The 81st Oscars: Entering the 21st Century

I watch the Oscars avidly, but like most people, have begun to find them boring in recent years. From the opening, insipid red carpet interviews to the long-awaited always too late end, they’ve seemed banal and ridiculous exercises in star-gazing more than celebrations of filmmakers’ accomplishments. Last night’s new and revised show was a vast improvement over the recent past, as a fresh set of producers created a new look and a new feel for the broadcast, jettisoning the lame comedy (for the most part) and the uninspired patter between ill-at-ease presenters. The show’s new writers (no sign of the much over-used and comically exhausted Bruce Vilanch this time around) made the evening almost sophisticated, reaching for the wry and the ironic without the kind of cynicism that might make that approach harder to take.

The Tina Fey/Steve Martin routine, in fact, epitomized the evening’s tone. Presenting the awards for best original and adapted screenplay, they stood together in front of a screen that displayed a typescript of their own dialogue, which then morphed into dialogue and filmic descriptions for the movies in question, as the brief, fully realized scenes played under the words. Fey and Martin brought their usual dry wit to the routine, acting the brief moment more than reading it from prompters. Most of the presentations evinced the same bright spontaneity, which only comes from talented actors who’ve carefully rehearsed their shtick.

Hugh Jackman, the evening’s host, brought lots of earnest energy to the evening, a welcome respite from the snarky attempts at industry deprecation that usually characterize the host’s work. Although he stars in the Wolverine film franchise—about which I know nothing except for those knife-like things that sprout between his knuckles when he’s angry—Jackman is a theatre song and dance man. Like several of the evening’s stars, he “played gay” in The Boy from Oz, playing songwriter/performer Peter Allen, giving a physically unleashed, terrific performance. Jackman’s also performed in Oklahoma and other Broadway musicals, and he proved his stuff recently hosting the Tony’s.

Jackman’s opening musical routine was a bit forced. The premise was that despite the lack of a budget for an opening number, Jackman put one together anyway. This occasioned stage hands schlepping out rough hewn-looking little two-dimensional sets, in front of which Jackson performed a Bill Crystal-esque sung medley of references to the awarded films and actors. The number might have fallen flat, but Jackman is hard to resist. In a moment of rehearsed spontaneity, he pulled Anne Hathaway onto the stage with him, where she gamely sang (in a beautiful, strong soprano) and horsed around. Everyone seemed willing to give Jackman the benefit of the doubt, which made the proceedings more, well, human and warmer than usual.

The rearranged seating also helped. Jackman moved in close to the elite crowd sitting in semi-circular rows of seats down front, standing on a modified thrust stage with steps down into the nearby crowd that he used liberally. The translucent curtains that framed the arched proscenium were designed to create a cabaret atmosphere, harkening back to the days when the ceremony was delivered to Hollywood’s royalty as they were seated at tables, eating and drinking (not unlike the Golden Globe awards). The choice made the evening seem more intimate; very few camera shots panned the larger crowd in the still enormous Kodak Theatre.

The evening’s contrived narrative hinged on teaching spectators how films are made, from the initial script development to production design to shooting to marketing to, ostensibly, their awards. Although the story became a bit forced and inevitably rushed by the end, the light (or lite?) pedagogy was inoffensive and mostly effective. Rather than standing at sterile podiums, most presenters stood further into the stage, surrounded by props that evoked the filmic aspect of the moment. The choice made the television picture more visually interesting, and disrupted the typically stiff pose of actors standing behind a microphone reading silly dialogue.

Many of these moments, interestingly enough, turned into shtick in which the female presenter admonished the male presenter for his excesses. Jennifer Aniston chastised Jack Black for speaking badly about Dreamworks; he said he made movies for them but then bet on Pixar for all the awards. Poised, smart Natalie Portman was forced to deal throughout her skit with Ben Stiller, who was made up as the recalcitrant, “I’ve-retired-from-acting” Joaquin Phoenix. As Stiller stayed in character through the whole bit (wearing a bushy full fake beard and dark sunglasses), Portman’s irritation with the impersonation seemed to become more and more aimed at Stiller. But she soldiered on and made the most of it. Too bad, though, that intelligent women had to be sacrificed to the sophomoric humor of their presenting partners.

