiable skepticism about the process, Oscar nominations—one of which, of course, went to Bridges—can’t be bought. Not exactly, anyway. There is a reason why they call the run-up period to the Academy Awards the “Oscar campaign.” It is, to use a familiar analogy, like an election, with an electorate of 5,777 people (the size of McKenzie County, North Dakota), unwilling to be influenced by anything but their own opinions, yet still, perhaps, more swayable than they’d like to admit. There is no war room, per se, but there are early front-runners that fade, grassroots insurgencies, even primaries. Ultimately, most of the nominees emerge from a combination of good planning, good movies, and good luck: Crazy Heart’s distributor, Fox Searchlight, had the smarts first to acquire the film in July, and then, when it sensed an opening in this year’s Best Actor field, to accelerate its release from the spring of 2010 to December. The gambit was shrewd; writer-director Scott Cooper’s small-scale debut, in which Bridges plays a country singer seeking redemption, opened to strong reviews just as some of Bridges’s potential competitors (Nine’s Daniel Day-Lewis and The Lovely Bones’ Mark Wahlberg) were cratering with critics.

That Bridges gives a beautifully lived-in, eminently praiseworthy performance in Crazy Heart wasn’t just important; it was crucial. But it’s also not enough. And that’s where an Oscar campaign comes in. No effort or expense can make any of the Academy’s members vote for an actor, director, or screenplay they don’t like. But what a smart Oscar campaign (like a successful political campaign) can do is to make someone or something part of a larger story, and Crazy Heart had a good one to tell: Bridges, a well-liked frequent nominee who just turned 60, has never won an Oscar. In other words, it’s his turn.

A good Oscar narrative makes voters feel that, by writing a name on a ballot, they’re completing a satisfying plotline. Only a few of these stories are effective, and every campaign season, movies scramble to own them. The best are reused year after year: for example, The Little Movie That Could, the tale of a low-budget indie, a David among studio Goliaths, that often appeals to voters who hate Hollywood’s bigger-is-better aesthetic. Searchlight (which, as an arm of 20th Century Fox, hardly qualifies as an underdog) has worked this for years—first with Little Miss Sunshine, then Juno, then last year’s Slumdog Millionaire. This year, however, that story line was grabbed early by Lionsgate for Lee Daniels’s Precious, which also claimed an appealing narrative for acting contenders, The Cinderella Story, thanks to its first-time star, Gabourey Sidibe.

It’s no accident that all the movies that lead this year’s newly expanded ten-film Best Picture race have seized other, equally useful Oscar-season story lines. There’s always a tussle over The Movie That Speaks to This Moment: Last year, Milk had it from the day Proposition 8 passed in California, and this year, Jason Reitman’s layoff-era tragicomedy Up in the Air edged out both The Hurt Locker (Look! Finally, an Iraq War movie that works!) and Avatar (Look! It’s antiwar and pro-environment!) for that label. Each of those movies also boasts an Oscar narrative: Kathryn Bigelow could be the first woman to win the Best Director Oscar, giving The Hurt Locker The Chance to Make History, while Avatar gets to be The Big Gamble That Paid Off as well as, of course, The Popular Favorite.

James Cameron and Avatar star Zoe Saldana at the Critics' Choice Awards.Photo: Brigitte Lacombe

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.

Left, Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster at a private party for The Messenger in L.A. Right, George Clooney at the National Board of Review dinner in New York.Photo: Brigitte Lacombe

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!’ ”

Top left, The Hurt Locker director Kathryn Bigelow and her star, Jeremy Renner, before the L.A. Film Critics Association Awards dinner. Bottom left, Inglourious Basterds distributor Harvey Weinstein at the Critics' Choice Awards. Right, Marion Cotillard's room at the Chateau Marmont, as she prepared for the SAG Awards.Photo: Brigitte Lacombe

White—no fan of Precious—takes the podium. “Mo’Nique could not attend tonight, but the award is hers.” He shrugs and moves on without a word of praise for her. It’s an ungallant reminder of why critics and moviemakers don’t get together more often.

