Just as we suspected, Michel Hazanavicius' The Artist won Best Picture, and a buncha other Academy Awards. No surprise there. Indeed, there were few upsets this year. No clean sweeps, no turbulent double-backs, no dark horses. If there was a surprise it was that Meryl Streep won Best Actress in the otherwise unremarkable The Iron Lady. Streep has been nominated for 17 Academy Awards in her career, and, before Sunday, had only won twice. Her constant losses to other actresses swiftly became a punch line, and, after the grind of over twenty years, a long-standing Hollywood tradition. I love Meryl Streep, and admire her breadth and range as an actress, but I, like many a Hollywood pundit, rarely bet on her to won the Oscar in my (mild) bets. Bully for her then, for actually winning this year. I don't think I exaggerate to call Meryl Streep one of the best actresses of her generation, and that her peers finally chose to award again her speaks volumes to their good judgment.
But otherwise, it was a pretty typical year. In a year where all the Best Picture nominees were about nostalgia, The Artist stood ever so slightly above the rest. It was brief and lightweight silent comedy about a 1920s silent film star who fails to make the transition to talkies, and who is supplanted in the public consciousness by a plucky young lady who, incidentally, is secretly in love with him. Eventually he is brought into the talking era by the ingenue's aid. I recently wrote a review of The Artist, and posited that it, perhaps, serves as a counterpoint to Martin Scorsese's Hugo. They are both about silent film, but the former sees progress out of the stodgy old ways of making movies as a marriage of old-fashioned to the new-fangled. That progress in the arts can only be made if we realize that we have to move forward, always with an eye on our past. Hugo, by contrast, argues for a kind of heroic immortality of the old. In the film, famed silent filmmaker Georges Méliès has long since retired, and turned his back – rather bitterly – on his old filmmaking career. It's not until the young title character uncovers his films that he is able to re-emerge into the spotlight, and be given credit for his immeasurable contribution to the world of film. Scorsese has always been a proponent of film restoration, and sees film as something that has a kind of ever-present life and heft. New technologies may be dandy tools, but old films are always going to be just as vital and relevant as they were when they were first filmed.
Perhaps the win of The Artist reflects Hollywood's need to not only revel in its own nostalgia, but also to make a plaintive claim that they care capable of moving into the new world of digital distribution (or whatever new tools and toys are being played with these days; it's likely many Academy members don't really know where the business will head). The Artist is the progressive. Hugo is the classicist. Odd that The Artist should be filmed in old-fashioned style, and Hugo should be filmed with copious amounts of digital effects and 3-D cameras.
I was happy to see Bret McKenzie win an Academy Award for Best Original Song, as I am something of a fan of his comedy folk work with The Flight of the Conchords. It may, however be something of an insult, as he was only competing against a song from the dismissable Rio. From what I understand, about 80 songs were eligible for the Academy Award this year, and, thanks to some confusing new rules about what can be nominated, only two were deemed noteworthy by the Academy. Some, including me, have suspected that pop music is mutating to the point that The Academy feels including such a category is no longer necessary. Maybe they'll start up a Best Music Supervision category in its place. If you can make really good mixtapes, then you may have Oscar gold in your future.
This was an odd year, as many films on my top-10 list were nominated for awards. I cited Rango, The Descendants, Hugo, Midnight in Paris, and The Tree of Life as among the best films of the year, and, lo, they were nominated.
The ceremony, despite nearly a decade of re-jiggering and shortening and editing, still has a reputation for being over-long and self-indulgent. Well, it is self-indulgent. As host Billy Crystal quipped (and I paraphrase), nothing makes the increasing number of poor people in this nation feel good like watching the world's richest and best-looking human beings give each other gold statues. Crystal, by the way, finally brought magic back to the ceremony. Last year, the ceremony was hosted by James Franco and Anne Hathaway, as you'll likely recall, and you'll find that their “banter,” such as it was, felt like the shallow scripted nonsense that it was. A comedian needs to do this job. Or someone who has done extensive stage work. Someone who knows how to work a room, and is comfortable live in front of thousands. Selecting Crystal was, of course, a shallow attempt to boost the ratings that he used to pull back in the 1990s, and, I suspect, worked like a charm. Crystal, even though he's a bit slower and more old-fashioned than his youthful forebears, still has what it takes. Were his jokes stellar? A few were. Did he keep the show moving? A bit. Was he right for the job? 100%.
The Oscars have also been notoriously mannered. At least for the last 20 years or so. There is little in the way of on-stage one-armed push-ups anymore. Fewer and fewer celebrities seem to be visibly drunk on stage anymore. The producers must have missed that old chaos a bit, and included some more self-aware bits in the show to compensate. Robert Downey Jr., for instance, was being filmed onstage by his own mock documentary crew, and we were treated to hand-held close-ups of the man. His ease on stage and his affable quickness easily overshadowed the blonde moppet next to him. Okay, the moppet was Gwyneth Paltrow. Emma Stone also stole the stage in a similar fashion, accusing Ben Stiller of grandstanding in previous years. Stone was game and easy enough to actually play the scene straight. Stiller, like the vast bulk of presenters, seemed frightened and bored by the task.
