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Let’s revisit James Cameron’s 6 Oscar races before ‘Avatar: The Way of Water’ debuts

A likelihood going into the 2023 awards season is that James Cameron will receive at least one Academy Award nomination for “Avatar: The Way of Water,” the highly anticipated follow-up to 2009’s Oscar-winning blockbuster, “Avatar.” Critics have been raving about the film ahead of its December 16 debut, with Bilge Ebiri of Vulture saying it “might be James Cameron’s sweetest, gentlest, most personal film,” and David Ehrlich of IndieWire calling it “easily one of the best theatrical experiences in ages.” So which categories will he be nominated in? There’s lots to choose from, after all, with Cameron serving as the director, co-writer, co-producer and co-editor of 20th Century Studios’ sequel. Since he is likely to be a major player in the upcoming awards season, let’s look back at James Cameron’s six previous Oscar races, three for “Titanic” (1997) and three for “Avatar” (2009), and then discuss where he stands for his latest three-hour blockbuster.

A few of Cameron’s earlier movies were nominated for and won Academy Awards — Sigourney Weaver was famously nominated for Best Actress for “Aliens,” and both “Aliens” and “Terminator 2: Judgement Day” took home Oscars for Best Visual Effects — but the awards train didn’t come speeding down the track for Cameron until his beloved box office smash, “Titanic,” which was an awards season juggernaut in early 1998. Cameron won the Golden Globe and Critics Choice Award for Best Director, then he prevailed at both DGA and PGA. The film received 14 Oscar nominations, which tied the record with “All About Eve” (and later with “La La Land”), and three of those nominations were for Cameron — Film Editing, Director and Picture. Could he actually win all three? Signs pointed to yes, as “Titanic” was expected to sweep in almost every category that night.

As it turned out, “Titanic” won everything it was nominated for except Best Actress for Kate Winslet, Best Supporting Actress for Gloria Stuart and Best Makeup, which ultimately made Cameron a three-time-Oscar-winner in a single night. I would argue the only award he wasn’t a lock for was Film Editing, since Peter Honess’ exquisite editing for “L.A. Confidential” was nominated in the same category, but nobody was going to beat Cameron for Director or Picture, the movie being so acclaimed and popular that not even the critics’ darling “L.A. Confidential” could overcome it in anything but the Supporting Actress category (Kim Basinger beat out Stuart). Cameron, of course, had a couple infamous moments in his many acceptance speeches that night, at one point screaming “I’m king of the world!” to half-hearted applause, and then later asking for a moment of silence for everyone who died in the real Titanic disaster, only to moments later yell, “Now let’s go party till dawn!”

After his three Oscar wins for “Titanic,” he seemed likely to be a contender for his 12-years-later follow-up, “Avatar,” especially after the film became a major box office hit that surpassed his own 1997 epic to become the most successful movie of all time. Everything seemed to be mirroring the awards train of “Titanic,” especially at the Golden Globes in early 2010 when Cameron won Best Director and “Avatar” took Best Picture, with Cameron saying in one of his speeches, “I have to pee something fierce here.” Then the film managed a whopping nine Oscar nominations a few weeks later, with the same three for Cameron: Film Editing, Director and Picture.

However, two major differences held him back from being victorious again this time. First, Cameron had already won a bunch of Oscars, so there wasn’t a push to give him more, and second, Kathryn Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker” was a hugely acclaimed war drama that was poised to take lots of trophies. Although the film missed at the Golden Globes, “The Hurt Locker” won lots of trophies along the way to Oscar night, including Best Picture and Best Director at Critics Choice, along with six prizes at BAFTA, including Best Film, Best Director and Best Original Screenplay.

The momentum quickly shifted into favoring “The Hurt Locker,” and on Oscar night, Cameron lost out to Bigelow’s film in all three of his categories — “The Hurt Locker” won Best Film Editing for Bob Murawski and Chris Ennis, Best Director for Bigelow, and Best Picture. What made the directing category fascinating was that Bigelow effectively became the first woman in Academy Awards history to take that prize; in addition, Bigelow and Cameron had a personal history together, the two being married from 1989 to 1991. As much as everyone looked at “Avatar” as an outstanding technical breakthrough, the achievement of “The Hurt Locker” both technically and emotionally was something awards voters couldn’t ignore, and so Cameron went home empty handed at the 2010 ceremony.

Thirteen years have passed since the release of the original “Avatar,” and now with “Avatar: The Way of Water” arriving in theaters, it looks like James Cameron will be back at the Academy Awards for the 2023 ceremony. It’s possible he will be nominated once again in Best Film Editing, Best Director and Best Picture, and he’s eligible in Best Adapted Screenplay. The question is, can he win another gold trophy this time around? Film critics seem on board. Perri Nemiroff from Collider calls the new sequel “pretty incredible,” and Ian Sandwell of Digital Spy says “it’s a visual masterpiece [with] an extraordinary final act full of emotion and thrilling action.”

PREDICT the 2023 Oscar nominees through January 24

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