The 81st annual Oscars last night was filled with interesting moments. Hosted by Hugh Jackman, the Oscars this year tried to capture a 1930s club feel, with a portion of the stage jutting into the audience, and with the music reminiscent of '30s Big Band and swing.
Kate Winslet, Sean Penn and Penelope Cruz
Hugh Jackson got things started with an opening musical performance he proclaimed "low budget," supposedly made up of homemade props.
It was sometimes brilliant (such as when he pulled Anne Hathaway on-stage to play Nixon to his Frost in parody of Frost/Nixon) and sometimes bad (such as when he walked down a wall of cardboard cutouts to trace the backward aging from The Curious Case of Benjamin Button).
Five prior winners of the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress read glowing tributes to the category nominees, and then Penelope Cruz was announced the winner. She began her speech, "Has anybody ever fainted here? I might be the first." During her speech, the camera cut to nominated actor Robert Downey Jr. looking bored.
Jackman announced that the evening would represent the journey through the film-making process, beginning with the writing awards. The curtain opened on a blank screen, with typed words projected on a big screen, stage directions read in voice-overs by Tina Fey and Steve Martin, saying things like, "The audience is amazed by the presenters." As they took the stage and spoke, the audience laughed along in one of the few truly funny moments of the evening.
They announced the awards for Best Screenplay (Milk) and Best Adapted Screenplay (Slum Dog Millionaire). Simon Beaufoy, as part of his eloquent acceptance speech, said, "There are certain places in the universe you never imagine standing. For me it's the moon, the South Pole, Miss World podium, and here."
Jennifer Aniston and Jack Black introduced the nominees for Best Animated Feature Film. Since he's appeared in animation films, Jennifer Aniston asked him for his secret to success: "Each year, I make one DreamWorks project, and then I take all the money to the Oscars and I bet it on Pixar." Cutaway to Jeffrey Katzenberg from DreamWorks laughing. An animated short showed Wall-E discovering an Oscar and a videotape. He weighs the two of them and flings away the Oscar, then watches a tape filled with clips from the nominees.
When Aniston announced that Pixar's Wall-E won Best Animated Feature Film, Black let out a celebratory whoop, which was a nice callback to the DreamWorks joke.
They also announced the award for Best Short Film (Animated), which was "La Maison en Petits Cubes," a Japanese production.
Moving along in the film process, Sarah Jessica Parker and Daniel Craig stood on a set that looked like a warehouse. For the Art Direction award, they stood amidst fabric swatches and other props, with TVs that displayed artist sketches for the nominated films as they described them. This was our first glimpse of the strange camera technique of zooming in and out of multiple video screens, which often made it difficult to view and especially to read what was on those screens. To maintain the "club" feel, the orchestra played quietly, almost as if Parker and Craig really were backstage while a band was performing in a club. The Art Direction award went to The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, beginning a competition for the most awards with Slumdog Millionaire. The score: Slumdog 1, Benjamin Button 1.
For Costume Design, Parker and Craig moved to a set festooned with shoe boxes, clothing, and mannequins. Again, the cameraman did his best to disorient the viewer, zooming in on different video screens, and then they announced The Duchess as the winner.
The Makeup Artist set was at least easier to view. They stood next to a makeup table surrounded by lights, where three "mirrors" showed images from the films nominated. Again, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, bringing it to Slumdog 1, Benjamin Button 2. As makeup artist Greg Cannom walked forward to accept his award, he looked a lot like Benjamin Button in his middle years.
Robert Pattinson from Twilight and Amanda Seyfriend from Mama Mia! delivered a few obvious jokes: "Well, I had to be a vampire to find love," "And I have three fathers!" They introduced a video montage about love in the movies in 2008, which was unremarkable except for the fact that it showed several scenes from Milk, including a male-on-male kiss.
Natalie Portman and Ben Stiller brought some life back into the program. Stiller always finds a way to top himself at the Oscars. This year, he came out with a scruffy beard and dark sunglasses, looking just like Joaquin Phoenix on his recent Letterman appearance. He elicited nervous titters from the audience as he chewed gun, stared around disinterestedly, and sighed loudly. He claimed that he wanted to retire from being a funny guy and maybe take up cinematography, again a reference to Joaquin's assertion that he was going to retire from acting and become a hip-hop artist. Stiller even managed to upstage the video clips by wandering around the stage, staring at the lights.
Joaquin Phoenix looking scruffy on Letterman
Graciously, when he accepted for Slumdog Millionaire, Anthony Dod Mantle said, "I found that very inspiring, Natalie and Ben. If I could use as few words on a set on a film like Slumdog and get away with it, I wish I could. I wish I could. Fantastic." He added that he was "very honored with this beautiful thing."
