Well, with the Oscar build-up finally done with, we actually get some time to sit back and reflect on the ups and downs of the ceremony. I have to say, it was pretty sweet. One of the best that I have seen in years. Let’s run down some of the high points of the evening. I’ll give you the lows tomorrow.
High Point #1: Hugh Jackman
I’ve been a Jackman fan for a long time, and it wasn’t because of X-Men (though I liked X2 quite a bit, and The Last Stand was much better than I was expecting) but because of the stuff that he did off of X-Men. I’m talking about The Fountain, The Prestige, Scoop, the stuff that sold him not only as an action star but as a magnificent leading man. After the Oscars though, it’s going to be hard to look at him and not think of him as Curly in the opening shots of Oklahoma! spouting “Oh what a beautiful morning!” That was classic.
Hugh Jackman ignited the Oscars with a gleeful energy that I haven’t seen before. Sure, Billy Crystal did some similar stuff when he was hosting every year, but it always came with a standup comedian’s wink. Jackman wasn’t trying to fill anyone’s shoes, but to bring a new set of shoes to the party. That opening song and dance trip through the year’s big nominees was absolutely priceless, and a signal that this year’s ceremony was going to bring a new spirit of fun and spectacle to it. They need to get Jackman back for next year. No excuses.
High Point #2: The Design
The stage last night was bigger and better than anything I’ve seen at the Oscars in the 15 years or so that I have been watching it consistently. It was just so elaborate and imaginative. The crystal overhang was enough ostentation to feed Somalia for several generations, but I was completely awestruck by it–it’s the type of design that lets you know you are in for a different type of experience.
Putting the band onstage and moving the seats up was great as well–it allowed Jackman and the presenters to more directly involve the audience. Some of the backgrounds might have been trying too hard, but I admired the impulse to have a different look and not just to hand out awards. Cudos for upping the ante on this year’s show.
High Point #3: The Presenters
I was a big fan of how they handled presenters this year; instead of arbitrarily doling out these duties to whoever is hot (though using Zac Efron and Robert Pattinson was pushing it a little much) in their careers or just in general, they actually tried to make each presentation interesting in its own way. Steve Martin and Tina Fey were easily the presenting highlight of the night as they passed out the screenplay awards. Having Martin adopt a pretentious, holier-than-thou air while telling Fey “don’t fall in love with me” as she stared longingly at his profile was a masterstroke.
I enjoyed the Jack Black/Jennifer Anniston bit as well. The line about Black taking all of his money from a Dreamworks project and bringing to the Oscars to bet it on Pixar might have been lost on some, but was inspired Oscar-favoritism humor. Even though the Indy Spirit Awards beat the Academy with the Joaquin Phoenix on Letterman bit (they did it better as well, staging a batsuit-clad Christian Bale berating Phoenix for his loutish behavior), I had to admire Ben Stiller’s commitment in wandering the stage with a scraggly beard and sunglasses as Natalie Portman read off the nominees.
The choices weren’t perfect. Will Smith was very bland and didn’t seem to know much about what he was presenting (a movie is edited before the sound is mixed, Will). Bill Maher was also a very bad choice to present documentary, projecting his usual smugness while pimping Religulous, his own documentary that should be objective but is really just another episode of Real Time. I give the Academy credit for trying to improve on this part of things, though.
High Point #4: The Acceptance Speeches
Acceptance speeches are generally pretty hit or miss every year–you either get someone who is extremely calm and has obviously rehearsed it, or you get a rampaging emotional lunatic who hadn’t prepared for the moment and takes about twenty minutes to get it together (I’m not looking at Halle Berry or Adrien Brody at all). The awards recipients last night found a very happy medium of not too flabbergasted but not too rehearsed. They pulled themselves together well and delivered speeches that were not only elegant but also, at times, emotionally profound.
Dustin Lance Black, who won the Best Original Screenplay award for Milk, probably typified this best with his statement about the legal and cultural oppression of homosexuals in America. He was making a point that his film probably made better, but it came from a place of such deep feeling and experience that it was one of the most poignant moments of the ceremony.
Heath Ledger. We all knew this moment would bring the house down, and it was handled with such class by the Academy that I couldn’t help but let a tear fall. With Ledger’s father, mother, and sister accepting his award for Best Supporting Actor, you still got the sense of fresh grief and despair over the loss of their son and brother. The faces of Ledger’s peers in the audiences really did say it all: an amazing actor is gone at the peak of his powers.
Kate Winslet’s speech was probably my favorite of the night. After seeing her at the Golden Globes, I couldn’t help but expect a little bit of a weepy, Halle Berry-style affair, but she handled things better than I expected. After personalizing the moment with the bit about play-accepting the award as an eight-year-old with a shampoo bottle standing in for Oscar (“I guess it isn’t a shampoo bottle anymore”) she proceeded to elegantly thank key members of the team that worked on The Reader, finally dedicating the award to it’s fallen producers, Anthony Minghella and Sidney Pollack. It really was a great moment that Winslet handled wonderfully. I was particularly fond of her asking her dad to whistle so she could wave to him in the audience.
Sean Penn did the unthinkable–he was gracious while still managing to be himself. After jokingly calling the Academy a bunch of “commie, homo-loving sons of guns” he made probably my favorite remark of his speech: “I realize how difficult I may make it for you to appreciate me.” Top marks, Sean. I forgive you a little bit for bitching the Academy out in Rolling Stone about not giving more love to Into the Wild.
Penn’s social justice statement about gay rights was predictable, but was handled intelligently by him as he did not go off on a political tangent. He also threw a tip of the hat to his friend and fellow nominee Mickey Rourke, saying “Mickey Rourke has risen again and he is my brother.” Nice speech.
I’ll be back tomorrow where we can investigate some of the low points.