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Monday, March 08, 2010

The Oscars: As Tears Go By


As I write this I'm still a little loopy from short sleep. As old as I get I still have trouble letting go of an Oscar night, and though I lay my head on my pillow at a little after one (after driving an hour home from my friend's house) I lay awake for a good while, and then woke up for good at five. Call me silly, but I still find the Oscars to be exciting, an invigorating blast of the old glamour associated with Hollywood, an intrinsic thread of the movie experience.

That being said, the show last night wasn't any great shakes, and the results were largely predictable. Also, it seemed to be more lachrymose than most years. I think the segment in which the lead acting nominees were introduced was the most instructive--Oprah's recitation of Gabourey Sidibe's "Cinderella" story induced the young woman into streaming tears, as did Michelle Pfeiffer's mention of Jeff Bridges' family. The mission seemed to be to get the most tears out of everyone as possible, even the audience.

Usually it's laughs that an Academy Award broadcast tries to mine. This year the hosts were very funny fellows, Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin, and for the most part they were entertaining, but they reminded me of the funniest guys at a corporate retreat, asked to take the stage and tell a few stale jokes. The funniest image that remains with me is the two of them in fire-engine-red Snuggies, eating popcorn. They were certainly a welcome improvement from the improbable opening from Neill Patrick Harris, who seemed to have escaped a cruise ship. But his wasn't the worst musical number of the night. More on that later.

Unlike last year's theme of awards progressing in order of process (script, sets and costumes, etc.) we went back to the old way of getting an acting award out of the way. Christoph Waltz seemed to be the only one surprised by yet another win. A steady parade of presenters came and went (I liked Tina Fey with Robert Downey Jr. for Best Original Screenplay, wasn't so crazy about the forced humor of Ben Stiller painted blue like a Na'Vi). More than a few times I had to ask the fourteen-year-old girl watching in our party who people were (I didn't recognize Chris Pine, but I did know the Twilight kids--does Kristen Stewart ever smile?) When The Hurt Locker won the Screenplay award I knew it was over, and then when it swept the sound awards (which killed my chances in the pool) it was shaping up to be a beat-down.

Mo'Nique won another non-shocking award, and indirectly blasted Jeffrey Wells for writing she needed to be taught a lesson. Another sign that bloggers don't have as much clout as they think they do. The big surprise for me was when Precious won the Adapted Screenplay award, meaning Up in the Air would get totally skunked. Was this a factor in the array of sourpussed expressions George Clooney wore all night? Internet buzz speculates he had a fight with his arm candy, but how, if she doesn't understand English? When Martin and Baldwin spoofed with him it looked like he was ready to jump on stage and thrash them both.

The oddest moment of the night came during the acceptance speech for the Best Documentary Short Subject, when the director was interrupted by a woman who looked like Mike Myers' Coffee Talk lady. Turns out they were feuding, and she wasn't supposed to be on stage, but oh well. She was the original producer of the film, and didn't like the way it turned out. Yeah, if she had only had her say it wouldn't have won an Oscar. For the Best Documentary Feature winner, The Cove, former dolphin trainer Ric O'Barry unfurled a banner with a text number on it, but the cameras quickly cut away. That was as political as things got all night.
The most ungracious speech of the evening? That would be the one by Best Costume winner Sandy Powell, who strode to the stage as if she were receiving catcalls, and then said, "I've already got two of these," like a cat looking at a litter of kittens. She then tried to be noble but ended up insulting the voters for their silly habit of always awarding the costume prize to movies about "dead monarchs." But instead she seemed ungrateful and condescending. Here's hoping the costume branch and the voters at large take note, and maybe they won't put her through such a thing again.

As stated earlier, the lead acting crowd got testimonials from those they had worked with before. This was decidedly hit and miss. The good was Winfrey and Pfeiffer, and Stanley Tucci gave a droll tribute to Meryl Streep. But some of them seemed too off the cuff, such as Vera Farmiga's barely coherent tip of the hat to Clooney, and his "crinkly smile," which was not in evidence last night. And why did Peter Sarsgaard turn Carey Mulligan's moment into something about him--"she's fallen in love with me twice." Ew.

The winners, again, were not surprising. Jeff Bridges, channeling The Dude, rambled a bit, while Sandra Bullock gave a textbook example of a good speech, honoring her co-nominees specifically and then, of course, choking back tears in thanking her dead mother. Her hubby was tearing up in the audience, but every time I see him I can't help but think how brave Bullock was for marrying him--his ex-wife is a porn-star.

Barbra Streisand was strategically chosen to give the Best Director Award, and it went as expected to the first woman to win it, Kathryn Bigelow, for The Hurt Locker. Then all the feminist good will evaporated when they played her off with "I Am Woman" (earlier they'd played on Mulligan and Zoe Saldana to the tune of "Thank Heaven For Little Girls").

Tom Hanks, perhaps double-parked, rushed out to give the last award. We'd seen clips of all ten Best Picture nominees (there were a lot of clips this night, a welcome addition, except for the most visual category of all--cinematography) but he didn't even remind us of them, he just ripped open the envelope and ended Jim Cameron's agony. Yes The Hurt Locker, which earned less than 20 million domestically, had toppled Avatar, the behemoth of worldwide cinema. We'll never know if it was a squeaker or not, or truly understand why this was able to happen, other than that Avatar, for all its gifts, was a deeply flawed film, and the voters had trouble selecting it over The Hurt Locker, less ambitious perhaps, but on the whole a more acceptable choice.

Now, more on the show. I liked the extra clips, but the show was too long. Why cut the performance of the Best Song nominees, but then introduce a god-awful production number that included an interpretive dance to the music of The Hurt Locker (including a dancer who seemed to be blowing himself up) and a guy doing the robot to the music of Up (were there robots in that film I'm not remembering?) The spectacle raised uncomfortable memories of Rob Lowe and Snow White, and was the kind of thing that Oscar shows are mocked for. I liked the clip segment on horror movies, but what exactly was the relevance--no horror movies were nominated for anything? Was it the best thing they could come up with for the Twilight kids to do?
The tribute to John Hughes was moving, but seemed excessive, considering they didn't do anything for Marlon Brando after he died. The death montage seemed skimpy, and the Internet is buzzing about the absence of Farrah Fawcett and Bea Arthur, but those were primarily TV people--please. The presence of Michael Jackson in there--a few quick seconds--seemed a nod to the culture more than anything else.

I was pleased with the results, worried that Avatar would win. Unless you're the most unhinged fanboy, you have to give credit to this glossy, self-fellating organization for giving its highest honor to a war movie that hardly anyone has seen.

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