Jessica Biel, who had hosted the Technical Awards ceremony, introduced a montage of those awards, while wearing a dress that looked like her wrap got twisted into her neckline.
In a short film directed by Judd Apatow, the stars of Pineapple Express, James Franco and Seth Rogen, watched a montage of movies from 2008, ranging from screwball comedies to, of course, the Oscar-nominated films. At the end of the film, we break the fourth wall: "Why is there a film crew in my apartment?" It turns out that Janusz Kaminski, the cinematographer of Schindler's List, is filming them. He joins them on the couch to enjoy the end of the montage.
The three of them them came on-stage together to announce the winner of Short Film (Live Action), "Spielzeugland (Toyland)."
Then, in the most bizarre and pointless dance sequence of the last several years, Hugh Jackman danced and sang with Beyonce to a baffling medley of songs from famous musicals such as Singing in the Rain, West Side Story, Grease, The Sound of Music, Chicago, Moulin Rouge!, Mama Mia!, The Wizard of Oz, all framed with the song "Putting on the Ritz" and also, for a brief moment, incorporating two of the stars from High School Musical and a drum line. At the end, Jackman proclaimed to a baffled audience, "The musical is back!" He gave credit to Baz Luhrmann (Moulin Rouge!) for the sequence, who would have been wise to go by the name Alan Smithee for this one.
To deliver the award for Best Supporting Actor, five previous winners sang their praises. Philip Seymour Hoffman, who clearly didn't expect to win, was wearing a black knit cap. Cuba Gooding Jr., when addressing Robert Downey Jr., noted that he was nominated for playing an Australian actor who plays an African-American in blackface. "Are you out of your mind?" he asked, in one of the few light moments amongst the purple prose of the acting accolades.
Kevin Kline spoke about the late Heath Ledger in his role of The Joker in The Dark Knight, and then Ledger's father, Kim Ledger, mother Sally Bell and sister Kate Ledger accepted the award on his behalf. His father called it "every so humbling." The camera cuts to previous supporting actor winners and the other nominees, all looking moved, including Adrian Brody, whose exuberant acceptance for that award for The Pianist became a classic Oscars moment. Ledger's mother said that tonight the family is "choosing to celebrate and be happy for what he achieved." His sister ended by adding, "We proudly accept this award on behalf of your beautiful (daughter) Matilda."
A film sequence showed the directors of the Best Documentary Feature talking about their filmmaking process and the importance of documentary film, interspersed with clips from their movies. Bill Maher took the stage, making a joke about his own documentary, Religulous, a snarky, controversial look at religion, which was not nominated. He said, "Someday we all do have to confront the notion that our silly gods cost us too much," which got only a few weak laughs but will probably be replayed endlessly for several weeks by conservative pundits. Certainly, it did seem self-serving and classless to use his platform as presenter to make a case for his own documentary, and if it was meant as a joke, it barely registered.
The makers of Man on the Wire, accepting their award, called up the film's subject, Philippe Petit, who amazed the world when he walked a tightrope between New York's World Trade Center's twin towers in 1974. He said he would give "the shortest speech in Oscar history: yes!" Then, he broke his own rule, thanking some people, including the Academy for "believing in magic." Amusingly, he balanced the Oscar briefly on his chin and then had the statue take a few bows.
Moving to the post-production awards, Jackman introduced a montage of action clips, which mostly consisted of car chases. Will Smith announced the next several awards by himself, so comfortable on stage that, if he was reading scripted lines, he made them sound improvised. For Outstanding Visual Effects, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button won. Then for Outstanding Sound Editing, it was Dark Knight. Best Sound Mixing, Slumdog Millionaire. And finally, Best Film Editing, Slumdog Millionaire.
This brings it to: Slumdog Millionaire, 4; Benjamin Button, 3.
Eddie Murphy presented the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award to Jerry Lewis for his decades of charity work for children with muscular dystrophy. "From one nutty professor to another," he said as he announced Lewis, who seemed to be struggling to enunciate as he read a short, prepared speech. In the reaction shot of the auditorium applauding, the camera found Frank Langella not clapping. Maybe he was beginning to wonder when the Best Actor awards would be announced.
Zac Ephon and Alicia Keyes announced the music awards. For Best Original Score, A.R. Rahman won for Slumdog Millionaire. He said that he was "excited and terrified," adding that the "last time I felt like this was at my marriage."