Baz Lurhmann, of Moulin Rouge! and this year’s Australia fame, choreographed the evening’s one lavish production number, which saw Jackson and Beyoncé Knowles singing various phrases from movie musicals over the years. Meant as a throw back to a Follies-style extravaganza, the number looked more like A Chorus Line, with various dancing boys and girls lined up and standing tall to flatter Jackson’s and Knowles’ duets. Poor Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens were trotted out to harmonize; they looked terribly young and uncomfortable, knowing they were sops to the younger audience the show’s producers seemed to be courting.

This rather long number, which ended with Jackson proclaiming “The movie musical is back!” could easily have been cut. But the two leads worked very hard to make it all look easy. In some ways, the number honored the actors’ labor, which is always curiously missing from the Oscar telecast.

Another of this year’s innovations was to have the awards to actors presented by a set of five previous winners. Each was announced with clips from their various award-winning performances and/or their acceptance speeches, after which tall panels lifted into the wings to reveal the past winners. Eva Marie Saint, Whoopi Goldberg, Tilda Swinton, Goldie Hawn, and Anjelica Houston presented the Best Supporting Actress award (won by Penélope Cruz). Each of the women spoke directly to one of the nominees, extolling her role in some detail. The picture cut between the presenter and the nominee, most of whom had tears in their eyes.

Although I can imagine that some spectators might deride this technique, I found it moving to hear actors testifying to one another’s work, and much more satisfying than watching a film clip preparatory to staring at the nominees in five small frames waiting for their names to be called. The strategy honored the work and the history of the award at once, and brought a more intimate touch of human feeling to the proceedings. Raquel Welch, Shirley McClaine, Nicole Kidman, Halle Berry, and last year’s Best Actress winner, Marion Cotillard, presented to this year’s five Best Actress nominees, and were all on hand for hugs and kisses when Kate Winslet won for The Reader.

This year’s acceptance speeches, too, seemed way above the abysmal par set by recent Oscar shows. Someone must have instructed the winners that, in addition to speaking for no more than 45 seconds, they tell a meaningful story rather than simply reading a list of people they’d like to thank. Most personalized the award with anecdotes that made them much more interesting, fleshing out the narratives of filmmaking and artists’ lives that circulated throughout the evening.

Perhaps most moving was Dustin Lance Black’s speech when he accepted the award for best original screenplay for Milk. Choking back tears, he described the pain of his own coming out story and dedicated his work to young people, so that they might not have to repeat his own history of suffering.

Likewise, Sean Penn, winning for his wonderful performance as Harvey Milk in the film Black wrote, chastised demonstrators apparently holding homophobic signs outside the Kodak Theatre. He shamed those who voted against California’s Prop 8, which invalidated the recently bestowed right of gays and lesbians to marry, and called for equal rights for everyone. Penélope Cruz, in her acceptance speech for Best Supporting Actress, referred to how films bring people together around the globe, and said she’s proud to be part of the industry.

Heath Ledger’s family accepted his posthumous Best Supporting Actor award, butchering their moment with mumbled, inarticulate remarks that thankfully did nothing to invalidate how much Ledger’s performance as the Joker in The Dark Knight deserved to be recognized. In the Best Actress race, Kate Winslet seemed something of a surprise win, stealing thunder from Meryl Streep, who contemplated her fifteenth nomination with her youngest daughter sitting awkwardly by her side. (The poor girl had a front row seat, which put her in most camera shots. She spent the night hugging herself; I guess she was cold in that strapless dress.)

