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Going for (Oscar) gold!

“Avatar” vs. “The Hurt Locker,” Sandra Bullock vs. Meryl Streep, and more exciting showdowns are on tap at this year's Academy Awards.
/ Source: Entertainment Weekly

With all the “Hollywood vs. the heartland” rhetoric that's been thrown around over the last decade, you'd hardly expect the star of one of the two most Oscar-nominated films of the year to bust out with a biblical reference. But when the two movies in question are a scrappy indie war drama and the most expensive movie of all time, scripture does offer a handy parable.

“Does it feel like a David and Goliath story? Of course. It's pretty obvious,” Jeremy Renner, the Best Actor-nominated star of “The Hurt Locker,” says of his film's battle with “Avatar” for the Best Picture trophy on March 7. “But I think it's the highest compliment that we can compete with a big daddy like that.”

And how. “The Hurt Locker,” director Kathryn Bigelow's nail-biting look at a bomb-defusing team in Iraq, premiered at a few film festivals in 2008 and eked out just two Spirit Award nominations last year. Now it's tied James Cameron's behemoth with nine Academy Award nominations, surprising many who thought “Avatar” would claim the highest tally. Among the shocked observers? “Locker's” own producer Greg Shapiro: “I just sent an e-mail to Kathryn and [screenwriter-producer] Mark Boal saying, ‘Did anyone think that day the septic tank overflowed into the catering room and spoiled all of our lunches and everyone went home puking that we were going to end up with a movie with nine nominations?’”

Indeed, most of the day's big winners seemed to be rooting for Team Bigelow.

“Kathryn Bigelow is awesome!” gushed Best Actress nominee Gabourey Sidibe, recognized for her first screen role in “Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire.” Sidibe's Oscar-nominated director, Lee Daniels, is keenly aware that Bigelow, the fourth-ever female directing nominee, is his toughest competitor. “My daughter, who's 14, wants to be a filmmaker,” says Daniels, himself only the second African-American director to earn a nod. “She was like, ‘Dad, I really want you to win, but if you don't, I really want Kathryn to win.’ I said, ‘I'll see you when you get home from school!’”

But executives and consultants fighting on behalf of the other nominees are quick to point out that, should it emerge victorious, “The Hurt Locker” would be the lowest-grossing Best Picture winner of all time.

“It's a little weird, because the movie did what we set out for it to do,” Boal says of the film, which topped out at $12.7 million domestically. “It was never designed to be a tentpole. What I wanted as a producer was for everyone to make their money back, and that's happened.” For his part, Shapiro says he'd have no problem being a cash-poor Oscar winner: “Wouldn't that be a fantastic record? I'd rather win that record than be the highest-grossing film of all time to win.”

Of course, that's the distinction “Avatar” would claim if it ends up with the top prize. The $2 billion phenomenon seems to have lost the movie-to-beat status it gained after picking up Best Picture and Best Director at the Golden Globes. It fell to “The Hurt Locker” at the Producers Guild and Directors Guild awards and didn't win a single SAG award (probably because it wasn't nominated for any). Even its box office bonanza could fade by Oscar weekend, when it may lose hundreds of 3-D screens to Tim Burton's “Alice in Wonderland.”

Perhaps Avatar is actually the David in this story? “It's really hard — everybody wants to celebrate a nice thing happening and it's a good thing for the film,” says “Avatar's” nominated composer James Horner. “[But] I don't want to set myself up with false expectations. I try to keep the enthusiasm I'm feeling at a low simmer.”

While the Best Picture race is rife with drama, the acting categories yielded fewer surprises. “Julie & Julia's” Meryl Streep beat her own record by earning her 16th career nod, while “The Last Station's” Christopher Plummer finally earned his first career nomination at age 80. But the Supporting Actress category provided one minor shocker: “Crazy Heart” costar Maggie Gyllenhaal, who was overlooked by the Globes, SAG, and even the Spirit Awards, sneaked in over “A Single Man's” Julianne Moore. Not surprisingly, one of her first congratulatory calls was from her nominated costar, Jeff Bridges. “He was like, ‘F---, yeah!’” says Gyllenhaal. “He wasn't really even saying words when he called me. He was kind of like making those Jeff noises.”

With several established front-runners dominating the acting races, some of the nominees already seem resigned to also-ran status.

“I think we know what's going to happen in the end,” says “Up in the Air” nominee Anna Kendrick, who's lost three big Best Supporting Actress awards to “Precious” star Mo'Nique. “But it's not like I'm looking at somebody get up on stage at these awards and thinking, Really? That person? Honestly, I couldn't ask for a more deserving performance to lose to.”

After weeks of playing second banana to “Inglourious Basterds” standout Christoph Waltz, however, “The Lovely Bones’” Best Supporting Actor contender Stanley Tucci isn't surrendering despite his underdog status. “He's a great actor and he is so nice,” he says playfully of Waltz. “But enough is enough.” Tucci's strategy to off his Austrian-born competition? “We'll revoke his visa!”

Much of the nomination-day chatter revolved around the decision of the Academy's 43-member Board of Governors last June to introduce a supersize Best Picture slate, meant to open the race up to more audience-friendly nominees. By that yardstick, the gambit worked, as crowd-pleasers “District 9,” “Up,” and “The Blind Side” joined smaller fare like the British indie “An Education” and the Coen brothers' quirky “A Serious Man” (“Star Trek” and “Invictus” were left on the cutting-room floor).

“I love the idea of the 10 films,” says “Blind Side's” Best Actress nominee Sandra Bullock. “If you look at the films that are being made throughout the course of the year, from ones that cost $500,000 to ones that cost $500 million, there's such a breadth of filmmaking that gets ignored and lost. These 10 — it's perfect.”

Not surprisingly, “District 9” director Neill Blomkamp agrees. “With five, you wouldn't have D9,” says the filmmaker, who also snagged an Adapted Screenplay nomination. “Normally this kind of exploding-person genre movie isn't anywhere near that category.”

The extra slots arguably allowed Pixar's “Up” to become only the second animated Best Picture nominee ever (after “Beauty and the Beast” in 1992). “The way we look at these films, they are just films,” says director Pete Docter, whose entry scored five nominations overall. “They're not ‘animation’ with an asterisk next to it. After five years of working on ‘Up,’ to have these nominations is like the last hurrah before it all fades and we get back to work on the next one. ‘Back underground! Back to your desk!’”

Not everyone was smitten with the new power of 10. Had this been a five-slot season, the spots would clearly have been filled by the movies that scored Best Director nods and the most nominations overall: “Avatar,” “The Hurt Locker,” “Precious,” “Up in the Air,” and “Inglourious Basterds.” That group already contains a balanced mix of films.

“I would have preferred if I had gotten the opportunity to vote on whether there were going to be 10, rather than just wake up one morning and [hear that] there are 10 nominees,” says “Up in the Air's” writing/directing/producing triple nominee Jason Reitman. “Because I am a member of this Academy and I do have an opinion about it. I'm a traditionalist and I would have preferred to stick with five. However, I am thrilled that ‘District 9’ got a nomination (Feb. 2), and I'm excited that the Coens' movie got a nomination.”

“Basterds” producer Lawrence Bender had conflicting feelings too: “I went back and forth on it. It's hard to tell how this all helps or hurts until it's all over.”

(Additional reporting by Adam Markovitz, Keith Staskiewicz, and Kate Ward)