Dre Rivas February 4, 2010
Almost any good story has to have a great villain in order for it to work. And the best thing about the Oscars — because they’re so darn predictable these days — is the narrative. The two front-runners for the Best Picture and Best Director Oscars are divorcees. That’s a story. Jeff Bridges is under-appreciated, and now it’s his turn. That’s a story. Kathryn Bigelow can become the first woman to win a Best Director Oscar (after becoming the first woman to win the Director’s Guild award). That’s a story. The likable, underdog aspect of Sandra Bullock versus Meryl Streep not winning an Oscar in the past 27 years. Another intriguing story. But we still need a villain, don’t we?
For some people, Avatar is that villain. Right now the Oscar race is shaping up to be the two-billion-dollar-movie versus The Hurt Locker, a film that managed only $16 million … worldwide. The problem is this: Avatar is not the general audience’s villain and those are the people the Oscar telecast is hoping to pull in. On a superficial level, though, Avatar is a marvelous stand-in for Darth Vader. In a way, it reminds me of another imperial franchise, the New York Yankees.
Baseball needs stories, too. Sports are not immune to the need of human interest. It’s not just all about the competition. Sometimes it’s about what the competition stands for. The NFL is successful no matter who is in the Super Bowl, because even if the individuals’ stories don’t ignite, it’s the franchises themselves that tell stories. The free agent market in baseball is more interesting, more potent, and more lucrative when the Yankees are involved. When they aren’t, everyone’s price tag seems to go down. When the Yankees are in the World Series, it gives people who aren’t even fans of, say, the Philadelphia Phillies, a reason to watch and root against the other team. I’m just not sure Avatar has the same effect with the average moviegoer.
Avatar has a massive fan base. It’s got all the money. It’s got all the premium technology. It’s got the biggest screens. It’s got the largest payroll. It’s got Yankee Stadium. If you’re a contrarian, or think it’s overrated, or maybe you just plain didn’t like the movie, Avatar‘s success with the public is the worst sort of malfeasance: it’s the critically-acclaimed box-office champ. In the age of XBox, PS3, cable and satellite TV, Internet and iPods, it’s as significant a movie phenomenon as, say, Jaws was in its day. And everything I have just written — regardless of whether or not I believe Avatar‘s success is well-earned or should be condemned — has no doubt served to irritate its critics.
It’s time to out myself here: I am a fan of not only Avatar, but also of the dreaded New York Yankees. Still, I recognize I’m on the side of the evil empire. I’ve made my peace with this. But where I always root for Derek Jeter, I don’t find myself actively rooting for James Cameron. It’s not as interesting a story as Kathryn Bigelow winning — and winning for a movie I think is overrated and didn’t even sniff my top 10. I’m still rooting for her, in a way, because I think she’s a damn good filmmaker who made a damn fine movie. In my world, however, neither would get my official vote. I’m in Tarantino’s camp this time around. He made my favorite movie.
Where the winner of the World Series is dictated by the players who make up the teams, the Oscars are not. The Academy relies on votes, not statistics or runs (although the nominations no doubt favor unofficial stats like box office, critical awards, etc.). We sometimes treat art like it’s a competition with clear-cut winners, but we only kid ourselves. And having come to terms with this a long time ago (looking back at my own past Oscar villains and rooting interests, I’d gratefully accept a mulligan or two), I care less and less each year who wins, since many great films of considerable legacy either never won or were never even nominated. So who really cares? It’s more about the stories. And if I liked Avatar a lot less, the Oscars would be that much more compelling to me, just as I’m sure it is for die-hard fans of the film or those who just strongly feel it shouldn’t win Best Picture or Best Director.
I get asked a question all the time: How can you be a fan of baseball and root for the Yankees? Don’t I know “nobody” likes the Yankees? However, because I don’t have the same allegiance to Avatar as I do for my Yanks (I was collecting baseball cards in the Bronx, not Pandora), I can empathize. But I will try to answer it in the movie’s context anyway. When you love a team or you love a movie, it doesn’t matter how popular either has become. In an age when there are so many voices, backlash is not only a possibility, but inevitable. It’s a lot more hip and endearing to love a team or a movie that isn’t all that popular. Every time I see someone with a Clippers jersey (and by “every time,” I mean once in my life), I think, there goes a real fan, as if a fan of the Lakers aren’t real basketball fans (which, by the way, is true). In our wonderful age of irony, maybe loving a movie unabashedly in a crowd is a truer testament. It’s easy to turn against something, much harder still to stick with something considered “commercial.” So while I may not be rooting for Avatar to win for Best Picture, I’m not about to hate it just because it’s popular. No, that’s what the Red Sox are for.
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Dre writes for Film.com weekly.
Categories: No CategoriesTags: Academy awards, Avatar, Best picture