Bigelow accepts her prizes with elegant understatement, and Waltz winningly tells the critics, “I’m so grateful to get to stand up in front of you who I hoped to fear one day.” But it’s up to Clooney to save the evening, and he does it twice, as presenter and accepter, both times judging the room with uncanny perceptiveness. Presenting an award to Fantastic Mr. Fox’s shy and rabbity director Wes Anderson, Clooney leans into the lectern and decides to terrorize him, merrily announcing, “I’m like, Mariah Carey fucked up right now!” Hoots and cheers. “I was talking to Wes, and he told me, ‘George, tonight, when I give my acceptance speech, I’m gonna blow the roof off this fuckin’ place!’ I said, ‘Wes, there are people who are really good at this—Meryl Streep is here!’ He said, ‘Fuck her!’ ” Roars from the room, and from Streep, who gives Anderson a standing ovation. Clooney concludes his own acceptance by noting that he’s a sincere fan of print journalism, reminding everyone that his dad was a newspaper guy and saying, “I really do wish you all the best of luck.” Well played.

Clooney is honored again the next night—this time in a tie with Morgan Freeman—at the National Board of Review Awards dinner at Cipriani. The NBR is a somewhat mysterious organization with a voting process that is, in its murkiness, halfway between the College of Cardinals and a Florida election. These days, its claim to fame is that it announces winners before any other group—the news came way back on December 3, allowing information-starved Oscar handicappers to sift the group’s choices obsessively even while insisting that they are a harbinger of nothing. But five weeks later, the NBR’s decision to go heavily for the indifferently received Invictus—giving it Best Actor and Best Director—seems like a bad guess, a case of failed futures trading.

News of the earthquake in Haiti has just broken, and as the long evening unfolds, BlackBerrying starts—first surreptitiously, then with impunity. (Some are scanning the news, although in truth, many more are relishing the gleeful Schadenfreude of reading about Jay and Conan.) But others are watching the acceptance speeches closely. Perhaps too closely. It’s easy for people in the thick of the process to believe that even the smallest moment can pivotally affect the Oscars—that whether through emotionalism or wit or galvanic skin response, someone is always acquiring momentum or losing it. Even 30 seconds at a microphone becomes overburdened with portent. From the back of the vast room, a publicist watches The Hurt Locker’s “Breakthrough Actor” winner Jeremy Renner, a soft-spoken guy who gives the intriguing impression that at any moment he could ricochet in an unexpected direction, accept his prize and remark with a wry smile, “It feels cool to still be breaking out at 39 … I’m okay with that.”

“There could have been more money spent on our campaign. It’s depressing that [there wasn’t]—and depressing that it’s necessary at all.”

“Ugh!” the publicist says, as adrenalized as someone in a presidential-debate spin room. “Did you see him up there? He was comatose! We’re going to have to wake him up or he’s not going to win anything.”

That panic feels symptomatic of a recession year during which, uncharacteristically, nobody has overspent on trade advertisements or lavish parties—yes, even during a period of record-breaking box office. The electorate, perhaps even the Oscar electorate, seems surly, and no company wants to look Marie Antoinette–ish. (Not that things will ever go back to the days of mid-nineties Miramaxian campaign excess; according to Academy regulations, studios can’t even have quotes from critics on the DVD packages they send to voters.)

So Campaign 2010 is leaning heavily on “free media,” from online interviews to large-scale coups like the hour 20/20 devoted to The Blind Side to the holy grail of an embrace from Oprah (who, besides serving with Tyler Perry as co–fairy godmother of Precious, has bestowed her show’s largesse on Avatar, Nine, and Up in the Air). An acceptance speech is free media, even if only a few dozen Oscar voters are listening. You better work it, Renner! Later in the evening, a few people actually express disappointment when Best Actress winner Carey Mulligan fails to weep at the podium.

It’s a good night for Up in the Air, which also wins Best Adapted Screenplay (Reitman’s and Sheldon Turner’s awkward, have-we-met? acceptance speeches look like exactly what they are—the result of a Writers Guild credit arbitration) and Best Picture. Presenter Michael Douglas praises the movie for “its ability to blend social commentary with good old-fashioned entertainment.” That is, in one sentence, the pitch—the sell that the backers of Up in the Air want to resonate with Oscar voters—and very much the argument they do not want Avatar to hijack over the coming week, when the action moves to Los Angeles. Avatar has, by this point, bolstered its other narratives by shocking the conventional wisdom and opening to stellar reviews. If the Oscars are all about story line, the skepticism that preceded Avatar’s first screenings was the best thing that could have happened to it.

