Oscar Opens a Pandora's Box

With 10 flicks in contention for Best Picture, many folks could be left feeling blue Sunday night

By Jere Hester
|  Thursday, Mar 4, 2010  |  Updated 11:01 PM CDT
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Twentieth Century-Fox

"Avatar" is fighting for the Best Picture Oscar.

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The last time Oscar presenters had to rattle off 10 names in the Best Picture category was in 1943, when "Casablanca" sealed its beautiful friendship with moviegoers.

History has proven the Academy Award voters correct in choosing "Casablanca" from a formidable group of contenders that included “For Whom the Bell Tolls” and “Heaven Can Wait.”

On Sunday, we'll again be treated to scenes from 10 Best Picture hopefuls – a move spurred by last year's outrage over the snubbing of "The Dark Knight," a fan and critic favorite that didn't even make the longtime standard list of five nominees.

But with this year's mix ranging from box office behemoths like "Avatar" to more subtle fare like “An Education,” we're in for a game of Oscar roulette. There's a chance that a split vote could yield a top flick that will please just about no one – save, of course, for the winner.

While "Casablanca" has done well with posterity, not every pre-1943 winner from fields that raged from five to 12 stands up to subjective scrutiny all these years later. “The Great Ziegfeld” topped nine competitors in 1936, beating the more enduring “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town” and “A Tale of Two Cities.” The next year, “The Life of Emile Zola” somehow bested “Captains Courageous,” “The Awful Truth,” “Lost Horizon,” “A Star is Born” and five others.

Perhaps the biggest upset of the long-list nominee era came in 1941 when the very good “How Green Was My Valley” won out over nine films that included “The Maltese Falcon” and “Citizen Kane.”

The visually innovative and psychologically aware “Citizen Kane” was an industry game-changer – much like "Avatar," whose enveloping 3-D performance-capture technology already is exercising an influence. “Avatar,” not incidentally, also is the biggest moneymaker of all-time (though when you adjust for inflation 1939 Best Picture winner "Gone With the Wind" is still the champ).

More than just the denizens of Pandora will be blue if "Avatar" loses the top prize. But "The Hurt Locker" and "Precious" are strong contenders, both with themes and backstories that appeal to Oscar voters. If "The Hurt Locker" wins, it would become the first Oscar winner directed by a woman (Kathryn Bigelow). If "Precious" wins, it would be the first Best Picture directed by an African-American (Lee Daniels).

There's also added drama here, the kind Academy voters love: "Avatar" director James Cameron and Bigelow used to be married, also raising the tension for the Best Director contest, which includes Daniels.

While those three movies have gotten the most pre-Oscar buzz, it’s possible that this year's revised ballot – in which Academy voters ranked their favorites in order – could yield a surprise winner.

We could live with a victory by the excellent "Up," "Inglourious Basterds" or “District 9.” The Hollywood honchos are just hoping to avoid a situation like last year when the worthy, but below-the-radar "Slumdog Millionaire" took the Oscar home.

The truth is that many viewers probably will shut off the TV in disgust if "Avatar" doesn't win.

So here's some advice to “Avatar” fans: focus on the years Oscar got it right, such as in 1943 with “Casablanca.”

And remember, no matter what happens, we’ll always have Pandora.

Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.

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