March 14, 2010

Oscars 2009: What Went Down

Filed under: Movies,Oscars — DB @ 4:49 pm
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Complete List of Winners

It’s been a week since Oscar night, and I’ve finally had a chance to put my thoughts down in writing…just in time for nobody to give a shit anymore. But so be it. I need to get it out of my system. As usual, I needed to watch the whole thing again during the week so I could pick up on all the stuff I missed entirely or just didn’t take in fully amidst the commotion and distractions of an Oscar party. I know the idea of watching the entire three-and-a-half hour show a second time right away probably seems like torture to most of you, but I like going through it and hearing all the speeches and whatnot. Yes, my movie and Oscar geekhood runs that deep…deeper than the Tree of Souls that Avatar‘s Na’vi worship and revere. So with that, a final dip into the 2009 Oscar pool…

All season long it shaped up as an Avatar vs. Hurt Locker showdown. In the end, the Iraq drama took the big two prizes, proving that when it comes to winning Best Picture, nobody cares about how much a movie made at the box office. It irritated me that in the first few days after the show, articles kept popping up trying to explain why Avatar lost, as if it had been universally deemed the heavy favorite and suffered a stunning upset. Why do people feel a need to justify the loss? This wasn’t a Crash/Brokeback Mountain scenario. I’ll tell you right now why Avatar lost: because The Hurt Locker won. Why didn’t I see articles last year asking why Frost/Nixon or Benjamin Button lost to Slumdog Millionaire? Everyone has a theory about Avatar, and I’ll bet if you asked enough Academy members who didn’t place the movie high in their list, each theory would be heard. There’s no big mystery here, so stop trying to prolong the drama. The majority of Academy members felt The Hurt Locker was a better movie than Avatar. The end.

The opening of the show, with the lead acting nominees paraded out onstage and forced to stand there like beauty pageant contestants while the announcer said their names, was awkward and unnecessary. And why were only the lead actors singled out?

The presentation of Best Actor and Best Actress borrowed from last year’s show by having someone directly address each of the nominees. It’s still a good idea, but it didn’t work nearly as well this time. Last year, a former winner in each category spoke to a current nominee. This year, friends and co-stars of each nominee did the talking. So far so good, except that whereas last year’s presentations were short and sweet, this year’s rambled on as the speakers tried to cover not just the performances, but what wonderful people the nominees all are. Again, nice idea…but it went on too long. Producers Adam Shankman and Bill Mechanic said they took the idea from what Robert DeNiro said last year about Sean Penn. In that instance, the former winner was also speaking to a personal friend. But DeNiro’s speech covered Penn the man and his  performance more succinctly than the speeches this time. The highlight was Tim Robbins’ salute to Morgan Freeman, and it was nice to see Michelle Pfeiffer there for Jeff Bridges 20 years after The Fabulous Baker Boys, but overall the execution was not great. One improvement was that clips of the nominated work was shown, which I always think is an important part of the acting awards. And seriously, what was with the bitchslap to the supporting acting nominees this year? They didn’t get included in the opening (yeah, I said the idea was stupid, but I didn’t like seeing the supporting actors given second-class treatment), they didn’t get the friend/co-star tribute…the supporting actors got treated with the lack of respect that actors are supposed to reserve for the winners in the technical categories!
As for the winners themselves? No surprises in Waltz, Mo’Nique or Bridges. I know some have criticized Mo’Nique’s speech, but I thought hers was one of the best of the night, beginning with her thanking the Academy for “showing that it can be about the performance and not the politics.” After all the flak she took for not campaigning, not showing up at every press or promotional event, etc. I cheered her for calling out all the idiots who thought she should be denied for not playing the game. By the way, does her husband ever smile? I’ve seen her win four different awards, and each time he sits there blankfaced, not looking moved, happy, proud or anything. Your wife just won an Oscar, dude. Look alive! (Okay, a Google Image search has revealed lots of pictures of him smiling. Apparently he just doesn’t do it when she wins anything.)
And then there’s Sandra Bullock. Her win will go down in Oscar history as one of the Academy’s more ill-advised selections (see Roberto Benigni), but as I have made my feelings clear, I’ll finish the season on a positive note. Over the years, there’s been a pattern in which winners who I didn’t think deserved their gold managed to soften the blow by giving great acceptance speeches (I’m thinking Michael Caine for The Cider House Rules, Russell Crowe for Gladiator and Adrien Brody for The Pianist). Bullock, at least, continued that tradition. She was funny, humble and classy – it was an A+ speech all the way (her moment comes at about the 8:25 mark). And if there’s an upside to her win, maybe it’s that she will now have access to better material – and will make better choices – that match the talent I do think she has, even if it wasn’t on display in The Blind Side to the degree that should merit an Academy Award nomination and win.

Also, in the spirit of really praising Bullock, I have to say that her showing up at the Golden Razzies ceremony the night before the Oscars to personally pick up her Worst Actress prize for All About Steve was pretty damn cool, and further showed why people love her so much. She really is about as down to earth as a movie star can be. Her Razzie speech is definitely worth checking out (skip ahead to the 1:26 point for her entrance).

