HOLLYWOOD — "The Hurt Locker," a film that was made with little cash but limitless willpower, defeated the highest-grossing film in history and won the best picture Oscar here Sunday night. The director of the spine-chilling war drama, Kathryn Bigelow, became the first woman to ever win the best director Oscar. James Cameron, director of "Avatar" — and her former husband — cried all the way to the bank.
In what was expected to be a close race, "The Hurt Locker" took an early 4-3 lead and then pounded home with the best director and picture Oscars for a total of six. Its best film editing award correctly predicted the best picture winner, as it historically does.
The three wins for "Avatar" came in the technical categories, as expected, including cinematography — not expected, since so much of the film was created inside computers. The final totals included two apiece for "Precious," "Crazy Heart" and "Up."
In presenting the historic award to Bigelow, actress Barbra Streisand, never Oscar-nominated for direction herself, said, "Well, the time has come," after opening the envelope.
Bigelow did it, I believe, because she quite simply made the best film: The tension generated by the film was extraordinary. Yes, situations involving defusing bombs are common enough, but somehow Bigelow made the bomb scenes human, not technical. Perhaps that was the woman in her?
Bigelow thanked writer Mark Boal "for risking his life" in researching the script. Only 29 when she started, Bigelow has been a masterful action director from the get-go, with "The Loveless," "Near Dark," "Blue Steel" and "Point Break" between 1982 and 1991. Ever since, her career has been a triumph over preconceptions.
Sandra Bullock, an A-list star recently found in B-list roles, won the best actress Oscar for "The Blind Side." She teared up in thanking her late mother "for not letting me ride in cars with boys until I was 18 because she was right. I would've done what she said I was gonna do."
It was a busy weekend for Bullock, who Saturday night accepted the Razzie Award as the year's worst actress for "All About Steve."
Jeff Bridges raised a yell from the audience when he won as best actor for "Crazy Heart." Thirty-eight years ago, he was nominated for his first major feature role for "The Last Picture Show" (1972). Sunday night, he collected on the fifth. He saluted to his parents, especially father Lloyd, "who taught me the basics of acting. Thank you, Mom and Dad, for turning me on to such a groovy profession."
The movie came out of nowhere in December to pick up all the major critics groups' awards and then steamrolled over early favorite George Clooney ("Up in the Air") to win. Somehow this was the time for Bridges, once described in a New York Times cover story as "the best unknown star in Hollywood."
A mighty roar went up when Mo'Nique was named best supporting actress. She played the crude, abusive mother in "Precious." She thanked the academy for proving "it can be about the performance and not about the politics." And she also thanked Hattie McDaniel, the first black Oscar winner (for "Gone With the Wind"), "for enduring all she had to, so that I would not have to." At that time, the Oscars were announced at an academy dinner, and McDaniel was required to sit at a table by herself.
Mo'Nique's win was almost universally expected, but popular because this was her first major role and she stunned audiences with her power. Portrayed throughout as a vile monster, she has a monologue in which she haltingly explains herself, and we realize we are looking at a victim of exactly the abuse she was passing on to her daughter.
Christoph Waltz was gobsmacked when he won best actor at Cannes in May 2009, and he was still astonished here when he won the supporting actor Oscar. It is his performance, more than any other, that distinguishes Quentin Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds," and in effect, he's the leading man.
"Quentin with his unorthodox methods of navigation, this fearless explorer, took this ship across and brought it in with flying colors, and that's why I'm here," Waltz said. "This is your welcoming embrace, and there's no way I can ever thank you enough."
"The Hurt Locker" began its successful evening with its Oscar for Boal's original script. Its construction was indeed original, depending as much on external suspense as on our tension about what the hero, the bomb disposal expert James, was capable of.
The adapted script Oscar went to Geoffrey Fletcher for "Precious," in an upset, since Jason Reitman's "Up in the Air" was thought to be the front runner. In a highly emotional speech, Fletcher dedicated the Oscar, as the film was also dedicated, to "precious girls and boys everywhere."
"Up," a film so good it was also nominated for best picture, won for best animated film. Director Pete Docter of Pixar spread the credit in his acceptance speech, but he led the charge to change perceptions of animated films, and "Up" transcended categories to reach adults without kids as escorts.
"The Cove," produced by actor and Chicago native Fisher Stevens, won the best documentary Oscar. A thriller in the documentary format, it was about a dangerous attempt to film Japanese fishermen as they lured, entrapped and murdered dolphins.
From their opening monologue, co-hosts Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin were surprisingly unfunny. Their opening lines would have been funny delivered by one emcee, but having them do alternate reads from the prompter was a mistake. Nor did either one seem to really be speaking in the first person. One major drawback of having 10 BP nominees is that 10 film intros robbed us of five best song performances. There was an impressive live-and-film tribute to musical scores, on the big silver Art Deco stage of the Kodak Theatre.
Director John Hughes was too great a legend to be simply included in the traditional "In Memoriam" tribute. The special clip package of his work stirred desires to see his films again. They seemed good at the time, and in these dreary days, they seem miraculous. As the stars he made — his "children" —strode forward, it became one of the greatest moments in Academy Award history.
"Crazy Heart" won for best song, to nobody's surprise. It's a rare song written for a movie that actually sounds as if it could have been a big hit years ago in the hero's career. T Bone Burnett, a tall drink of water in dark shades, strode on stage with co-writer Ryan Bingham, but to general disappointment, I suspect, didn't say anything. A guy named T Bone wins an Oscar, you wanna hear him talk.
In the craft categories, "Avatar" won for its art direction and production design, which was only right, since its designers essentially designed a new world and everything in it. "James Cameron," co-winner Rick Carter said, "this Oscar sees you." Cameron oversaw the exhaustive detail work on the creation and even the biology of that world.
Lastly, "Avatar" won for cinematography, a choice I'm conflicted about. Wasn't much of the image creation done inside computers with CGI? Yes, the cinematographer had to fill needless scenes of actors before green screens, but the cinematography in "Inglourious Basterds" and "The White Ribbon" was so much more impressive.
Sandy Powell won her third costume design Oscar, after "The Aviator" and "Shakespeare in Love," for "The Young Victoria." She dedicated it to the costume designers of contemporary or low-budget films that are "not about monarchs."
At the evening's end, there was joy that "The Hurt Locker" won, but it was sort of a letdown because the ceremony lacked excitement. The choice of hosts Baldwin and Martin, which struck me as inspired, turned out to be a miscalculation. In years past, did co-hosts alternate lines? Comic timing depends on one person's delivery, unless we're talking about a seasoned comedy team. The two never felt like a team, and apparently didn't have their lines memorized, which led to tiny but fatal delays.
So much went as predicted. I correctly chose 15 of the top 17 winners, was wrong in both script categories and can hardly be faulted for thinking "Coco Before Chanel" would win for costume design. I have a feeling Vegas cleaned up from people believing this year couldn't be that easy to predict.