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?).
All the acting categories were presented in the new format of bringing five past winners within the given category and having each of them make a personal speech to one nominee. This may have sounded good on paper but without showing the actual movie clips and with the unevenness of the quality of the speeches (and also some of the performances), some ended up coming across as sappy while others sounded like weak praise. Anthony Hopkins’ compliments on Brad Pitt’s work in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button were particularly faint with the only good thing he could say about the performance being that he aged backwards (also because it is true). As a result, along with the other categories' presentations showing a prolonged generalized montage of achievements and then announcing the actual nominees, the whole affair ended up feeling a little more self-congratulatory and ended up dragging the ceremony out way too long. Perhaps if they are going to try this again next time, they should also simultaneously play the clips so that they serve as a brief description of what makes the performances deserve their merit.
The host, Hugh Jackman, however, came away largely unscathed by many of the ceremony’s problems and, if anything, the great, natural talent and showmanship he has shown on Broadway gained wider visibility and will earn him more notice. His opening number showcasing cardboard cutout scenarios from the Oscar-nominated films (after cracking a joke that the current state of the economy has caused this downsizing) were quite hilarious, from re-enacting the game show from Slumdog Millionaire, putting his face through holes on top of cardboard drawings of reverse aging or replaying the duel of Frost/Nixon in a surprising duet with Anne Hathaway. Then, the skit with Tina Fey and Steve Martin that followed and presented the screenplay Oscars was a comedic jewel, particularly the opening line when Fey said, “It has been said that to write is to live forever,” and Martin replied, “The man who wrote that is dead.”
There were two more distinctly memorable moments, however. One was when James Marsh’s Man on Wire won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature and Philippe Petit came up on stage to perform a magic trick and then tried balancing the Oscar on his nose for several seconds. The other was the “In Memoriam” montage that had the brilliant background addition of Queen Latifah’s beautiful live rendition of “I’ll Be Seeing You.” Numerous significant people passed on in the past year such as Anthony Minghella and Sydney Pollack (who were posthumous nominees for producing The Reader), Bernie Mac, Roy Scheider, Ricardo Montalban, Isaac Hayes, Charlton Heston and, of course, Paul Newman. Having Latifah’s smoothly legato jazz singing voice was a masterstroke and did wonders for capturing the perfectly reverent tone for the annual tribute.
What really, really fell flat though was the idea of performing the medley of the three songs nominated for Best Original Song right before announcing the winner. I had shivers thinking about how they will awkwardly combine the more Bollywood-styled songs like “Jai Ho” and “O Saya” from Slumdog Millionaire and the slower, more contemplative song, “Down to Earth” from WALL·E (which was performed in the ceremony by John Legend). When they actually shamelessly meshed “Down to Earth” with “Jai Ho” at the end, it was really like fingernails on a chalkboard and I was literally shaking my head in disbelief. They were not just ramming globalization down our throats but the entire globe itself. When they announced the final winner, “Jai Ho,” I was simply glad that it was over and maybe wished the Bollywood dancers and performers would do just that song again to make me forget what just happened.
In total tallies of awards, Slumdog Millionaire scored eight, Milk scored two with Penn’s win and Best Original Screenplay for Dustin Lance Black, and I was relieved that The Curious Case of Benjamin Button ended up taking home just three technical awards, including Art Direction, Makeup, and Visual Effects, all of which were deserving despite the movie’s general failure as a sweeping story. I can also understand why Best Sound Mixing ended up being awarded to Slumdog Millionaire because sound mixing is about controlling sound levels and getting that right was crucial to giving a sense of spatial reality in the slums of Mumbai, along with providing a great Bollywood musical number at the end. But why, oh why did WALL·E, which unsurprisingly won the Best Animated Feature Oscar, lose out on the Oscar for Sound Editing (which gave The Dark Knight its second Oscar)? I guess that the flashy whiffs, booms, and bangs are easier to notice than the carefully timed electronic noises and space object movement that are more subtly buried and therefore more notably crucial to the story.
Another somewhat shocking result was the awarding of Best Foreign Language Film, which went to Departures from Japan, which has been seen by virtually no one in the US other than in the Hawaii Film Festival. I would have loved to see an innovative and daring film like Waltz with Bashir become the first animated film to ever win this category but since I have not seen Departures and the Academy requires voters to have seen all five films in this category, I will wait on full judgment. But I have to say it would have to be quite something to shoulder off Waltz with Bashir or even The Class and with the Academy’s questionable track record of properly judging merit in foreign films, the award leaves me somewhat skeptical to the point of guessing one of the following. In the case of Waltz with Bashir, either a) they were not ready to award their first foreign film Oscar to an animated film or b) they did not want to give the Oscar to Israel in light of the political conflict in the Gaza strip. And in the case of The Class, they perhaps did not want to stack up the Oscar along with the Palme d’Or it already received at Cannes.
Apropos to the overall ceremony, at least you have to give the director Baz Luhrmann some points for trying to make a Broadway-styled Oscar show and I actually hope they try it once again. But I really wish that the Hollywood or government politics are toned way down so that there can be some truly deserving and credible wins and that even the deserving wins do not feel like they have agendas. Otherwise, if they continue this pattern, maybe people will (and possibly should) start to think that just getting recognized with a nomination has more value than actually getting up to the Oscar podium, which consequently means that fewer people may choose to see the Oscars.