Precious director Lee Daniels with Quishay Powell, who appeared in the film, before the Producers Guild Awards.Photo: Brigitte Lacombe

It’s known in L.A. as “Globes Weekend,” but for the players involved, the Golden Globes—presented annually by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, a group known for its susceptibility to bad musicals, big stars, free food, and the charming imprecations of Harvey Weinstein—is just the final stop in three days of force-fed festivity. Contenders like Mulligan, Sidibe, Kendrick, Renner, and Reitman are the new faces of the season, and they’re expected to hit every event of this giddy love-in. (“I just go where I’m told,” says one. “They even told me how many changes of clothes to bring.”) It’s a roaming party made especially intense by how quickly heat can dissipate; if form holds, out of the twenty Oscar nominees for acting this year, only one or two will be invited back next year. Eat, drink, and be merry, for in 2011, you will only be presenters.

The first stop is the American Film Institute luncheon, at which ten movies are honored (full disclosure: I was one of this year’s jurors). The films, each of which presents a clip, range from sure Oscar bets like The Hurt Locker to worthy left-field choices like Sugar and Coraline to a couple of movies—Tom Ford’s A Single Man and Oren Moverman’s The Messenger—hoping to break into Oscar’s top ten.

The Messenger, which has grossed only about $800,000, is probably the least-seen movie that has a shot at a Best Picture nomination; after the AFI ceremony, in the driveway of the Four Seasons Hotel, I hear a publicist for a rival film mutter grimly into his cell phone, “I don’t know if that movie is on the radar or not, but that clip killed.” The Messenger is distributed by Oscilloscope, a New York–based indie run by Beastie Boy Adam Yauch and David Fenkel. “You never know how these things will shape up,” says Fenkel. “Every couple of weeks, films that you thought were contenders turn out not to be, so you’re constantly revising your expectations. And what we found was that in early December, Woody Harrelson’s performance started getting a lot of traction.” For movies without a huge campaign budget, that kind of break is critical: Actors form the Academy’s largest branch, and a talked-about performance like Harrelson’s can lead voters to watch the DVD and perhaps consider other long-shot choices—like the screenplay (which does, in fact, get nominated) or even the film itself (which doesn’t). Oscilloscope sent screeners to voters early, a real gamble for a company without even a small studio budget, where even a single “For Your Consideration” ad page, which commands between $13,000 and $30,000, requires a cost-benefit analysis. But even in a season of relative austerity, money still matters, and it’s hard to argue that the playing field is level when you’re driving from one studio party to another through a city in which every other billboard (price: $50,000 and up for four weeks) seems to be touting Inglourious Basterds or Up in the Air. (At least Up in the Air is still trying to sell movie tickets. The billboards for Basterds, long gone from theaters, are clearly meant for Academy voters only—Harvey Weinstein, who released the movie, being Oscar’s most remorseless campaigner.)

At some ceremonies, more is at stake for the givers than for the recipients. Over the last decade, the Broadcast Film Critics Association Critics’ Choice Awards have bounced from E! to the WB to VH1, where the ratings are reportedly “lower than [the network] would like.” (How low do ratings have to be to disappoint VH1?) The show’s producers have wisely tagged the banquet at the Hollywood Palladium onto the Friday of Globes weekend, praying that stars will show up. And except for Clooney, who is working on the coming Friday’s just-announced Haiti telethon, they do.

By this evening, the crisis in Haiti is being taken more seriously, even within the celebrity bubble. Tobey Maguire comes out to make a plea for people to send money. People nod and look away thoughtfully as if they just remembered they left something in the glove compartment. Then Maguire presents Best Supporting Actress—it’s Mo’Nique! Now they’re awake. Partial standing ovation. Is she actually there? She is, looking awards-y in a dark gown, and thus ends the “Mo’Nique isn’t showing up” story, not with a bang but with a VH1 appearance.

After her tremulous acceptance speech, she and her husband, Sidney Hicks, are walked through a short outdoor alley into the press room—actually a makeshift tent in a parking lot—which harbors an awesomely unbridled combination of hostility and sycophancy. A white British journalist yells something at her about “backlash from the black community.” Mo’Nique turns toward him coolly. “There was backlash in the black community?” she says. “I didn’t know nothing about that, baby. Did you see the first-weekend box office?” Question No. 2 is about her purported refusal to campaign. She calmly replies that all business topics will be handled by her business manager—who is also her husband. (Uh-oh, I think—historically, the phrase “business manager who is also my husband” does not inspire confidence.) Hicks joins her for some awkward remarks about business paradigms and how Mo’Nique is a “self-sustaining entity,” but he ends strongly by saying, “She’s a mother, she’s a wife. She’d rather play a bad mother in the movies than be one in real life.” As she’s being escorted back to the Palladium, a side door bursts open and a man rushes out. “Mo’Nique!” a familiar voice yells. “There she goes! I was lookin’ for you!” It’s Tracy Morgan. Mo’Nique breaks into a grin as Morgan bear-hugs her and says, “In Precious, you left me all over the floor!” For the first time, she looks genuinely relaxed.