And there was a kind of cute moment when Cameron Diaz and Jennifer Lopez posed on stage, whipping their heads around like dejected models. I suspect they improvised that moment. For a second, the show was fun and silly. But then they started speaking, and it was ruined.
Overall, a kind of fun show. It was average. All the winners were pretty much deserving, and the thank-you speeches were the usual mix of teary, plaintive, and moving. Octavia Spencer, though, had the real moment of the night. She won her award, and, gosh darn it, those tears were real.
From the Desk of William Bibbiani:
The Oscars can’t win, can they? It reminds me of that classic episode of “The Simpsons” – “The Itchy and Scratchy and Poochie Show” – in which the producers of a longstanding series tried to boost their ratings by adding a new, poorly conceived element that pissed audiences off. Afterwards, “Itchy and Scratchy” went back to normal, and audiences cheered because they forgot that there was nothing wrong with it in the first place. Except the Oscars went back to good ol’ Billy Crystal after a disastrous year with co-hosts James Franco and Anne Hathaway, and everyone’s still pissed. I keep reading reviews of the ceremony claiming that there was nothing “new,”but not offering any constructive suggestions about how to fix the problem. It’s the film industry pundit equivalent of fanboys hating Star Wars after 1999, but still going to every damned movie.
For the record, I do believe the Academy Awards is in need of a change. As I wrote last year – and could easily repost this year, if I just changed a few incidental details – I know how to fix the Oscars. The Oscar ceremony is hopelessly mired in ancient TV tropes that haven’t been relevant in decades, mixing staged monologues and vaudeville acts that only Conan O’Brien seems to be able to get away with. The solution isn’t to get Conan O’Brien to host – although that wouldn’t be a bad idea – the solution is to move away from a format that went out of style with “The Ed Sullivan Show.” In short, make The Oscars, a ceremony dedicated to honoring movies, more like a movie than a televised stage show. It's nothing short of an embarrassment that the ceremony devoted more time to Cirque du Soleil's nebulously-related interpretation of "going to the movies" than something actually from the movies themselves, like, for example, the two measly Best Original Song nominees. We should be worrying less about entertaining the audience in the actual theater with acrobats and more about doing something cinematic.
The problem with that solution, of course, is that it’s too radical. It would bear little resemblance to the Oscar ceremonies that we know and at least some of us still love. Complaining that the show stars big, gets slow in the middle and rushes the ending doesn’t help. Of course it starts big. It’s a show. Look at any musical and you’ll see the same motif. Of course it gets slow in the middle. It’s a long ceremony to begin with, and if they keep distracting from the actual awards – many of which, yes, mainstream audiences don’t care too much about – the damned thing will never finish, and purists will complain that they’re not handing out awards fast enough. And of course it gets rushed at the end. The Oscars always run long, and they always save the biggest categories for last because otherwise most of America would turn off their TVs. So they get the short shrift. It sucks but it comes with the arbitrary format they’re sticking with for no particular reason.
The solution isn’t a new host, although it would be nice to find someone other than Billy Crystal who can keep things moving along without every other quip falling flatter than a pancake. The solution is to change everything, and change is scary. For the last decade, I’ve been the only person I know who wears khakis. They’re out of style but I find them comfortable. I see no reason to change just because the rest of the world thinks I have to wear something that’s been stonewashed. But if I represented a multi-billion dollar industry trying to convince the world that our craft is still relevant, I’d probably switch things up at least one night out of the year and dress to impress.
As for the awards themselves, it was a quirky year. Meryl Streep wasn’t the big surprise of the evening for me. It was an unexpected twist but it’s not like she wasn’t a serious contender. No, the big surprise of the evening was The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo whipping out a win for Best Editing. Oh, what an exciting category, I know, but even the recipients of the award seemed shocked to be on stage, stammering out a quick and clearly unprepared “thank you” for an award that seemed destined to go to either The Artist or Hugo. I was shocked because after an initial wave of critical appreciation, which baffled me since I thought the film kind of sucked, David Fincher’s latest seemed to have no Oscar prospects whatsoever, beyond a few token nominations.
The second big surprise was that the clip they used for Best Actress nominee Rooney Mara (again, baffling) was from an anal rape scene. How did something that edgy eke its way onto the safest awards ceremony in years? I forget, was that the only scene where she wasn’t naked or something?
The third big surprise, or at least moment of unexpected weirdness, was that whoever wrote Natalie Portman's speech to the Best Actor nominees decided to essentially give away the ending of The Artist in the process. Screw you guys. It's "The Chick in The Crying Game is a Dude" all over again.
As for my predictions, I was down a bit this year but feel like I held my own, accurately predicting 15/24 categories, which is rather respectable. I should have gone with the odds-on favorites in the Best Live-Action and Animated Short Film categories, and probably gave the Academy too much credit in Best Visual Effects and Best Costume Design, and not enough credit in Best Original Screenplay. I beat out my esteemed co-host Witney Seibold by a single measly category, and for that I am proud. It should be one heck of a podcast this week: there’s going to be lots of booze and, just to be a good sport, monologues from Gigli. Tune in on Friday to see how it goes, and tune in next year for more of the same Oscar commentary, since the Academy hasn’t learned a damned thing.