Instead of the usual big dance sequences, where each nominee for Best Original Song is performed separately, this time all three were performed as a medley, with dancers in both Indian and African traditional garb. A.R. Rahman and John Legend performed songs from Slumdog Millionaire and Wall-E, and then A.R. Rahman was again proclaimed the winner.
Slumdog Millionaire 6, Benjamin Button 3.
Liam Neeson and Freida Pinto (from Slumdog Millionaire) announced the winner for Best Foreign Language Film, Departures, another Japanese production.
Queen Latifah introduced the memorial montage, saying that "these artists gave us weekends, lifetimes of enjoyment." She sang live, "I'll Be Seeing You" while the camera swooped in and out of a large screen and several smaller screens, each containing multiple images of the filmmakers and actors who were remembered. The biggest applause came at the end for actor/director Sidney Pollack and then for actor/entrepreneur/humanitarian Paul Newman. As the video ended, the stage was empty, showing only an empty spotlight, sort of like a riderless horse at a funeral.
After a commercial break Jackman, amusingly, announced that the president of the Academy was stepping down and that as a gift, he would not be making a speech.
Reese Witherspoon presented the award for Best Director, which was earned by Danny Boyle for Slumdog Millionaire. Truly, it would have seemed cruel for him not to win it, considering how many times the camera cut to him, clearly moved, while his other crew members won awards. Accepting his award, he bounced a couple times, then explained that he'd promised his kids years ago that if he ever won an Oscar, he would "receive it in the spirit of Tigger from Winnie the Pooh." Later, after he thanked his family, the camera cut to his daughters, now teenagers, watching proudly from the audience. Very sweet.
Five previous Best Actress winners delivered their tributes to this year's nominees. Shirley MacLaine pointed out to Anne Hathaway that she's also a great singer, as Anne clutched a hand to her chest, seemingly overwhelmed.
Unfortunately for me, in the middle of Sophia Loren's encomium for Meryl Streep, the show officially ran over. This wouldn't have been a problem except that I was watching it on delay through my DVR, so that I had the leisure of fast-forwarding commercials or rewinding key moments. I lost several minutes, and didn't hear Kate Winslet's acceptance speech, where she talked about having practiced at home with a shampoo bottle as a child. "Well, it's not a shampoo bottle now!" After a long litany of thank-yous, she concluded with a nod to her fellow nominees: "And I want to acknowledge my fellow nominees, these goddesses. I think we all can't believe we're in a category with Meryl Streep at all. I'm sorry, Meryl, but you have to just suck that up!" Thanks to YouTube, I found the whole sequence.
Next, five previous Best Actor winners sang the merits of this year's nominees. Michael Douglas announced that the award went to Sean Penn for Milk. He began with a joke about the anticipated conservative response to his win: "You commie, homie-loving sons of guns!" Then he acknowledged, "I want to make it clear I know how hard I make it to appreciate me." His acceptance speech then became a rambling treatise, as he called for "those who voted for the ban against gay marriage to sit and reflect and anticipate their great shame and the shame in their grandchildren's eyes if they continue that way of support. We've got to have equal rights for everyone."
In a nigh incomprehensible combination of run-on sentences, he ended, "I'm very, very proud to live in a country that is willing to elect an elegant man president and a country who, for all its toughness, creates courageous artists. And this is in great due respect to all the nominees, but courageous artists, who despite a sensitivity that sometimes has brought enormous challenge, Mickey Rourke rises again and he is my brother. Thank you all very much."
Steven Spielberg then took the stage to announce the Best Director award, starting with a montage from this year's nominees, interspersed with film clips from similar films from film history, including among many others 12 Angry Men, The Best Years of Our Lives, Million Dollar Baby, Forrest Gump, Lost in Translation, Braveheart, Network, Gandhi, Godfather, Good Will Hunting, and Shakespeare in Love.
The winner: Slumdog Millionaire, making the final total Slumdog Millionaire, 8; Benjamin Button, 3. The producers brought several members of the cast and crew onstage, including an adorable little boy. They called the film process "an extraordinary journey." The script, producer Christian Colson said, inspired "mad love" in everyone who read it. "Most of all," he said, "we had passion and we had belief, and our film shows that if you have those two things, truly anything is possible."
In the final moments, Jackman took the stage again, to bid everyone good-night and to introduce a final montage, giving a first glimpse of the films from 2009.
Although it ran a half hour long, the Oscars pared down on some of the traditional excesses, such as oodles of theme montages and lengthy "bits" between presenters. Although not everything worked as well, the show producers deserve praise for taking an innovative look at the ceremony, striving to make it entertaining and fresh. Certainly, there were several bright moments from this show that deserve a place in Oscar history.
The brilliant moments cancel out the bad dance numbers.