The Academy Awards show this year saw the return of the “Old Hollywood,” after last year’s celebration of youth turned out to be a bust. From host Billy Crystal to Best Actress winner Meryl Streep to Supporting Actor awardee Christopher Plummer, the veterans ruled. (Plummer wryly noted that, at 84, Oscar was only two years his senior.) Even the award for Best Picture went to an oldie, of sorts: “The Artist” won for its excellent evocation of the movies’ silent era, which ended back in the late 1920s.
The television show’s director tried to shake some traditions up a bit, placing several of the technical awards first. Among these, Martin Scorcese’s “Hugo,” his first sally into 3-D, deservedly won for best cinematography and art direction, foreshadowing its later, equally appropriate awards for sound and visual effects.
The big winner of the night, however, was clearly “The Artist,” widely regarded as the pre-ceremony favorite. Director Michael Hazavanicius, one of the very few foreigners ever to win for Best Picture, and his leading man, Jean Dujardin, both gave very touching acceptance speeches, the latter multiplying by several hundred the words he had in the film. (My other favorite, Uggie the dog, appeared in black tie and barked politely and on cue.)
Perhaps the most moving speech was that of Octavia Spencer as Supporting Actress in “The Help”—the only big box-office success of the nine films nominated. She beat out a very strong field, including fellow cast member Jessica Chastain. Her emotions clearly getting the best of her, she tearfully concluded, “I’m freaking out!”
I also found the speech of Iranian producer/director/writer Asghar Farhadi touching, though in a different way. Thanking the Academy for recognizing his picture “A Separation” as Best Foreign Language Film, he decried the atmosphere of hatred and in which his country and ours currently find themselves. This film, the first from Iran to be nominated, represents a small but important thaw in those relations, as the audience warmly recognized with a standing ovation.
I was pleased, too, at the victories of Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” for Best Original Screenplay and Alexander Payne’s “The Descendants” for Best Adapted Screenplay. Both pictures stretched the boundaries for comedies—traditionally shortchanged in the Oscar races—just far enough, deepening the impact of this most popular genre (and my personal favorite). As usual, and like most viewers, I disagreed with some of the Academy’s choices. The final Harry Potter movie was a much greater achievement for makeup than “The Iron Lady,” where only Streep (as Margaret Thatcher) really showed the artists’ work, as opposed to the dozens of characters in the whole, immensely successful Potter series—none of which was given its due. Likewise, I thought Viola Davis’s work in “The Help” was superior to Streep’s portrayal of Britain’s colorful first female prime minister; I think Streep may have felt so, too, despite her third win in seventeen tries.
In an evening that celebrated traditions, movies and bits that played with them were most welcome. “Rango” won for Best Animated Film, properly rewarding its clever twists of Western movie clichés to appeal to an older-than-usual demographic. Christopher Guest’s delightful send-up of focus groups was a howler, speculating on how one would have treated “The Wizard of Oz” had there been such assemblages in 1939.
Coming in at just a shade over three hours, the ceremony showed the producers’ awareness that the show’s falling popularity demonstrates the need for sprucing up the property. Acceptance speeches were mercifully shorter and, thus, more effective. While patting itself on the back vigorously, the Academy also refreshingly made fun of itself. Let’s hope that trend continues for #85.