The 84th Annual Academy Awards got very French Sunday night with two films dominating the proceedings, one a French film about Hollywood and the other a Hollywood film that takes place in France. Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist, a wonderfully entertaining silent film about a matinee idol whose career takes a nose-dive with the advent of talkies, walked away with the top prizes including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor for Jean Dujardin, plus awards for Costumes and Original Score. The technical awards were dominated by Hugo, Martin Scorsese’s love letter to early cinema, and in particular the work of film pioneer Georges Méliès. Both films won five awards.
With the Best Picture win, The Artist secures its place in Oscar history as only the second silent film to ever be awarded Best Picture. The last time it happened was way back in 1929 with the war epic Wings, the very first film to win Best Picture.
In a mostly predictable Oscar ceremony, the biggest surprise was a third win for Meryl Streep for her role as Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady, an award that was expected to go to Viola Davis for The Help. Streep joked “When they called my name, I got the feeling that I could hear half of American going ‘Oh nooooo! Her!? Again!? But . . . whatever.’” This comment came despite that fact that out of 17 nominations, Streep has only won three times, and hasn’t received an Oscar since Sophie’s Choice in 1983. In a gracious acceptance speech, she thanked her longtime makeup man J. Roy Helland (a former female impersonator) who has been with her on every film since Sophie’s Choice and also won his first Oscar last night for Streep’s make-up for The Iron Lady.
The Best Actor prize went, as predicted, to Jean Dujardin for The Artist, as George Valentin, whose career is destroyed by talking pictures. Dujardin, who was just as handsome and charming as he had been in the film, and remarked: “I love your country. So many of you here tonight have inspired me.”
The supporting awards went as predicted. Christopher Plummer who, at age 82, had never received an Oscar nomination until two years ago for playing Leo Tolstoy in The Last Station, won the year’s Best Supporting Actor prize for the comedy-drama Beginners, playing a dying man who comes out of the closet in the wake of his wife’s death. Plummer was poised and professional on the Oscar stage, reminding his newly acquired statuette that: “You’re only two years older than me, darling. Where have you been all my life?”
Octavia Spencer, who has won every award in sight this season, took home the Best Supporting Actress prize for her performance as Millie, a maid in 1950s Alabama, who informs a young journalist on her experiences of being treated like an object by her white employers. She was tearful on the stage and was unfortunately deprived of the best of her moment by Oscar interminable punch-clock.
The screenplay awards went to lighter fare this year. Alexander Payne won on the Adapted Screenplay side for his adaptation of Kuai Hart Hemmings’ book The Descendants, a wonderful family drama about a man (George Clooney) who finds out this comatose wife had been sleeping with another man. Meanwhile, the Original Screenplay award went to Woody Allen for his literary confection Midnight in Paris about a man who is visiting Paris and finds himself rubbing elbows with Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and and Gertrude Stein. Allen, as always, did not show up for the ceremony, but won the award that some thought should have gone to the ladies of Bridesmaids.
The Animated Feature award, as predicted, went to the delightful Rango, a goofy western comedy about a lizard who falls out of his aquarium into the desert and runs into a town full of western clichés and movie references. Rango was a brilliant piece of work (#2 on my ten best list behind The Tree of Life) and was boosted by Pixar’s decision to make the much-hated Cars 2. This was the first time since the inception of this award in 2001 that Pixar did not get their film nominated.
Billy Crystal, a replacement for Eddie Murphy who was ousted by the debacle over gay-bashing comments made by director Brett Ratner, managed to do what every Oscar host of recent years has failed to do: He made it funny. Crystal’s hosting duties fit the tone of the show, with an old-fashioned dry wit that was refreshing, especially after the disastrous pairing of James Franco and Anne Hathaway last year. It hasn’t been this funny or entertaining since, well . . . since the last time Billy hosted in 2004. Crystal’s humor fit the evening and every joke hit right on the mark, even cracks at have to perform at the Kodak Theater – the home of the Oscars for the past 10 years – in the midst of the company having filed for bankruptcy in January. “Welcome to the Chapter 11 Theater” he joked, and after Christopher Plummer’s win, jibed that next year it may be The Flomax theater. It was all in good fun, but it was overshadowed by the news that the company has until this time next year to get reorganized. If not, The 85th Annual Academy Awards may have to find another venue.
In the midst of the proceedings Billy took time out to remember previous Oscar telecast producer Gil Cates (and uncle of actress Phobe Cates), who guided him through several of his Oscar night hosting duties, and died last October at age 77. Cates was part of the “In Memorium” segment near the end of the show, a segment that he himself created for the Oscar telecast in the early 90s.
Of course, it wasn’t a perfect show. No Oscar show ever is. The producers of the telecast did a good job of keeping things moving, and probably could have ended the show just after 10pm CST, but too many commercial breaks and one too many long-winded tributes pushed the show on for another hour. But, that’s a small thing compared to an otherwise very entertaining show.
Both big winners The Artist and Hugo were very similar, not just the French connection, but the fact that they both spotlighted the early days of film. That was the whole theme of the show, in which the stage was decked out to remind us of old movie palaces of the past. This was a wise move Just a year after the producers of the Academy Awards attempted and failed to create a younger, hipper academy awards, they went back to their roots. Sunday nights Academy Awards ceremony was a loving example of what the academy awards should be. It was simple, funny, lively and entertaining. The major theme of the show wasn’t a specific area of film but just movies in general. Actors were shown in tribute films speaking simply and honestly about their passion for the art form. It seemed something of a gimmick-free Oscars and that was refreshing.
The only thing close to a gimmick was the most breath-taking part of the show, a performance by Cirque du Soliel, to the scene of Cary Grant running from the bi-plane in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest. Nothing about Cirque du Soliel is ever ordinary or dull, and if there had to be anything close to interpretive dance, they couldn’t have found a better act.