The 79th annual birthday party for Uncle Oscar, aka the Academy Awards, featured both surprises and fulfilled expectations. The latter took the form of wins for Helen Mirren as Best Actress and Martin Scorcese as Best Director. The victory of The Departed for Best Picture was, paradoxically, less of a foregone conclusion, as most observers agreed this was, in effect, a "lifetime achievement"¯ award for the long-overlooked Scorcese, who has directed a number of better movies than this. Mirren was probably the closest thing to an absolute lock for the award as you'll see: if the art of acting is to make you forget you're watching an actor, then Mirren's portrait of Elizabeth II is something of a high water mark in the craft.
The other non-surprise was the win of Jennifer Hudson for Best Supporting Actress in Dreamgirls. Unhappily, this was more a result of they hype surrounding the ex-"American Idol"¯ contestant than of the quality of her acting, as opposed to her singing. She also benefited from being nominated in the wrong category: surely her character, Effie, is near the center of the story, if not at it. My own choice would have been Adriana Barraza for her stirring work in Babel, a performance that drew the viewer right into the character's world and her dilemma.
The parallel category, Best Supporting Actor, did produce a surprise, and a pleasant one, Alan Arkin winning for his role as the loving--if heroin addicted"”grandfather in Little Miss Sunshine. The veteran actor was one of the best things going in this delightful ensemble film, which deservedly won for Original Screenplay.
Arkin's brief acceptance speech was one of the most heartfelt, and, in general, the enforced brevity seemed to bring out the best in the winners. Instead of thanking everyone from their mother's obstetrician to their agent, they stuck a little closer to the script: some, such as Arkin and Best Actor winner, Forest Whitaker, even said memorable things about what they value as actors.
First-time host Ellen DeGeneres has taken a certain amount of grief for not being witty or cutting enough, making fun of the stars apparently having become yet another expectation. Instead, she took a kinder, gentler approach. She even took the mike out into the audience for impromptu, surprise "interviews,"¯ pretending to schlep a screenplay to Scorcese and asking Steven Spielberg to take a picture of her and Clint Eastwood, for posting on MySpace. In the later going, she got the front-row celebrities to lift their feet so she could vacuum beneath them, while complaining that this wasn't in the host's job description.
Less successful were some of the backstage commenting upon and gushing over the winners, who got enough recognition and adulation on the red carpet to last most people a lifetime. At almost four hours, the show needed further trimming"”as always"”even though the producers were thoughtful enough to cut most of the Big Production Numbers which allow the celebrants to go to the bar or the bathroom but push the most important awards deep into the evening.
Adding to the length, but interestingly so, were several tributes. One was to composer Ennio Morricone, who has scored over 400 movies. One of the beneficiaries of his genius presented the award: Clint Eastwood, whose success in the early "spaghetti westerns"¯ owes perhaps more to their background music than to his acting. (Eastwood graciously translated Morricone's speech from the Italian.) Another tribute to sound effects was performed (I think) by a group styled The Hollywood Cinema Sound Effects Choir, who appeared to produce everything from waterfalls to car chases using only their own voices and bodies.
Of course, there was also the recognition of some of the industry's members who had died since the last Awards, among them Glenn Ford, Red Buttons, Jane Wyatt, June Allyson, Jack Palance, cinematographer Gordon Parks and, of course, director Robert Altman, who won a Lifetime Achievement Award last year.
This was a long, rather leisurely Awards show, enjoyably produced, with some tension right up to the end. There was a good deal of time spent (correctly, I think) on ex-Vice President Al Gore, the central figure of and inspiration for "An Inconvenient Truth,"¯ which, as expected, won for Best Documentary. The Academy's voters, unlike the Supreme Court, got this one right.
I hope that DeGeneres will be kept on as host: she gave the show some needed informality, taking down some of the pomposity and self-importance which can get out of control, while not being mean-spirited herself. I also hope that the show's producers will keep cutting and trimming wherever they can, without sacrificing the recognition due to the filmmakers.