In an Oscar-Themed Battle of the Exes, I’m With Bigelow

James Cameron and Kathryn Bigelow Vie For Top Awards


Published: March 4, 2010

When James Cameron says that his fantasy would be for his ex-wife Kathryn Bigelow to win the Best Director Oscar for “The Hurt Locker” (which would make her the first woman to do so), while his film, “Avatar,” wins Best Picture, he might as well be admitting that he made the lesser film. Or has he forgotten the history of Best Picture winners where another film won for Best Director; a history that has favored  “Chicago” over “The Pianist” and “Shakespeare in Love” over “Saving Private Ryan?” While I enjoyed “Avatar” more than those other Best Picture winners, what he’s saying is not that he made a better film, but that he just made one that is more formulaic, easier to swallow and less depressing.

But really, why does Cameron believe that his film deserves the top prize if he’s willing to admit that Bigelow did a better job? Does he believe that his screenplay is so much better than Mark Boal’s? Well in case you hadn’t noticed, out of all of “Avatar’s” nine nominations, Best Original Screenplay was not among them. It’s not that the story of an outsider learning to love another culture is unoriginal, but that it is executed in the manner of a lesser Disney film. Issues that could be treated with complexity are reduced to easy black-and-white terms and the characters are unoriginal and have embarrassingly on-the-nose names like Grace and Selfridge. Quaritch, in particular, is made to be such an over-the-top villain that if he had a mustache, he would most likely have an inclination to twirl it. Cameron’s strength is in his direction, and with his craftsmanship, he is able to make an enjoyable movie out of his bland script by transporting viewers into a beautiful world. But then it’s the little things, like characters dying to random-woman-wailing-music that reminds me that Cameron the director is just as cheesy and unsubtle as Cameron the writer.

Cameron does give credit where credit is due, though. With “The Hurt Locker,” Bigelow is able to effectively portray the lives of an Iraq War bomb squad as incredibly tense and nerve-wracking on screen. While she does use the infamous technique of shaky cam, she uses it well to give immediacy to the situations. As an action director, Bigelow has a clear  sense of space and geography and uses the surroundings to create tension. She knows that when human lives are in danger, there is no need for any gimicky tricks to try to create excitement. In the hands of another director, “The Hurt Locker” could have easily been turned into direct-to-video junk, but Bigelow understands action as well as Boal’s screenplay and uses her skills to deliver an effective film.

As a woman, Bigelow brings a different perspective to “The Hurt Locker” that both celebrates and deconstructs the film. In an early exchange one soldier tells another soldier to “pretend [that a remote bomb diffuser] is your dick,” setting the tone for the rest of the film. Opening with the quote, “The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug,” she views the act of diffusing a bomb as similar to that of sex. The lead character, Sgt. William James, keeps a box full of bomb parts that almost killed him as trophies to celebrate his conquests like notches on a bedpost. But when at home, faced with what are normally seen as female activities like taking care of a baby and grocery shopping, he is out of his element, clearly longing for more of his drug. Action movies are generally seen as a male genre, making Bigelow a unique figure in the film industry, but she succeeds where some of her testosterone-filled colleagues fail.

Unfortunately, there is no animosity between Cameron and Bigelow, so that makes rooting for Bigelow less fun than it should be. Cameron really wants her to win, since he already has an Oscar, of course. The Directors Guild of America has given their annual award to Bigelow and has, on all but six occasions, predicted who would win the Best Director Oscar, so it is very likely that Bigelow will win. It is also likely that, given the Academy’s decision to include 10 nominations for Best Picture this year in order to ensure that popular movies would be nominated, they will give the Best Picture award to the film breaking box office records, “Avatar.” However, I have come to learn that most  of the time the Academy nominates the better film and awards the film that people eventually forget about. Although “Avatar” will certainly never be forgotten, I have started to care more about lesser categories than Best Picture, and since “Avatar” wasn’t even nominated for Best Original Screenplay, I’m already satisfied.