Defying Oscar odds

It’s beginning to look like the best picture Oscar race might not be “Up in the Air.”

Director Kathryn Bigelow’s intense Iraq war drama “The Hurt Locker” has got the momentum.

After starting off with nada at the Golden Globes, the box-office bomb about a bomb squad has since won the Directors Guild Award for Bigelow, the Producers Guild Award and over the weekend swept the major prizes at the British Academy Awards, including picture, director and original screenplay.

Meanwhile, Bigelow’s ex-husband James Cameron has got to be feeling blue that his “Avatar” —- though the biggest money-maker ever —- is not even breaking even when it comes to winning awards.

That doesn’t mean “Avatar” won’t win the best picture Oscar —– the Academy has as much of a history of honoring commerce as it does artsy “little” movies that pack a wallop and come out on top. Yo, “Rocky.”

It does have one major problem going into the awards though: No original sci-fi or fantasy film has ever won the best picture Oscar.

Many have been nominated —- “E.T.” and “Star Wars” come immediately to mind. Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” —- considered the granddaddy of modern science fiction on the Silver Screen —- wasn’t even nominated.

Although “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” won a best picture Oscar and is pure fantasy, it certainly wasn’t original —- it had (some would argue) a more successful literature life before film.

To take it a step further, no science fact film has ever won: “The Right Stuff” about the original Mercury Seven astronauts, and “Apollo 13″ about the “successful failure” of the mission to the moon in the early 1970s, never got off the ground at Oscar time.

By the way, “Star Wars” lost the 1977 best picture Oscar to Woody Allen’s timeless comedy “Annie Hall.” “Star Wars” was clearly more of a phenomenon than “Avatar.” Its fans were more passionate — even in a frenzied state at times. In fact, “Star Wars” loyal fans are still going geek-squad strong.

Although “Avatar” is a money-maker globally, it doesn’t have that “Star Wars” devotion that started immediately upon its release 33 years ago.

With all that, “Star Wars” lost to a little movie that could. The same fate may be in store on March 7 for “Avatar.”

The fact that “Annie Hall” won that year was not only an upset of sorts, but it defined odds because comedies seldom win best picture Oscars. The only other movie that won since that could be considered a light comedy was “Shakespeare in Love.”

This year the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has nominated 10 movies for best picture —- only the animated film “Up” can be considered a comedy — with “Inglourious Basterds” registering at best as a broad satire.

Oscar seems to get serious and seldom pushes the envelope.

Stanley Kubrick’s vision of a grim and violent future “A Clockwork Orange” was nominated for best picture way back when, but its chances of winning were about as good asa radical right wing conservative’s chance of running a major Hollywood movie studio.

“Some Like It Hot” —- the American Film Institute’s choice for funniest American movie ever made (debatable) —- wasn’t even nominated for best picture.

Oscar goes for films like “The English Patient” over “Fargo.” “Dances with Wolves” beats “GooodFellas.” “Gandhi” overpowers “E.T.” “Forrest Gump” trumps “Pulp Fiction.”

In the last few years, though, Oscars for best picture have not gone to spectaculars. In fact, the last big budget spectacle to win was Cameron’s “Titanic.”

In recent years little movies that could have won —- “No Country for Old Men” for example. A trend that bodes well for “Hurt Locker.”

This year, Oscar can provide an upset, or the big money-maker could sweep most of the awards, or it can embrace the critics’ darling with the Big Mo going into the show.

Maybe Oscar will select the film with the all-too-realistic contemporary theme about the fractured economy —- “Up in the Air” is certainly a film for the Obama years so far.

Or maybe it will be Quentin Tarantino’s homage to every movie ever made —- a film that in the process turned World War II on its ear. “Saving Private Ryan” it ain’t.

War movies, unlike comedies and especially fantasy or sci-fi, have done well winning the best picture Oscar. The first Oscar for best film went to a war movie, “Wings” — and the patriotism continued throughout the decades from “Casablanca” to “The Bridge on the River Kwai” to “Patton” to “Platoon” to “Schindler’s List.”

Vegas odds say “Avatar” is the favorite to win best picture.

If it turns out to be right, Cameron can change the tag line to his blockbuster to read: “What happens on Pandora, stays on Pandora.”

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