Meryl Streep with her agent Kevin Huvane after the SAG Awards.Photo: Brigitte Lacombe

Best Actress is next, which is a tie. The first winner is, as expected, Streep. The other nominees listen to her speech with smiles of frozen expectancy. The second winner—announced after what seems an eternity—is Sandra Bullock. Carey Mulligan looks slightly crestfallen. Everybody braces themselves to lose, but nobody is really prepared to do so twice in three minutes.

For most of the room, it’s a shocker, and a sleepy race wakes up. You can almost feel it going viral—even though it’s happening on a show no one is watching (and, indeed, a clip of Streep and Bullock fake-insulting each other, then fake–French kissing, is soon on YouTube). Bullock, who has never come anywhere near an Oscar nomination but is riding a wave of big box office and positive press for The Blind Side, is almost as good as Streep at the podium: She gives the kind of emotive, funny, ingratiating speech that makes people say, “Maybe she should win,” just because it seems like fun. All at once, we have a contest—and the most interesting acting face-off of the season, since the excellent narrative behind Streep (namely, There Is No Way on God’s Green Earth That This Woman Should Have Fewer Best Actress Oscars Than Hilary Swank) must now fight off Bullock’s, the much simpler Who’da Thunk It?!

Bullock and Streep walk off arm in arm and head back to the press tent. A roar of approval can be heard from the theater as The Hurt Locker wins Best Picture and Director (the vibe was that Avatar would kick-start its awards momentum here, but no). Bullock does the first press conference as Streep watches; then, looking genuinely stunned, she walks off straight into Streep’s embrace, saying, “Oh, my blood sugar! Okay, now it’s your turn.”

The first question to Streep: “You haven’t won an Oscar for 26 years, and you’ve deserved so many. How does it make you feel to go to these shows?”

“Oh, it makes me feel fantastic,” she says, a microscopic edge to her voice before she explains—convincingly, of course—that it’s actually delightful. She’s asked about what she thinks of Bullock. Streep turns to her. “You have an amazing gift. You really do,” she says. “There are things that look effortless that are the hardest things to do.” I’m close enough to see tears in Bullock’s eyes.

Streep and Bullock, whispering and giggling, are about to leave together when their ultrapowerful CAA agent Kevin Huvane—three-way hug!—arrives, followed by Bigelow. Streep and Bigelow are introduced, and for a moment, you think that if these two women have made it to the center of this race, Hollywood might actually be doing something right.

The Kathryn Bigelow story has turned out to be, in many ways, the apex of Oscar excitement during this relatively quiet season; although she and James Cameron were amicably divorced in 1991 and talk about each other with unfailing respect, there is undeniably a gossip-ravenous appetite for this year’s voting to be coarsened into The Revenge of the Ex-Wife and decided as a kind of California joint-property settlement in which he walks away with the grosses but she gets the statuettes. And Bigelow’s principled refusal to play into this, or to present herself as anything resembling a scorned underdog, only makes people root for her harder.

As she enters to warm applause from the press, Bullock and Streep go into the alley outside the tent to hang out. The show’s over, and in a remarkable only-this-year moment, a trophyless Cameron is heading for the parking lot at the very minute his ex-wife is answering questions in the press room. He spots Bullock and Streep and stops to talk. Handlers quickly signal for photographs. Cameron introduces himself to Streep, saying, “I just thought, you know, we should meet before they take our picture.” And so they do.

During the long wait for limousines, I ask Bigelow if she was surprised at the Best Picture win. The director, a lithe 58, is being treated like a star (and sometimes a starlet) everywhere she goes. After more than 30 years of hard work, she seems touchingly abashed by the tide of goodwill flowing her way. “I don’t ever think that something like this is going to happen,” she says, looking unsure that it actually did.

