Is 'Avatar' on its way to becoming this season's 'Slumdog Millionaire'?
This year hasn't been nearly as predictable, nor as uniform. Favorites have had a shakier hold on their categories, and no movie has spread as widely across ballots as "Slumdog" did. Which has gotten pundits (at least until recently) excited about the prospect of a left-field phenomenon.
But as the award season moves from confusion to clarity — as it began to do when “Avatar” won best film and best director prizes at the Golden Globes on Sunday night — it also risks veering into certainty. It increasingly looks like this year won’t have a “Crash” or a “Departed,” which each made late, post-Globes surges to win best picture at the Oscars. Much of awards season thrives on suspense, so that’s not exactly a good thing.
Pundits do note a few areas could see drama. By handing best actress prizes to both Meryl Streep and Sandra Bullock, the Globes cleared up nothing on that two-woman race; until SAG chooses between them this weekend, it’s almost impossible to handicap a winner. Kathryn Bigelow remains a strong candidate to take the best director prize away from ex-husband James Cameron, especially if the Directors Guild endorses her with its top honors Jan. 30.
This year there’s also a full week between the Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s Globes announcements and the deadline for academy nomination ballots, which means that the HFPA could stir the pot by getting “The Hangover” back on voters’ minds and into that 10th best picture slot. Which, given that it could mean Mike Tyson holding court at Kodak Theatre, may or may not be a good thing.
But those are dramas of an underwhelming sort. For all the shrugging and upturned palms this year coming out of the New Hampshire primary of awards season, the Toronto International Film Festival, the surprises are fast dwindling. Oscar prospects for Jeff Bridges (best actor), Christoph Waltz and Mo'nique (best supporting actor and actress), “Inglourious Basterds” (original screenplay) and "Up in the Air" (adapted screenplay) are pretty much sure bets. And "Avatar" is looking and more and more steely in the best picture category. There appear to be few opportunities for Jets-like upsets and in turn few great awards-season subplots.
Then again, as counterintuitive as it may seem, “Avatar” represents a comeback story of its own. Sure, it’s not exactly “Slumdog” — Fox gave its director just a little bit more leeway (and money) than Warner Bros. did Danny Boyle. And the movie didn’t require a last-minute bailout from another studio to see the light of day.
But given that James Cameron disappeared for more than a decade with barely a playful hint as to his professional life outside an “Entourage” storyline, there’s something oddly left field about his candidacy too. And given initial skepticism about whether his movie would be a commercial and awards-season smash — let alone match the insanely high bar of “Titanic” — the 3-D film’s success lends it a distinctly "Slumdog"-ish, beat-the-odds quality.
“At the time of ‘Titanic,’ when we won the Golden Globe and we were on our way to being No. 1, I’m thinking ‘Enjoy this ride; it’s never going to happen again,’ ” Cameron said backstage at the Globes on Sunday night. “With ‘Avatar,’ we thought it was a shameless engine of commerce. We’re not going to try to impress the critics. And here we are again.” Given the growing inevitability of this race, that’s true in more ways than one.
-- Steven Zeitchik
Photo: "Avatar." Credit: WETA/Twentieth Century Fox