The audience seemed well behaved. Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie laughed politely and were good sports about the occasional joke lobbed their way. Jennifer Aniston’s presentation and her seating within the same close circumference as the Jolie-Pitt’s seemed designed to create some star tension, but the celebrities handled their proximity like pros. Each loser seemed gracious in his or her defeat, each winner rightfully radiant without being arrogant.

Only Bill Maher, in fact, marred the evening with his miserable presentation of the best documentary awards. Right, we know he made a film this year; Religulous got generally decent reviews for its smart critique of organized religion. But Maher seemed in a genuine, rather than rehearsed, huff about not being nominated, and seemed to ad lib a few snarky tone-deaf jabs at the audience that only made him look foolish.

Slumdog Millionaire triumphed, no surprise, winning most of the many awards for which it was nominated, including best director, best song, best editing, and of course best picture. Much of the Indian cast was there, including the fresh-faced Dev Patel and his on-screen love, Freida Pinto. Each of the young boys and girls who played Jamal and Latika at various stages of their lives were also present, along with most of the key adult character actors. The gathering read a bit awkwardly, as one white man after another got up to thank the Academy for their award, demonstrating what a colonialist project Slumdog perhaps might have been. But the rags-to-riches story, and the film’s great heart, prevailed.

The Academy Awards ceremony will never be as big or as important as, say, the Super Bowl. But for people invested in film and performance and what it means to share stories about our lives, the broadcast will always be one of those rare moments of connection, just as Penélope Cruz said about the movies. This year, the proceedings were dwarfed by President Baraka Obama’s inauguration, and the frisson of immediacy, of sharing the moment with people all over the world that that televised event entailed.

Even so, the Oscar show seemed to tap into something equally prideful about our humanity. The humble knowledge that it matters what we know of one another and how our stories are told seemed key to the evening, as well as the processes of identification and empathy across difference that makes it all work.

That’s entertainment,

The Feminist Spectator

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6 thoughts on “The 81st Oscars: Entering the 21st Century

  1. Sophia Loren–not Raquel Welch…because who, really, could deliver to Meryl Streep? I agree this style of honoring nominees is much warmer than the clips…the goddess conventions it seemed like! And strangely, you could tell who the real consummate actors were by their delivery, and boy did it increase the star power.

  2. “Heath Ledger’s family accepted his posthumous Best Supporting Actor award, butchering their moment with mumbled, inarticulate remarks that thankfully did nothing to invalidate how much Ledger’s performance as the Joker in The Dark Knight deserved to be recognized.”

    Nice. Did you try turning up the volume on your TV? The family’s remarks struck me as the sincere if pained efforts of people who are not trained performers.

  3. Oops, of course Sophia Loren . . . I don’t know why I get those two mixed up. Yup, the actors were real, the celebs not so much. Thanks, Alice, yrs, jd

  4. On “Anonymous’s” comment re my comment on Heath Ledger’s family: Okay, maybe that was harsh of me, but it still seemed that they knew this was coming and could have been more prepared. I’m sure someone was coaching them . . . In any case, you’re right, no need to be snarky, but I found it strangely annoying. Properly chastized, jd

  5. I appreciate your explantion of your comment, Feminist Spectator.

    I also apologize for being snarky with you.

    I re-viewed the family’s speeches on Youtube, and found them oddly annoying myself this time. I was mystified by their combination of awkwardness, self-congratulation, and something verging on glibness.
    “We’re sorry you couldn’t be here, but we are here to accept your award from the people to whom you wanted to matter.”

    I did also find it curious that the professional actors in the audience seemed “moved” by the speech. I guess that’s why they win Oscars…

  6. Hi Anonymous,thanks for this reconsideration. Yes, what you saw in those speeches the second time around is what I think I was responding to the first time. They seemed peculiarly self-involved, instead of truly honoring Heath Ledger’s memory. I think the audience of actors was moved because they were thinking of Heath. His performance in the Batman flick was really stunning; it’s such a shame that was his last role. . . . thanks for writing again, my best, jd

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