The Saturday before the Globes offers a fourteen-hour run of parties, all designed to sell the impression that everyone is having a wonderful time, although in reality, this treadmill of clamor and Chardonnay and mini-sliders on silver trays serves primarily to instill in almost everyone the fear that they are somehow failing to do the good for themselves that God and their publicists intended. At a brunch given by the Independent Spirit Awards at a steakhouse, some smaller-scale contenders—from Precious, A Single Man, The Messenger, (500) Days of Summer, A Serious Man—get to mingle with one another and with past winners like Jodie Foster.

A few manage to cocoon themselves within a Zen calm. “I started on [The Hurt Locker] three and a half years ago,” says Renner. “I haven’t seen it in a very long time—it’s difficult for me to watch. But no, this is not hard. After three years, what’s another three months? Just do it.”

But others are struggling to find brave faces. “I feel that I’ve gone through at least three of the stages of grief,” says the producer of one awards hopeful. “A month ago, I felt like we were going to be in it. We never would have been in the top five, but with ten, there was a real possibility. And then I realized, no, we were only going to be in the top fifteen, which is not good enough. You see the winds of change in everything from reading the blogs to watching the other nominations come in. And then you second-guess, and you get angry. There could have been more money spent on our campaign, and to think that if that had happened, we would have had a better shot—it’s depressing that it didn’t happen, and depressing that it’s necessary at all.”

In the afternoon, the celebration moves to the BAFTA tea, an immense party with crustless sandwiches and creamy desserts that’s held by the British Academy at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Pete Docter, the talented co-writer-director of Up, has taken this ride before (he’s won four previous Oscar nominations), but he still seems unnerved. “The biggest thing I learned is that there’s basically nothing I can do, so I should stop worrying about it,” he says. “But of course I’m worrying anyway. I come to these parties and I think it feels better because at least I’m trying to do something, but I can never remember what that is supposed to be.”

And then James Cameron goes too far. He does the one thing no winner should ever do: He disses Meryl Streep.

At this point, the talk has turned almost entirely to the Best Picture race. Avatar is on everybody’s lips, and, in the reading of the tea leaves that provides a constant background hum, it’s a gainer, not a waner. Today’s waner seems to be Up in the Air, which is enduring unwelcome speculation about perceived tension between Reitman and Turner. But is it actually waning? Nobody knows if it’s true, or just what people are saying, or if the mere fact that people are saying it makes it true.

At the InterContinental Hotel that night, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards are doled out. Wes Anderson, sighting the modest red carpet, lowers his head, darts through the doors, never to return. “I told him to go have a drink and come out again as soon as he feels relaxed,” says a publicist. “Huge mistake.” But everyone else walks the line, and why not? They’re aglow with the knowledge that they’ve already won. “This is nothing to get jaded about or slack off from,” says Best Supporting Actor winner Waltz. “This is fantastic! And honestly, who knows if I’ll get to participate ever again?”

A night after her Critics’ Choice win, Mo’Nique works the carpet with enthusiasm. When I ask if she can imagine taking on another heavyweight role, she laughs and says, “I’m an entertainer, baby!” (Anyone in conversation with Mo’Nique gets tagged “baby,” “mama,” “brother,” or “sister.”) “I love to entertain. Now, what will come under that umbrella, I don’t know … but of course!” She glides into the hotel, in a sweet groove. Thanks to a couple of angry bloggers and a surge of support in response, she’s copped her narrative: Mo’Nique is The Comeback, 2010 edition.

Globes day arrives with torrential rain. Red-carpet catastrophe! Actresses who look like they’ve survived on Tic-Tacs for three days edge tentatively toward the entrance, encased in dresses they can’t move in, ornamented with jewelry they don’t own, and protected by umbrella-wielding publicists.

“You know what was really great about today?” an actress in attendance says later. “The rain. Seriously. Because I spent the weekend doing this, like everyone else, and suddenly, in the middle of all this acclaim for all these people, I found myself feeling greedy and insecure. You start to feel that if you’re not winning, you must be losing. If you’re not ‘the best,’ maybe you’re not any good. And then it rained, and I was on the red carpet, and suddenly everybody looked a little worse for wear. Everybody was wet, with shit in their hair. It was a relief. We were human again. Mostly.”

If the spirits of many of the nominees have flattened somewhat, it’s not just the weather, or that another set of wins for Bridges, Mo’Nique, and Waltz is starting to feel like a horror-movie version of Groundhog Day for the other nominees. The tragedy in Haiti, now filling the front pages, has made many of them self-conscious about the whole fiddling-while-Rome-burns excess of this weekend.

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.

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.

The Red Carpet Campaign