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Hollywood's Hidden Morality Tale in The Hurt Locker vs. Avatar

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In an earlier post, I asked whether The Hurt Locker would have won top Oscars over Avatar if it had been directed by a man. Here I'll speculate about some interwoven psychological dramas that may have helped it to win, ones with implications for all of our lives.

Let's consider the following possibilities--a "film-maker's dozen":

  1. The Hurt Locker won not only because it was directed by a woman, but by a very specific woman, Kathryn Bigelow, the third of five wives of James Cameron, creator and director of Avatar, its main competition.
  2. As one of his ex's, she knew his foibles, and had lived out their consequences.
  3. Mark Boal's script appealed to her for many reasons, but one of them was that at some level she grasped it was about a military version of James Cameron.
  4. To wit, as described in my earlier post, this is a particular character type, the kind of person who is absolutely brilliant at his work and this passion consumes him--whether it is bomb-defusing or film-making--largely to the detriment of other attachments. (By the way, the "he" could be a "she"; as such people exist in all walks of life. They are the kind of people you want to have as your doctor or broker when the going gets tough or as the creative force behind your project if you hope to make big waves or big bucks.)
  5. This type of person is phenomenal at their work, but when it comes to personal relationships they can be pretty dismal--unless they've truly worked on integrating their genius with their personal lives. They make astonishing films or great CEOs, but lousy life partners or parents.
  6. They make a mess of their personal lives and are destructive to those they love. They create psychological casualties. The damage inflicted plays out all over the place (keeping therapists in business).
  7. The more mundane script in which such talented people strive for a genuinely satisfying and constructive balance between their work and personal lives is a hard won achievement. It's a tough act to follow, though not an impossible one (in Hollywood, think Jeff Bridges or Meryl Streep).
  8. Making the most of the "lousy personal life" theme wasn't lost on the promoters of this year's Oscars. The recent Academy Awards drew the largest viewing audience in recent years, perhaps because of the brilliant subliminal exploitation of this very drama as the "main event" in the contest between Hurt Locker and Avatar.
  9. This quite brilliant exploitation pulled for great interest in what might otherwise have been a boring "slam-dunk" evening. It also partially accounts for the juggernaut that shifted the tide from Avatar to Hurt Locker leading up to the Academy Awards -- a juggernaut so huge that even Avatar, James Cameron's game-changer, couldn't stop it. Hollywood wasn't about to miss the opportunity to put this juicy beneath-the-surface drama center stage.
  10. Cameron and Bigelow conducted themselves with great dignity in the face of this drama, but nevertheless it was the "main event", not the artistic merit of their productions. Doubtless they were helped to do well with it by having remained admiring colleagues and friends in the twenty years since their brief marriage. And if the main character in The Hurt Locker is any indication, Bigelow had come to terms with who Cameron is--both in his brilliance and his limitations. The Hurt Locker script is pretty cheerfully accepting of its protagonist volunteering for another tour of duty to escape his brief stint at home with his baby son and associated trappings--in part because "war is a drug", but also because parenting and home life pose their own huge demands, ones impossibly mundane for this type of person compared to, say, the intense risk and thrill of defusing bombs (or making films, or fill-in-the-blank-with-whatever-your-passion).
  11. Instead, influencing the outcome was a combination of Bigelow's gender -- the entertainment industry being genuinely starved for a plausible top-prize-winning woman; the appeal of her defeating a powerful man who'd already won top Oscars for Titanic and been perceived as immodest in accepting these awards; and the subliminal story of how Cameron and Bigelow each measured up as human beings. In this last drama, the hidden one, Cameron starred in the leading role as brilliant megalomaniac/erratic ex-spouse/erratic father to the daughter he conceived with successor wife to Bigelow, Linda Hamilton of his films The Terminator and Terminator 2. By contrast, Bigelow co-starred as the gracious and principled heroine. Fostering her win was the perception of her as a class-act -- a finer person, not necessarily a finer artist. (No matter that Cameron's home life may have settled down with his current wife, actress Suzy Amis who played a bit part in Titanic, and their three children plus one step-child each).
  12. If the above is true, it is ironic in the extreme because it means Hollywood produced a subtly resonant morality tale for these Academy Awards -- Tinsel Town not being known for its morals.

So what might be the moral of this morality tale? Often you get away with it -- the most brilliant talent wins, no matter what. But sometimes you don't, so it might be smart to think carefully about your major life choices. Otherwise you could end up shunned, regardless of how vast and innovative your talent. In any case, it's in your enlightened self-interest to live your life well. Go to the effort, put in the work. Try not to create carnage along the way. If you don't want to be tied down or can't honor and cherish your mate, don't marry (or divorce without having kids). If you don't actually want to raise children, don't have them. As a grown-up, you are free to choose. But if you decide you want these things, or even if you happen into them haphazardly, realize the challenges, sacrifices, responsibilities and renunciations involved. If you truly want to build a better society, these are the bricks, impossibly small though they may seem. Put away the "bad boy" (or "bad girl") stuff. Heed the instructive and cautionary morality tale that may have been at the heart of these Oscars.