Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2010

Oscar Nominations Announced

Art vs. Commerce?

By David Luhrssen
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A few years ago I expressed the thought that the Academy was in danger of losing touch with mainstream audiences. Not that I wasn’t pleased by the Oscar nods to great and adventurous films like No Country for Old Men, but the obvious downside struck me: A roster of Best Picture nominees the average person has never heard of—and audiences weaned on Revenge of the Nerds II probably wouldn’t get—is going to result in declining interest in the Oscar show and possibly diminish the value of the awards themselves.

The Academy must have had similar thoughts when they decided to return to the practice of nominating 10 movies for Best Picture, something unseen on Oscar night since 1943. Their spokesmen speak of returning to tradition and giving a greater number of deserving films a shot at the trophy, but sinking television ratings was probably the main reason for the switch. With Avatar, 2009’s biggest box office hit, as a contender, it’s likely that the audience for the Oscars will be larger than in recent years.

But I can also foresee an unintended consequence. As of last year, there were still intrepid souls who made a point of seeing every Best Picture nominee, even obscure and challenging films they normally might overlook. It wasn’t so hard (or expensive) when there were only five movies up for Best Picture. But 10? With the price of movie tickets nowadays, you might have to get a part-time job—assuming there are any openings during our lingering economic malaise.

Insider gossip says the race among Academy voters is between Avatar, an expensive high-tech war film, and The Hurt Locker, a modest indie scale war film. The People magazine backstory is that directors James Cameron and Kathryn Bigelow were once a married couple. If the Academy follows the trail of money and popularity, the night will belong to Avatar. But Academy members who supported critically acclaimed films such as No Country for Old Men haven’t resigned in mass. They may want to use the Oscars as an opportunity to expose mainstream audiences to something entirely different. And they may want to make history by giving Best Picture to a woman director for the first time.

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