After 81 Years, the Oscars become relevant

It can be argued—and it almost certainly will be—that this year’s Academy Awards were utterly predictable. The smart money had said it was going to be a Slumdog Millionaire straight ticket, and with eight Oscars—picture, director, adapted screenplay, cinematography, editing, original score, song and sound mixing—they were dead on. Certainly I can’t say it wasn’t predictable, since I was playing a little “name the winner” game with myself during the ceremony.

Co-critic Justin Souther wasn’t watching the show, but wanted to know the winners, so I was e-mailing them to him as they were announced. (This is as close as anyone will ever get me to Twittering.) As each category came up, I went ahead and typed in the name I thought would win. (I skipped a few categories like Foreign Language, where I hadn’t seen many of the nominees.) The only major award where I hesitated was Best Actor, but I went with Sean Penn. Not once did I have to change the answer I’d put in.

The suspense, for me, came from waiting for the Academy voters to do something terminally stupid. They have a long and distinguished history of that, and with 13 nominations for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, the power to do it was as close as their ballot sheets. That they didn’t do it strikes me as remarkable in itself. Even more remarkable was the fact that this marked the first time in possibly forever where I agreed that the Best Picture actually was the best picture of the year. And up till the very last minute, I harbored a deep sense that it wouldn’t happen, because Slumdog Millionaire is, from my perspective, quite the most daring and deeply layered film ever to take home that award.

The Oscars have finally become relevant—and I don’t just say that because I was in almost complete accord with the Academy (though it certainly doesn’t hurt). It’s the fact that for once they lived up to that phrase “of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.” That’s a pretty highfalutin term for an organization that was the brainchild of Louis B. Mayer and designed primarily to distract actors, directors and writers with prizes to keep them in line and not asking for more money. Of course, that concept died as soon as the commercial value of the Oscars as a marketing tool surfaced (which is to say almost immediately). Not everyone bought it, of course. Josef von Sternberg resigned from the Academy in disgust in 1932, noting that it had “nothing to do with art and even less to do with science,” while MGM’s boy wonder Irving Thalberg once candidly noted that The Sin of Madelon Claudet (1931)—a film he produced—was “the kind of crap that wins Oscars.”

Of course, I’m well aware that cries of the Academy being “out of touch” will be forthcoming from those who feel that The Dark Knight and WALL-E (even though it took Best Animated Feature) were snubbed. But so much of that argument is predicated on the amount of money those films generated, and until the Academy changes its name to the Academy of Motion Picture Box-Office Receipts, it’s that argument that is irrelevant, not the choices that were made. The claims that “almost no one” saw Stephen Daldry’s The Reader perhaps says more about audiences than the film, since enough Academy voters saw it for it to snag the nominations it did and for Kate Winslet to win an Oscar.

Actually, this was a year when most of the nominations didn’t seem reactionary or foolish. Granted, all those nominations for Benjamin Button smacked of Hollywood at its self-congratulatory worst, while Frost/Nixon‘s nominations had that old-fashioned craftsmanship vibe. (Doubt would have been a better choice than either one for Best Picture. So would’ve Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky.) The other choices were remarkably fresh and reflected a sense of the appreciation of the actual artistry of filmmaking as practiced by people who truly deserve the word “visionary” as a description—filmmakers interested in stretching both their own boundaries and the boundaries of film. That the Academy didn’t go for such obvious Oscar-bait as Sam Mendes’ Revolutionary Road and Edward Zwick’s Defiance is equally surprising—and refreshing.

Do I have qualms about the final choices? Sure, that’s inevitable. I would really have liked to see Viola Davis win Best Supporting Actress for her shattering performance in Doubt, but I can’t actually fault the choice of Penélope Cruz in Vicky Cristina Barcelona. And much as I was pleased to see Dustin Lance Black win for his original screenplay for Milk, I was sorry to see Martin McDonagh not win for his In Bruges. Otherwise, well, I really think Catherine Martin’s costumes for Australia should have taken that category, but The Duchess would have been my second choice.

