“The Hurt Locker,” a gritty, challenging and little-seen drama about bomb disposal in the Iraq war, was the leading winner with six Academy Awards on Sunday night, including best picture and the first directing honor for a female filmmaker.
Academy Award organizers had doubled this year’s best-picture contest to 10 movies to rope in more mass-appeal hits and boost the ceremony’s ratings; but “The Hurt Locker,” an emotionally exhausting account of an Army Explosive Ordnance Disposal team, stands apart as the lowest-grossing film in modern history to capture Hollywood’s highest award.
“This has been such a dream -- beyond a dream -- for all of us,” screenwriter and producer Mark Boal said in his best picture acceptance speech, calling the film’s performance in the 82nd annual ceremony “beyond anything we could have imagined.” The film also was honored for its original screenplay, editing and two sound awards.
The Iraq-bomb-defusing drama’s Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to win the Academy Award for directing. “There’s no other way to describe it. It’s the moment of a lifetime,” said Bigelow, who was only the fourth woman nominated for directing in academy history.
“The Blind Side’s” Sandra Bullock was named best actress, and “Crazy Heart’s” Jeff Bridges won for best actor. Mo’Nique won for best supporting actress for “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire,” and Christoph Waltz was named best supporting actor for “Inglourious Basterds.”
Already on DVD shelves with domestic theatrical receipts of less than $15 million -- about 2% of the domestic haul of James Cameron’s box-office behemoth “Avatar” -- “The Hurt Locker,” like many other movies about conflict in the Middle East, has sold substantially fewer tickets than several low-grossing best picture winners, including 2005’s “Crash” and 1987’s “The Last Emperor.”
But the film, released last June, scored where it mattered most -- with the 5,532 voters of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Although almost every film producer and distributor passed on making Bigelow’s film, financed independently for $11 million, “The Hurt Locker” was among last year’s most critically acclaimed releases, and won any number of key awards in the weeks leading up to the Oscars ceremony. To win the best picture prize, it had to get past “Avatar,” the first feature from Cameron (Bigelow’s former husband) since his 1997 disaster epic “Titanic” swept the Oscars. Cameron’s futuristic thriller, the most expensive production ever, was awarded with Academy Awards for visual effects, art direction and cinematography.
“The Hurt Locker’s” Oscar ascendancy was not without controversy.
Just as ballots were due early last week, one of “The Hurt Locker’s” producers, financier Nicolas Chartier, sent an e-mail to friends and colleagues suggesting they vote for his film, not “Avatar.” Because academy rules prohibit negative campaigning, Chartier was forced to apologize and forfeit his tickets to the show.
Many film critics praised the movie’s authenticity, yet some active and retired soldiers said “The Hurt Locker” was inaccurate and made the military look unprofessional; citing similar concerns, the Department of Defense pulled its production cooperation at the last minute when the movie was being shot in 2007.
The evening’s winner for best actress, Bullock, represented a far more popular movie, the blockbuster football story “The Blind Side.” Best known for crowd-pleasing (and critically dismissed) works such as “Miss Congeniality” and “The Proposal,” Bullock won the Oscar with her very first nomination for playing Leigh Anne Tuohy, the real-life adoptive mother of a homeless teenager who went on to become an NFL standout.
Bullock dedicated her win “to the moms that take care of the babies and the children no matter where they come from.”
Bridges, one of Hollywood’s most respected performers, won the best actor Oscar for depicting alcoholic singer Bad Blake in the fictionalized country music biography “Crazy Heart.” The son of the actors Lloyd and Dorothy Dean Bridges said on stage, “I feel an extension of them. This is honoring them as much as it is me.”
Stung by declining television ratings and an aging television audience (2008’s ceremony was the least-watched ceremony ever), the academy expanded the best-picture race from five to 10 movies for this year. (The field hadn’t been that size since 1942’s “Casablanca” took the best picture prize.)
Although “Avatar” probably would have been shortlisted had there still been five best-picture picks, the expanded best picture field did sweep up several mass-appeal movies that probably would have stayed home on Oscar night, particularly “The Blind Side” and the aliens-on-Earth thriller “District 9.”
The broadcast’s two producers -- former studio chief Bill Mechanic and director/choreographer Adam Shankman -- larded the show, hosted by Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin, with youthful presenters whom no one would mistake as Oscar contenders, including “Twilight’s” Taylor Lautner, “High School Musical’s” Zac Efron and “Hannah Montana’s” Miley Cyrus.
The show’s producers also excised performances of the year’s five nominated songs (condensing them into a quick montage of clips), and delayed presentation of the best actress award (considered one of the closest races of the show) until after the best actor prize.
Even in the other main categories that kept to five nominees, this year’s contest had a noticeably populist feel. “Up,” the winner of the animated feature and score award, also was nominated for original screenplay. The story of the balloon-buoyed septuagenarian became the first animated movie selected for the best picture race since the academy added a separate animation category in the 2002 ceremony.
Although many of the major awards went to assumed favorites, there were several minor upsets.
Most prominent among the surprises was the adapted screenplay triumph for Geoffrey Fletcher, a first-time writer who won for “Precious.” “This is for everybody who works on a dream every day,” said Fletcher, who struggled for a decade to sell his writing and was forced to take temp jobs to make ends meet. The presumptive favorite in the category, “Up in the Air,” went home with no awards.
Mo’Nique, a stand-up comedian who made her dramatic acting debut as an abusive mother in “Precious,” dedicated her award to her husband, saying, “Thank you for showing me that sometimes you have to forgo doing what’s popular in order to do what’s right.”
In the evening’s first award, Waltz collected the supporting actor statuette for his depiction of a fastidious Nazi in the World War II revenge fantasy “Inglourious Basterds.” But the film’s writer-director, Quentin Tarantino, lost the original screenplay race to “The Hurt Locker’s” Boal.
In addition to Bridges’ best actor triumph in a movie that almost debuted not in theaters but on Country Music Television, “Crazy Heart” collected the original song Oscar for “The Weary Kind.”
Argentina’s “El Secreto de Sus Ojos” was named best foreign language film, and the harrowing dolphin slaughter story “The Cove” won the documentary feature prize.
Said Bigelow backstage: “This has been an extraordinary year for content that is diverse and rich and complex and exciting.”