At the very first Academy Awards, which covered both 1927 and 1928’s films, there were actually two categories for top motion picture: “Most Outstanding Production” and “Most Artistic Picture.” William Wellman, the James Cameron of his day, won the first award for Wings, a WWI flying-aces movie, while F.W. Murnau, the Roaring Twenties’ Lars von Trier, won the latter for Sunrise, an actor-driven drama about a philanderer whose botched attempt at killing his wife drives them towards reconciliation. The next year, the Academy decided against this distinction, and combined the two awards to create Best Picture. (And also retroactively ascribed the new award to Wings.) With this year’s divisive face-off between Avatar, America’s highest-grossing movie of all time, and The Hurt Locker, the lowest-grossing Best Picture nominee ever, this might be a good time to split the award back in two, for they appear to have split the Academy’s voters.
Many directors and technicians marvel at Avatar’s creativity, ingenuity, and success, while actors — who make up the single largest bloc of Academy voters; nearly a third, by some estimates — much prefer smaller dramas that focus on the performances. As one top producer who’s deeply involved in the Academy’s work explains it, “What works most in favor of Avatar is also what works most against it: It’s a game-changer, but it’s a game change that many actors may not want to participate in.”
Cameron knows this, which may be why he keeps stressing all the acting going on in his movie, a gracious gesture from the HMFIC. He was unrelenting in his push for an Oscar nomination for Zoe Saldana, who played the film’s entirely CGI female lead, and last October, he blew off a BusinessWeek reporter to do an exclusive interview with an obscure online site called DigitalActing.com to stress that he’s come not to bury actors, but to praise them. Insiders murmur to Vulture that as much as this push for Saldana was designed to cadge a nom (it didn’t), it was equally designed to reinforce the notion that her performance (and the rest of the Na’Vi’s) did not merely involve prancing around in electrode-studded Spandex in front of a green screen.
Such efforts may not be enough to convince the Academy’s acting community. “Actors respond to movies that have more focus on the acting,” says producer Gavin Polone (Zombieland, Curb Your Enthusiasm). “People at the top of their craft, they feel more connected to them, and enjoy them more, as opposed to Avatar.” This could just add to the film’s other obstacles: The Academy is a much older crowd, and science fiction generally plays younger; these voters are not as connected to public tastes; and they’re more likely to watch the nominees at home on DVD. On and on.
(Of course, while actors may proudly ignore Avatar on their ballots, you won’t find any publicly decrying it. As nearly a dozen top reps told Vulture, while some of their actor clients may dismiss performance capture as fake acting and plan to vote for performance-driven films like Precious or Hurt Locker, they would still hop into an electronic leotard for Avatar 2 in a minute: Even purist thespians know that that kind of blockbuster money can buy an awfully nice home theater on which to watch your John Cassavetes DVDs.)
The Academy expanded the Best Picture nominees to ten this year in the hopes of bringing in more populist entertainment that could attract a bigger viewing audience. On the surface, it may have worked, with Avatar and District 9 getting nods. But it will certainly confuse the voting. “[The Oscars] don’t answer the question of what is the ‘best’ picture,” says Polone. “They answer what is the best picture to a certain group of people. ‘Why is a diamond worth more than an emerald?’ It’s just an idea that the diamond should cost more. That’s why the whole idea of awards to make a ‘best picture’ judgment is kind of valueless in itself. Ultimately, they shouldn’t be competing with each other.”
For 81 years, the Academy has been unfairly conflating apple pies and orange crème fraîche sorbets. If Oscar truly wants to win back audiences, it would do well to remember the maxim is not “unite and conquer,” but “divide and conquer.”