James Cameron's "Avatar" became the highest-grossing movie of all time in theaters, but Kathryn Bigelow's "The Hurt Locker" became the lowest-grossing film ever to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards on Sunday. Even with Best Visual Effects and Best Cinematography wins to boast about, many thought that "Avatar" would follow behind "Titanic" and bring a windfall of Oscar wins. Critics point to several inherent weaknesses, however, including actor fears within the Academy, traditional notions of film and political trends.
"For whatever reason, boomer-age people, older Gen X-ers [in the Academy] are threatened by it," journalist and Hollywood Elsewhere writer Jeff Wells told MTV News. "They feel on some level that they're going to be lost, that they're going to be digitally wiped out in the future."
Wells cited voting actors who are consistently in search of new jobs as the ones who feel they have the most to lose.
"People like JoBeth Williams and others in that branch — we're talking about people who aren't working as much anymore, but they're getting some work and they're marginal — that's most of the Academy's actors branch," he explained. "We're not talking about 3 percent or 4 percent that are working a lot and getting big money for it and doing very well."
Dave Karger of Entertainment Weekly's OscarWatch blog disagreed. "I never really felt in my gut that it was going to happen," he said. " 'Avatar' always seemed to me like a movie that would win four or five technical Oscars, and it ended up winning three, so I actually thought it was going to do a little better than it did. I can't see a movie like that winning Best Picture at this stage. It might take a while for a movie like that to be fully accepted."
Whether fear over jobs or the loss of on-camera face-time influenced the vote, the road for motion-capture acting to Oscars' biggest honors may be further off than Cameron or "Avatar" supporters anticipated, unless certain challenges can be overcome.
"Cameron has made the point over and over again, you've got to really, really work it and be a really exceptional actor to come through in these things," Wells explained, speaking of the film's mo-cap technology. "This is all about your own emotionality. It's all about your facial muscles."
It may require a new generation of actors who are trained in such methods before a breakthrough performance manages to calm anxieties and impress the voters that passed this year on "Avatar." Still, Big Hollywood Editor in Chief John Nolte believes the Na'vi's loss to "The Hurt Locker" may have been a product of trends greater than workers facing a recession.
"No, I think that [Cameron has] taken some pretty hard shots over the past few weeks," Nolte responded when asked if he thought actors balked at mo-cap. " 'Avatar' had been criticized for being anti-military. It's a very political film, and this appeared to be a season where the Academy decided that they were going to keep politics off the front burner."
If "The Hurt Locker" managed to earn sympathies where "Avatar" lost them, such sentiment could have impacted the results as well. "It was really remarkable to not take a hit as a conservative Christian during the Academy Awards," Nolte proposed, referencing an absence of war or political activism from the winners and hosts compared to past years.
That sea change alone may prove noteworthy, but whichever forces ultimately prove to be responsible, James Cameron's new vision for 3-D filmmaking will have to regroup for the 2011 Academy Awards. Until then, new films like "Alice in Wonderland" and potentially Marc Webb's "Spider-Man" relaunch will be testing out what the new technology has to offer.
"The whole game has changed," Wells said, "big-time."
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