The Oscars: Wondrously Inventive and Well Executed, With a Gloss of Genuine Sentiment|
by Eleanor Ringel Cater
Georgia Online News Service
As expected, it was a slam-dunk for Slumdog Millionaire at this year's Academy Awards. The little movie that could - made for about $14 million and originally designated to go direct-to-video (the movie industry equivalent of the remainder bin) - ended up winning a quite respectable eight Oscars, including the big ones for best picture and best director, Danny Boyle (whose evening-long grin reminded us the English do need to do something about their teeth).
Ah, but those Aussies; they keep their choppers gleaming. Or at least they do if they're Hugh Jackman. It took a man from Down Under to finally show Hollywood how to put an awards show over. After an endless parade of stand-up comics - Whoopi, Ellen, Letterman, Jon Stewart - Jackman seemed an unusual choice. But he took his cue from Billy Crystal, the most successful Oscar host in recent memory by stealing Crystal's act.
And he did it better.
As some of us already know, Jackman isn't just a super-powered and deeply conflicted X-Man named Wolverine; he's an accomplished song-and-dance man (as was, for one, James Cagney). His revival of Oklahoma! in London a few years back was a sell-out. So when he began singing and dancing to spoofs of the nominated movies, he knew what he was doing. He even got a delighted Anne Hathaway into the act (turns out she can sing, too). Maybe someone should look into pairing them up sometime soon on-screen.
The biggest surprise of the evening, award-wise, was that Sean Penn managed to win best actor for his brilliant work in Milk, outlasting Mickey Rourke's late-in-the-game surge for The Wrester. In fact, statistics tell us that winners of the Spirit Award - an event that honors independent films and takes place the day before the Academy Awards - statistically don't go on to win the Oscar. Rourke gave a gonzo acceptance speech at the Spirits, including the unusual compliment that his co-star, Marisa Tomei, "can climb the pole" (a best supporting nominee, she plays a stripper in The Wrester). Then he had to sit back and watch Penn go for the gold - though Penn did graciously pay tribute, calling him "My brother."
Moments I Liked:
- Best supporting actress Penelope Cruz (Vicky Cristina Barcelona) asking if anyone had ever "fainted up here" as she clasped her Oscar, which probably weighs more than she does.
- Man on Wire winner Philippe Petit, showing that not only can he walk on a high-wire between the Twin Towers but he can balance an Oscar on his chin (and as I said, those suckers are heavy).
- Best actress Kate Winslet, not only managing to gracefully embrace both her husband Sam Mendes, who directed her in Revolutionary Road (the film she should have won for) but also seeking out Stephen Daldry, director of The Reader, the movie she did win for. I also liked her asking her father to identify himself, which he did with a piercing whistle.
- Best actor Sean Penn, getting just political enough on Prop 8 in his acceptance speech and not, as we've come to expect from Penn, overdoing it.
- The best foreign language prize by-passed front-runners Waltz with Bashir and The Class and went to Departures, an exquisite Japanese film about ancient death rituals, which I saw at the Montreal Film Festival and wasn't even sure would get released here. Now, at least, it has a chance.
- The family of the late Heath Ledger accepting his best supporting award for The Dark Knight. Yes, actors can access their emotions easily, but the look on some of those famous faces as the camera scanned the audience looked pretty genuine.
- Best of all was the re-jiggering of the awards presentations in the major acting categories. In each case, five previous winners came out together and each paid tribute to one of the current nominees. So we got Sophia Loren (looking like she'll never age) praising Meryl Streep, and Robert De Niro on Sean Penn, and Shirley MacLaine with a lovely tribute to Anne Hathaway. Just genius.
I can't imagine an Oscar show going better than this and yet … it was still plagued by the old bugaboos. It went on too long. It almost came to a standstill when those very worthy but decidedly unknown folks collected their prizes for best sound editing and the like. The studio system is DEAD, guys. Has been for decades. Maybe we could start handing even more of the tech awards and stuff like short subjects at their OWN ceremony. It just slows things down too much.
So, like Broadway and newspapers (whatever form they take), the rumors of Oscar's death are greatly exaggerated. There was glitter everywhere you looked, glamour, too, and fewer presenter starlets and starlings (my word for the male equivalent) reading bad jokes and plugging their upcoming movies.
Wondrously inventive and well executed, with a gloss of genuine sentiment, the 81st Oscars honored its heritage in a glorious way - one that echoes my favorite line anyone ever said about winning an Oscar.
Years ago, Ellen Burstyn asked Walter Matthau just what it means to win an Oscar. The famously - and fabulously - grumpy old man replied, "It means your obituary will begin, 'Oscar-winning actress Ellen Burstyn … '"
Eleanor Ringel Cater has been a Georgia-based movie critic for 28 years. She has been a regular contributor to CNN, MSNBC, Entertainment Weekly, Headline News and WXIA, Atlanta's NBC affiliate, and a columnist for TV Guide. [full bio]