A Tale of Two Oscar Votes

One for ‘Hurt Locker,’ one for ‘Avatar’ – neither used preferential voting system

At a dinner party on Saturday night, two prominent members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences,  a director and a producer, debated the Best Picture race.

One had voted for “Avatar” for Best Picture. “I just loved it,” the producer said simply. “What an incredible accomplishment.”

But the director had voted for “Hurt Locker.” “If they had a category for most innovative picture, I’d have given it to ‘Avatar,’” he said. “But I thought ‘Hurt Locker’ was a brilliant little film. For me it was the best picture of the year.”

I was surprised to hear this, since this particular director – who shall remain nameless – made many blockbuster action films in his day.

The trajectory of “Hurt Locker” has been oddly lopsided as it sweeps almost every major award – including a few more this past weekend.  It seems to have captured the attention of the season’s voters in a way that was never expected when it came out last June.

It’s a film, after all, that has barely been seen by most Americans, with only $17.6 million at the box office so far. It has no movie stars to speak of. It has no defining message, even while it illuminates the harsh reality of the Iraq war.  (Should we stay in Iraq? How do we leave? How do we win? The film doesn’t have answers.)

What does it have? Bravura filmmaking and – for lack of a better word – spunk.

At this point, “Avatar,” the Goliath in the race, is feeling a bit like the underdog — striving to rise above the unintended handicap that it is a massive, worldwide hit.

Thus far the critical praise, the strong environmental theme, the innovation in melding actors with technology to produce something new – none of that has swayed the guilds, which have fallen like dominoes for that graceful Bigelow gal.

Doesn't the Academy desperately need to back a movie that has been embraced by the public? That was the argument going into this season, with the 10 nominations and the preferential ballotting system.

Still the Oscars are never a foregone conclusion (having covered them in the years that “Crash’” walked off with the prize, and that time when “Shakespeare in Love” snatched it from “Saving Private Ryan”).

But neither of the Oscar voters I talked to last night voted more than once for Best Picture. Apparently the ballots do not tell you how to vote – which strikes me as a serious oversight.

If that's true, then the preferential voting system may exist principally in the minds of the AMPAS committee members – and the press.