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How did David slay Goliath at Oscars?

For as much as "The Hurt Locker" was the critics' darling, it had three major strikes against it in its battle against the mighty James Cameron's "Avatar."
/ Source: The Associated Press

For Hollywood pundits, industry folk and Oscar fans still paying attention on Monday, a major question remained: How did David slay Goliath?

For as much as "The Hurt Locker" was the critics' darling, it had three major strikes against it in its battle against the mighty James Cameron's "Avatar."

First, the box office was paltry — it's taken in just $14.7 million domestically, compared to an amazing $720.6 million for "Avatar." That makes "The Hurt Locker" the lowest-grossing best picture winner since accurate records have been kept.

Second, it had no big acting names, usually an important factor in Oscar victory.

And third, it was about the Iraq war, a subject moviegoers traditionally just don't want to deal with. "Iraq is usually the kiss of death at the Oscars," says Tom O'Neil, blogger for the Los Angeles Times' Envelope, an awards site.

But even with 10 nominees in the running for this year's best picture Oscar, the two films — whose directors were once married — were quickly pitted against each other in the race for Hollywood's highest honor.

How did "The Hurt Locker" win out? Theories abound:

Finally a non-political film about IraqMany films about the Iraq war have fallen into a trap of appearing preachy or at least having a strong point of view. Viewers may or may not agree with that view — that still doesn't mean they want to get it at the movies.

But "The Hurt Locker," a story of three technicians on a bomb-defusing team in Baghdad, is at heart an action movie — a documentary-style close-up of the men, their relationships, their missteps and the almost unbearable tension inherent in their exhausting, terrifying, tedious work.

"This isn't that kind of muckraking film aiming to show torture or violation of rules of war," says Robert Sklar, film professor at New York University. "This is a film about men trying to save lives rather than take them. It's also a buddy story. It has classic war-movie themes."

Oscar likes films with an important message
Often the Academy honors big, sweeping films, which "The Hurt Locker" is certainly not. But it also looks for films with a substantial message. "Oscar likes films of importance, with a capital I," says film historian Leonard Maltin. "Often they're big films, but this is a small film that dealt with a really important subject."

Oscar voters don't care about box office
Who says Oscar cares about box office? "The Oscars don't pay attention to that at all, and nor should they," Maltin says. In fact, he adds, they've often been accused of being too elitist, favoring independent movies over big films favored by the broader public.

Yes, they do!Nonsense, says O'Neil, of The Envelope: "The Academy wants their movies to do well. Then they anoint them." Even last year's "Slumdog Millionaire," which originally almost went straight to DVD, had made $40 million before the nominations, then rode to $70 million by the time of the awards, he says.

It's about the campaigningAll of "Hurt Locker's" technical merit aside, "it would be naive to think Oscar campaigning had nothing to do with it," says O'Neil.

He credits Cynthia Swartz, whose public relations firm was given the Oscar campaigning job by Summit, the film's distributor, which was looking for industry respect and had plenty of money to fund the campaign, having already cashed in with the "Twilight" vampire movies.

"It was a very savvy campaign," says O'Neil. "Full force, and highly aggressive."

The woman factorAs compelling as her movie was, director Kathryn Bigelow had a compelling story of her own. This director who specializes not in female-oriented films but in big action thrillers had a real shot at becoming the first woman in Oscar history to win the best director prize, with her film winning best picture, too.

Yet Bigelow tried to downplay that element of her story, saying in interviews that she just wanted to be seen as a filmmaker, not a female one.

"Bigelow refused to capitalize on the woman factor, and to her credit," says Maltin. Everyone else wanted to make it a story but her. Still, you can't deny it had some impact."

The ex factor
Nor did Bigelow have any desire to capitalize on the "Ex Factor" — in case you're way behind on your Oscar gossip, she was married to Cameron from 1989-91. Were there some voters who were secretly rooting for her to leave him in the dust? No way of knowing, and the two seemed amicable through the awards season, with him standing and cheering as she won her Oscar. Still, there's no doubt that the "battle of the exes" (ok, we're done with the puns) added to the hype.

Then there was the new system for choosing best picture, with 10 nominees this year instead of the usual five. In previous years, a voter would simply make one choice for best picture. But this year's ballots had a preferential system, meaning voters ranked their choices. The lowest choices were then eliminated. That meant it was a system that favored consensus choices, some hypothesized.

"'Avatar' is polarizing," postulated Hendrik Hertzberg in The New Yorker magazine last month. "So is James Cameron ... these factors could push 'Avatar' to the bottom of a choice-ranked ballot.'"

And speaking of "Avatar"...Was "Avatar" ever really going to win? Blogger O'Neil doesn't think so, even though it won the Golden Globe and seemed to be at the top of many prediction lists.

"I think we pundits convinced ourselves that 'Avatar' might win, but in reality there's a science-fiction bias in the Academy, and it's pretty unbudgeable," he says.

We'll never know how close the vote was — the Academy doesn't release that information and it doesn't do exit polls. But informal exit polls done privately by industry insiders, and his own conversations, lead O'Neil to think that Quentin Tarantino's wild "Inglourious Basterds" was actually the film that almost won, not "Avatar."

How about ... It's just a really good movie
"Look at all the awards this film won — screenplay, sound, editing," notes Sklar, the NYU film professor and author of "Movie-Made America."

"The sheer quality of the work must have influenced a lot of the professionals in the industry who were voting. It's just such a well-made movie from aesthetic and technical point of view, it overcomes all those other concerns."

And so maybe it's this simple: In the end, good writing, superb acting and just plain excellent filmmaking do win out in Hollywood.