And what of the show itself? It wasn’t bad. Hugh Jackman proved to be a good choice for host, managing not to try too hard and making it all seem effortless. It was nice to see him sweep Anne Hathaway out of the audience to “play” Nixon to his Frost—and even nicer to be reminded that Hathaway can sing (I’d forgotten her enchanting rendition of Queen’s “Somebody to Love” in the largely un-enchanting Ella Enchanted a few years ago). The big medley production number—based in large part on Fred Astaire’s “Top Hat, White Tie and Tails” from Mark Sandrich’s Top Hat—was probably the best such effort ever to grace an Oscar show. (No big surprise in that it was created by Baz Luhrmann and was essentially a live production number variant on the “Elephant Love Medley” from his 2001 film Moulin Rouge!.)

The approach to the acting awards—having five previous winners address each nominee—was a nice touch that worked marvelously well because it came across as genuine, even in a couple of instances (naming no names) where it was probably a little forced. The lack of forced feeling was overall the best thing about the show. The emotions seemed very true at nearly every turn. The business of bringing a large chunk of the cast and crew of Slumdog Millionaire up onstage at the climax when the film took Best Picture resulted in a moment that was as close to the overwhelming emotionalism of the film’s own climax as could be imagined.

As for the speeches, there wasn’t a clinker in the lot, though the one that will stand out in most people’s minds came from Sean Penn when he received his well-deserved Best Actor win for Milk: “You commie, homo-loving sons of guns.” And then he turned really political—making a statement against California’s Proposition Eight—but, hey, what’s an Oscar show without a bit of politics? Regardless, he also evidenced a surprisingly good sense of humor about his own outspokenness and status for being “difficult.”

Put simply, this was both the best Oscar show I can remember and certainly the most satisfying one I’ve ever seen from the standpoint of seeing virtue rewarded. Is it possible to ask for more than that? Well, yes—that they don’t screw it up next year.

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress since December 2000. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

5 thoughts on “After 81 Years, the Oscars become relevant

  1. Steven

    I was only disappointed by two choices. I think Viola Davis deserved Best Supporting Actress. I really liked Sean Penn, but I thought Mickey Rourke’s performance was better. I was happy with all of the other choices though. Kate Winslet finally got her award. I’m glad Heath Ledger won too.

  2. Ken Hanke

    I would have liked a Viola Davis win, too, but I can’t say that Penelope Cruz didn’t deserve her award. I wouldn’t have minded a Mickey Rourke win, but I do value Penn’s performance more, if only because I saw no trace of Penn in the performance. Instead, I saw Harvey Milk.

  3. Tonberry

    Darn. I agree with this whole column, and can’t offer any real difference of opinion. Maybe in one thing, though it’s no biggie. I was rooting for Marisa Tomei for best supporting actress, probably because I have a crush on her, but on a deeper level, I just thought it was a very powerful and strong female performance out of everything else I’d seen last year.

    Yet I did watch “Doubt” just about within a week of the Oscars, and Viola Davis’s role was just as impressive, if not more given the little amount screen time she had. Her moment is one that stays with you, and feels so right. Feels so right? That’s just how great and on key “Doubt” is.

    Penelope Cruz’s win was the only surprise I experienced that night, maybe because I haven’t seen “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” yet. If she is as good in that movie as she is in “Elergy,” then I got no complaint.

    It was bothering me what it was about last weeks Oscars, that I haven’t felt before on other Oscar nights. Then you hit the nail on the head, it didn’t feel forced. Thank you for indirectly answering, what is so now painfully obvious!

  4. Ken Hanke

    Penelope Cruz’s win was the only surprise I experienced that night, maybe because I haven’t seen “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” yet. If she is as good in that movie as she is in “Elergy,” then I got no complaint.

    It’s a very different performance, but it’s also a very different role. Someone said that it was Volver-lite, which I’m still trying to work out because I saw little relationship between Cruz here as a mentally unstable, bisexual artist and her character in Volver.

  5. BobbyS

    The climax of the evening was especially gratifying, as we had rooted for the characters from the moment we met them in Slumdog. Occasional shots of Dev Patel and the other young actors as well as director Danny Boyle’s exuberance upon the show winning category after category summed up the Slumdog experience. We really wanted this to work out for them, and the Best Picture Oscar but a bow on it. I was happy to see that it did.

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