By Lea Goldman
It was no surprise that Kathryn Bigelow, director of this year's gritty Iraq war throat-clutcher "The Hurt Locker", scored an Oscar Best Director nod. Bigelow's been cleaning up this awards season, nabbing glittery trophies from the Broadcast Film Critics Association, the Hollywood Film Festival, and most recently (and noteworthy), the Director's Guild of America. Vegas oddsmakers have handicapped her as a favorite, likely besting Quentin Tarantino for "Inglorious Basterds" and even Lee Daniels, who just a month or two ago was the ostensible man-to-beat for "Precious", the wince-worthy urban drama that, miraculously, made red carpet divas of a raunchy comedienne and 300-plus pound starlet.
But does Bigelow really deserve the Oscar? Sure, critics have fawned over Hurt Locker, a taut suspense about an elite, but scrappy crew of bomb detonators. The New York Daily News breathlessly pronounced the flick "one of the defining films of the decade". Defining what exactly isn't clear-with just $16 million in box office grosses to date, few outside the clubby community of critics (and their long suffering spouses) have likely even seen the movie. (To put it into perspective, "Avatar" banked that much the morning it hit theaters.)
Bigelow is only the fourth woman in Oscar history to secure a Best Director nomination, a so-what bit of trivia that has been relentlessly invoked since the nominations were announced on Tuesday. Among the other lady auteurs who lost out on the big prize: Lina Wertmuller for "Seven Beauties" (1976), Jane Campion for "The Piano" (1993) and Sofia Coppola for "Lost in Translation" (2003). This year, the smart money has Bigelow finally cracking Hollywood's most stubborn glass ceiling.
Problem is-she doesn't really deserve to. (For efficiency's sake, please direct all hate mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.) The Hurt Locker is a good film, to be sure. But it's hardly the best of the bunch, certainly not as throbbing as Precious, nor as edgy as Inglorious Basterds. (Avatar sweeps on the technical front, but, let's get real, the script blew.)
So why is Bigelow such a crowd favorite this go around? Precisely because she is a woman. Unlike other female directors (Nora Ephron and Nancy Meyers come to mind) Bigelow seems almost preternaturally averse to the usual, telltale markers of a chick-helmed flick-the teary climaxes, overt morality tales, and, interestingly, women characters. All swagger and sweat, The Hurt Locker is obstinately a guy's movie-about guys, the mad risks they take in war, about the gory bits that never get mentioned in letters home to ma.
But it's downright inconceivable that the Hurt Locker would generate the same fist bumps if directed by a man. It's inherent flaws would be more difficult to gloss over: the muddled politics, the canned-war-movie relationship between lead character Jeremy Renner (evocative of Russell Crowe in his salad days) and an Arab pipsqueak nicknamed Beckham, and the fetishizing of what can only be described as one soldier's criminally insane bravado. No film is perfect, of course. But this one, in particular, is the cinematic equivalent of a defibrillator-it'll get your attention, but don't try parsing the experience too finely. "Bigelow is a ballsy showoff," writes The New Republic's Christopher Orr with unsubtle irony. "And [like her protagonist], she has ice in her veins." Subtext: don't worry, fellas, she won't go all soft on you.
Then there's the other major factor contributing to Bigelow's ascent as Oscar frontrunner: her biggest threat for the win is ex-husband James Cameron, whose record-breaking Avatar ($2 billion and counting) has, according to the umpteen thousand headlines surveying the box office fallout, practically reinvented filmgoing as we know it. Both The Hurt Locker and Avatar earned nine Oscar nods apiece, making their duel for gold the most buzzed about rivalry in Hollywood since Angie vs. Aniston. Given Cameron's notorious, almost Biblically inspired levels of hubris, Hollywood (and the media that covers it) is chomping at the bit for a takedown. Could there be a more cinematic comeuppance than the ex-wife, rising like a phoenix from the Hollywood Hills, to snatch the Oscar from James Cameron's itchy palms? Hell, some of us would fork over $10 a ticket to watch that, 3D glasses be damned.