Even with the fresh presence of host Hugh Jackman, the Oscars this year turned out to be a ho-hum affair. You cannot fault Jackman for that, as his opening song and dance number lampooning the crop of nominees was a welcome contrast to the usual and now somewhat tiresome stand-up comedy routine. The ceremony, however, was too long as always and there was a sense of overt smugness among actors giving pats on each others’ backs and basically trying to please everyone. It also did not help that there were some disappointing wins based obviously more on politics than true merit.
But first, some positives: Slumdog Millionaire took home the Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director as widely expected along with six other wins for Adapted Screenplay, Film Editing, Cinematography, Original Score, Original Song for “Jai Ho,” and Sound Mixing. Considering that a number of brilliant films like WALL·E, The Dark Knight, The Wrestler, and The Visitor were left out of the Best Picture competition, it was the only sensible and valuable film to win. It was also nice to see the children from Mumbai getting their big, prestigious Oscar moment when the Best Picture was announced and the moment when Danny Boyle jumped up and down like Tigger was priceless.
Also, as widely predicted, Heath Ledger received the first posthumous Oscar in 32 years for The Dark Knight and I am relieved that they kept the emotionality of the late Ledger’s crowning moment fairly low-key. Heath’s parents and sister calmly came up to the stage to pay the most personal tribute to the distinctive work that he accomplished and no extra montage was needed to express the pervading sentiment that a great actor will be missed. And who knows, maybe his truly final role in Terry Gilliam’s upcoming The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus will also be worthy of a nomination next year.
Unfortunately, however, that was about the only thoroughly deserving acting win of the night. I know I am not alone in saying that the most disappointing was certainly Sean Penn in Milk upsetting Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler. Yes, Penn’s work was a technically great piece of acting but was nowhere near as raw or potent as that of Rourke, who found the role that he could just commit and throw himself into. The Academy, however, often likes to try to “dictate” their own winners’ speeches, I think, and they wanted Penn to make an Oscar speech that would make a grandstanding political statement for the times. Well, once the political issues and baggage pass by, time will tell which performance will be better remembered in the years to come.
The Best Actress in a Leading Role went unsurprisingly to Kate Winslet for The Reader. Now she was passed over many times with her past nominations and arguably should have really won for her first nominated role in 1995’s Sense and Sensibility but I do not believe that her performance in The Reader is the one she ought to be remembered for (and I actually feel pretty confident in saying that it will not be). I also know that as consistently great an actress as she has been, we have not seen the best from her just yet. Personally, equal to wanting to see Rourke up on the Oscar stage perhaps giving a blunt, most politically incorrect speech, I would rather have loved to see Melissa Leo humbly rewarded for her fearless, entrenched performance in Frozen River. If there is an optimistic way to look at this, however, it is that since the Oscar burden is past her at a relatively young age, Winslet will have freer rein to aspire to greater and higher artistic goals. Also, that moment when she asked her father to whistle so she could wave to her parents was kind of cute.
Penelope Cruz took the Best Supporting Actress prize for Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona, although I hoped that the Academy would show a little more imagination and depth to appreciate work like Marisa Tomei’s in The Wrestler or Viola Davis's in Doubt. I, for one, felt, however, that Cruz did not even give the best performance in the movie itself; the lesser known British actress, Rebecca Hall did in a much less flashy and more understated way and should have received a nomination instead. But Cruz’s performance was compared in some circles to that which might have been given by a younger Sophia Loren and thus was probably deemed friendlier to win. She also had the benefit of a rather recent nomination in a more memorable performance in Pedro Almodovar’s Volver from 2006 and, much like Winslet’s award, this might have been another sort of makeup Oscar for a role that might not be completely deserving (right, Martin Scorsese?).