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A year of (possible) firsts at the Oscars

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By Mark Berman
Sunday, March 7, 2010

Sunday's 82nd annual Academy Awards should offer a dazzling combination of excitement (look, a famous person!) and sheer boredom (the front-runners in all the major categories seem so far ahead that the only surprise would be if they use their trophies in a duel to the death). But there's also history! This is the first telecast of the Oscars with 10 Best Picture nominees, for example, a change the Academy made last year to enable popular crowd-pleasing movies such as "An Education" and "A Serious Man" to join serious art such as "The Blind Side." And there's more history that could be made. Let's take a look at some of the things that could happen for the first time.

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THE FIRST FEMALE BEST DIRECTOR WINNER

Kathryn Bigelow is the heavy favorite going into the Oscars. If she can best her ex-husband James Cameron and win the award, she'd be the first female winner. If she loses, she's still just the fourth woman to lose the award. The last woman to be nominated was Sofia Coppola for 2003's "Lost in Translation." She lost to Peter Jackson, the director of that year's big, CGI-heavy spectacle -- the third "Lord of the Rings" movie. And no Best Picture winner has been directed by a woman.

THE FIRST BLACK BEST DIRECTOR WINNER

Lee Daniels lives in a world where an African American can do anything, including become president. But apparently there's still at least one exception: win a Best Director Oscar. He's already accomplished a lot with "Precious" -- he's just the second black man nominated for Best Director (after John Singleton in 1992) and the first African American to direct a Best Picture nominee. If he pulls off the upset and wins, he'd make history (not sure what happens to Bigelow; does she become the Academy's secretary of state?).

FORGET THE SCREENPLAY, LET'S JUST MAKE SURE ALL THREE DIMENSIONS ARE PRETTY

If "Avatar" wins Best Picture, it would be the first film in more than a decade to win the award without a screenplay nomination. The last movie to accomplish that feat? "Titanic." But hey, Cameron is talking about writing an "Avatar" novel. So he's still got his eye on that PEN/Faulkner award.

THE FIRST ANIMATED MOVIE TO TAKE A MAJOR AWARD

"Up," nominated for Best Animated Feature, is also up for four other Oscars, including Best Original Screenplay (the sixth of Pixar's 10 feature films to earn that nomination) and Best Picture (just the second animated film to crack that category, the first since "Beauty and the Beast").

THE BIGGEST/SMALLEST MOVIE TO WIN BEST PICTURE

If the Best Picture trophy goes to "The Hurt Locker," which earned $12.6 million in domestic release, it'll be the smallest box office total for a Best Picture winner since "Annie Hall" in 1978 ($38 million, according to boxofficemojo.com). If "Avatar" ($700 million and counting) wins, the biggest movie of all time becomes the highest-earning Best Picture winner. Historical parallel alert! When the meager-earning "Annie Hall" won the top award, it also overcame the biggest movie in history at that time -- "Star Wars." (Note: If "Inglourious Basterds" pulls off the upset, forget we said anything.)

But there's also history yet to be made. Some barriers still unbroken. Such as:

A DOCUMENTARY? A FOREIGN FILM?

Despite the expanded Best Picture race, no documentary or foreign-language film made it to the final 10. No doc has ever been nominated, despite Michael Moore's 2004 attempt to push "Fahrenheit 9/11" into that year's Best Picture race. In the past 35 years, just three foreign-language movies have been nominated -- "Il Postino" in 1996, "Life is Beautiful" in 1999 and "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" in 2001. (Clint Eastwood's "Letters From Iwo Jima" was a foreign-language film but was not a foreign flick -- hard to be more American than Dirty Harry.)

A MORE DIVERSE BEST ACTOR/ACTRESS FIELD

Just five winners of the two main acting trophies have been black: one Best Actress winner (Halle Berry in 2001) and four Best Actor winners (Sidney Poitier, Denzel Washington, Jamie Foxx and Forest Whitaker). The closest thing we've had recently to a non-American/British/Australian Best Actor was Italian Roberto Benigni in 1999. Ben Kingsley, who is half-Indian and half-English, netted it in 1983. Fully Asian American? Of Arab descent? Nope and nope. Nor has an Asian American performer won Best Actress, according to filmsite.org.

AN ACTING TROPHY FOR A CGI PERFORMANCE

It's bound to happen one of these years, right? Zoe Saldana had Oscar buzz for her turn in "Avatar," wherein her real face never saw the screen. There was hype for Andy Serkis for his work as Gollum in the latter two "Lord of the Rings" movies. One of these years, an actor or actress will see their performance come to life on a computer, and it could win. (My money's on Simon for "Alvin and Chipmunks 3: Yes, You Should Regret Having Children.")

MERYL STREEP BREAKS THE LOSING STREAK

If Meryl Streep loses, she will have lost 12 consecutive Oscars. The woman hasn't won since 1983. She's looking for her first Oscar in almost 30 years. Hasn't she suffered enough?

bermanm@washpost.com



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