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‘Avatar’ for best picture? Don’t rule it out

“Avatar” has a better than average shot of snagging director James Cameron a second Best Picture trophy, and it comes down to three simple reasons.
/ Source: contributor

A few months back, some predicted that James Cameron, he of the infamous “king of the world” Oscar speech for “Titanic,” might be headed for a big public embarrassment upon the release of “Avatar.” Surely, according to some, Cameron’s pricey and long-awaited follow-up to his record-breaking, 11-time Oscar-winning romance upon the seas could only lead to disaster.

But then “Avatar” opened, and critics swooned, and audiences made repeat visits, and the film made it into the global Billion Dollar Club in its third week of release. So while it breaks box-office records, the conversation now turns to the Academy Awards, and to what chances a 3-D science-fiction film has against the middlebrow dramas that generally dominate awards season.

As it turns out, “Avatar” has a better than average shot of snagging Cameron a second best picture trophy. And it comes down to three simple reasons.

The Academy likes big gambles that pay off
Kevin Costner had plenty of naysayers about his expensive white-guy-among-the-Native-Americans movie, “Dances with Wolves.” Some dubbed it “Kevin’s Gate,” referencing the legendary fiasco “Heaven’s Gate,” Michael Cimino’s 1980 money-hemorrhaging epic.

When “Wolves” became an immediate moneymaker, Costner was instantly dubbed a genius (until “The Postman,” anyway) and his film snagged picture and director statuettes at the Academy Awards. (Let us never forget that he triumphed over 1990’s actual best film, Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas”—but since when are the Oscars about quality?)

Since Cameron came up with a post-“Titanic” moneymaker—and not by playing it safe in any way — it won’t be that much of a surprise for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to once again salute him for spending big and earning bigger. The wags who referred to “Avatar” as “Dances with Smurfs” might wind up being more on-the-nose than they suspected.

Having 10 best picture nominees helps
Scoring big bucks off a relatively ambitious summer blockbuster didn't land “The Dark Knight” in the best picture running last year. That's the challenge that led the Academy to expand the number of nominees to 10 this year. (Oh, and the fact that best picture nominations for hit movies equals higher Oscar ratings.)

Following the Academy’s lead, the Producers Guild of America also upped its feature-film shortlist to 10 spots, and “Avatar,” unsurprisingly, made the cut. Surprisingly, two other sci-fi hits — “Star Trek” and “District 9” — also made the list.

Having 10 slots as opposed to the usual five is definitely shaking up business as usual at the Oscars, leaving prognosticators unsure how to predict exactly this year’s nominations. The last time the Academy had ten best picture nominees was 1943.  It’s a paradigm that will require a year or two to get used to.

When it comes to Cameron, all bets are off
Before its victorious Oscar night in 1998, an award sweep for “Titanic” was no sure thing. Cameron’s screenplay hadn’t been nominated, which usually spelled death for a film’s best picture hopes, and Leonardo DiCaprio’s star-making performance was also ignored. Critical consensus that year strongly backed “L.A. Confidential,” a movie about Hollywood itself. “Titanic” still sailed off with an extraordinary 11 awards, including best picture.

That’s not the first time that Cameron defied the odds with the Academy. Think back to 1986’s “Aliens,” which snagged a best actress nomination for Sigourney Weaver. Number of leading ladies in a sci-fi action movie before or since to be similarly honored? Zero.

Granted, Weaver’s nomination had much more to do with her and her work than it did with Cameron, but it says something about him and how his films are treated by the Academy that Weaver’s fine work made it onto their radar at all.

The Academy is, after all, a group that has a hard enough time taking actors seriously for doing comedies, much less blowing away slimy extraterrestrials. For voters to see past the genre conventions of “Aliens” to see Weaver’s exceptional performance in a tautly-constructed piece of entertainment, Cameron clearly has a knack for telling the kind of stories that make Oscar voters respond.

Without question, “Avatar” is under close scrutiny by Oscar voters. Even Entertainment Weekly proclaimed, “Watch your back, ‘Avatar’!” on a recent cover touting “Up in the Air,” making very clear the magazine’s position on which movie is the alpha dog and which one’s the underdog.

The last-minute emergence of “Avatar” as a strong contender has made this year’s Oscar race an unpredictable one. And for those who follow the event closely, from film history nerds to regular folks who just like to see movies they’ve heard of win awards — not to mention those hoping for a healthy viewing audience for the annual broadcast — that’s good news indeed.

Alonso Duralde is a writer in Los Angeles.