By Amy Argetsinger
Monday, March 8, 2010; A01
LOS ANGELES -- The film industry made history Sunday night when Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to win a Best Director Oscar, for her work on "The Hurt Locker," an Iraq War drama that also took the Best Picture prize and four other awards.
The tense story of Army bomb-disposal experts in Baghdad, made for a mere $11 million, upset the popular favorite, "Avatar," a roughly $300 million sci-fi epic that was widely praised for its advances in 3-D technology and artistry. "Avatar," the new all-time box-office champion, has sold $720 million in tickets in the United States. "The Hurt Locker," though considered the most successful of Iraq-themed films to date, has drawn a mostly art-house audience, barely cracking $20 million worldwide.
"Avatar" once seemed untouchable for Hollywood's top award. But in a move designed to bring in more viewers to the telecast, Motion Picture Academy brass doubled the Best Picture field to 10 nominees -- and the complicated voting dynamics broke in favor of the smaller indie film.
Bigelow was only the fourth woman nominated for the prize. When the time came, the envelope was opened with dramatic flair by Barbra Streisand -- herself the director of three feature films -- who looked at the contents and announced, "The time has come." Accepting the award, Bigelow called it "the moment of a lifetime."
Arlington native Sandra Bullock won Best Actress for her role as a tenacious foster mom in "The Blind Side."
The 1982 graduate of Washington-Lee High School -- which also spawned Oscar-winning siblings Warren Beatty and Shirley MacLaine -- is a longtime Hollywood favorite for her roles in profitable romantic comedies. But she found her first real critical acclaim this year for playing Leigh Anne Tuohy, the real-life Southern belle who took in future Baltimore Raven Michael Oher when he was an all-but-orphaned street kid in Memphis.
"Did I really earn this or did I just wear you all down?" joked Bullock, 45.
Jeff Bridges won Best Actor for playing a grizzled, alcoholic country singer in "Crazy Heart." The Hollywood veteran took his first trophy for his fifth nomination, 38 years after his first for "The Last Picture Show."
Still wearing the long hair and beard of his character, Bad Blake, Bridges, 60, brandished his golden statuette with a "Whooo!"
He paid tribute to his parents -- actors Dorothy and Lloyd Bridges -- in accepting his prize. "My dad and mom loved showbiz so much," he said. "This is honoring them as much as it is me."
Mo'Nique, the Baltimore-raised comedienne, won Best Supporting Actress for taking a dramatic turn as an abusive welfare mom in "Precious," which also nabbed an upset win in the Best Adapted Screenplay category for writer Geoffrey Fletcher -- the first African American to win a writing prize from the Academy.
Fletcher was stunned -- Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner of "Up in the Air" were heavily favored to win -- and at a loss for words. "This is for everybody who works on a dream every day. Precious boys and girls everywhere."
"The Hurt Locker" was noteworthy for its largely apolitical take on Iraq, focusing on the tension and camaraderie between three enlisted men rather than the policies steering the war.
Screenwriter Mark Boal, when accepting his Best Original Screenplay prize, briefly alluded to his attempt, drawing on his time as a former embedded journalist, to capture the experience of "men on the frontlines of an unpopular war."
But that was the most editorializing we got in an Oscar ceremony unusually devoid of political statement.
Bigelow made little mention on stage of the glass ceiling she had just shattered. If there have been few women nominated for the directing prize, it's partly because relatively few are working in the field: A San Diego State University study found that women directed 22 percent of the movies at major film festivals, but only 9 percent of last year's 250 top-grossing flicks -- a number barely changed over two decades.
Bigelow -- the amicable ex-wife of "Avatar" director and fellow nominee James Cameron -- is a former New York artist who transitioned into film via academic studies. Unlike many of her female peers, she's made nothing resembling a "chick flick," instead gravitating to action-packed alpha-male movies like "Hurt Locker" -- cop thrillers, a biker flick, a sci-fi mystery.
Mo'Nique thanked the academy for showing "it can be about the performance and not the politics."
Backstage, Mo'Nique gleefully seized control of her own news conference from the Academy handlers, calling on favorite reporters in the order she pleased. ("You have a question for me, sugar? Can we get a mike back to her? It's as simple as walking.") About those "politics": While "Precious" was denounced as exploitative by some critics for its harsh portrayal of underclass life, Mo'Nique explained she was talking about Academy politics: Hollywood types who criticized her for skipping out on the rounds of dinners and screenings that are party of lobbying for an award.
"Some journalists wrote, someone needs to teach Mo'Nique a lesson, how this game is played," she said. The academy, she said, decided to "judge her on her performance and not how many dinners she attended."
The fifth African American woman to win an acting Oscar thanked the first, Hattie McDaniel, "for enduring all she had to do so I did not have to" -- and backstage said that she wore a royal-blue dress and a gardenia in her hair because that's what the "Gone With the Wind" actress wore when she accepted her prize in 1940.
Best Supporting Actor went to Christoph Waltz, for his role as a Nazi officer in "Inglourious Basterds" -- the only prize won by Quentin Tarentino's comic-book-epic take on World War II, which received seven other nominations. The Austrian actor, little known in the States before this role, which required him to speak four languages, said: "I always wanted to discover some new continent and I thought I had to go this way."
Best Foreign Film was awarded to "The Secret in Their Eyes," a crime drama that has been a blockbuster in its home country, Argentina. It's the second Argentine movie to win.
Best Documentary was "The Cove," which told the story of animal-rights activists tracking the annual killing of dolphins in Japan.