The biggest surprise of the night was the Best Adapted Screenplay win for Precious, which made Geoffrey Fletcher the first African-American to win a writing Oscar. I loved Precious, so I can’t complain about this win, but I think Up in the Air deserved that prize. I was disappointed to see it go home empty-handed. But Jason Reitman seemed to be enjoying himself all night, and hey: the guy is 32 years old and is coming off his second Best Picture/Best Director nomination in three years. He’ll be back.

The Hurt Locker‘s win for Original Screenplay was a mild surprise. While everything starts with the script obviously, I think that Hurt Locker‘s biggest strengths came in other areas, whereas Inglourious Basterds was, in my mind, a stronger achievement in screenwriting. Still, Tarantino’s got one writing Oscar on the shelf, and Waltz’s Supporting Actor win kept Basterds from going 0 for 8.

-Costume design winner Sandy Powell didn’t come off so well, beginning her speech by saying in a rather blasé way that this was her third win. Here’s a hint to future award winners: don’t get up on stage and highlight that you’ve won the award before. It doesn’t exactly endear you to anyone, particularly your fellow nominees watching from their seats. Powell went on to try and pay tribute to the talented, hardworking costume designers on low-budget and contemporary films who don’t get the award recognition they deserve because these categories favor period pieces. It was a nice sentiment, but she somehow made it come off like an insult. Let’s hope she does a little better if and when she wins Oscar #4.

-One of the things that happens when I go back through and watch the show a second time is I can hear all the speeches that get drowned out by the din at the party. Sometimes those speeches have some of the funniest or most touching tributes of the ceremony, like Hurt Locker screenwriter Mark Boal thanking his father, who died a month ago. Or one of Avatar‘s art directors, who said that fifteen years ago he was diagnosed with a fatal condition that he obviously beat. I liked that Avatar‘s visual effects winner Joe Letteri thanked the actors for trusting the VFX artists with their performances. “I know that couldn’t have been easy,” he said. Original Score winner Michael Giacchino eschewed reading a list of names and instead spoke about the importance of supporting children’s creativity, thanking his parents for doing so with him. Nice moments, all.

-And then there was the WTF moment of the night, which came when Documentary Short winner Roger Ross Williams was interrupted by a crazy lady who turned out to be his fellow recipient, Elinor Burkett. There have been numerous accounts of the personal drama that was playing out in front of the world at that moment, but this short article from Salon is the most complete one I’ve seen. Obviously Williams and Burkett each have a different take on what happened – both in the making of their film and on the Kodak stage – but from what the video shows (the clip is embedded in the article) they both could have handled the situation a little more professionally. Still, it made for a great Oscar moment!

Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin did well, but I feel like they could have done more. The monologue was funny, but the entire thing consisted of acknowledging members of the audience and having fun with them. Nothing wrong with that; it’s always a component of the host’s monologue. But this year it wasn’t a component; it was all they did. Still, it generated some great jokes. The best of the night may have been when Martin said, “In Inglourious Basterds, Christoph Waltz plays a Nazi obsessed with finding Jews.” Then, spreading his arms wide to indicate the entire room, “Well Christoph? The motherload!”

It would have been great to see these two guys do more bits. The Paranormal Activity moment was funny, and I liked that they parodied that movie at the Oscars, but think about how much funnier it could have been. As it was, the camera caught the two hosts moving into awkward positions in their sleep, with Martin eventually getting up, standing over Baldwin and punching him in the head. But why not have Martin wake up in the middle of the night and start marching across the room playing a trombone? Then he gets back into bed and a little while later Baldwin gets up and starts trying to assemble an IKEA bookcase. They could have aired snippets all throughout the show, with each gag becoming progressively more elaborate.

That’s pretty much how it went for the whole show. They were good, they were funny, but I can’t help thinking there were a lot of missed opportunities.

Good show or bad, I always love the Oscars. That said, I think Shankman and Mechanic’s production was lacking in a lot of areas, especially after the great show put on last year.

-The ongoing belief that Oscar ceremonies must have dance numbers resulted in a decent by time-wasting opening number featuring Neil Patrick Harris. It’s hard not to like him, so he saved the number. Unfortunately, the second dance-a-thon of the evening fared less well. Pairing up dancers and excerpts from the nominated film scores wasn’t a first, but the mix was awkward. The dancers were talented, but the numbers just didn’t fit with the music. To be fair, it’s a challenge trying to do a meaningful dance to The Hurt Locker‘s score. But it was a challenge that, in terms of the choreography, they were unable to meet.

-There were also some odd things happening with the set. It looked good enough at the beginning and end of the show, but there were head-scratching sections in the middle where the backdrop was a big rack of miscellaneous lampshades. I thought I was looking at the back wall of a Pottery Barn. When that disappeared, it was replaced by what looked like a giant empty, bookcase. Or maybe it was a honeycomb. All I know is that it was bizarre and ugly. Not sure what the designers were thinking…

-The tribute to horror films was a good idea, but as it was the only such piece in the show, it felt out of place and didn’t connect to anything else that was going on. Introducing the clip, Kristen Stewart said, “It’s been 37 years since horror had a place on this show, when The Exorcist picked up two Academy Awards.” That’s great…except the montage that followed began with footage from Jaws, which was nominated for Best Picture and won three Oscars two years after The Exorcist. The reel went on to include plenty of horror films that have earned Oscars since The Exorcist, including Aliens, Misery, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, The Silence of the Lambs (which won Picture, Director, Actor, Actress and Adapted Screenplay) and The Sixth Sense, which won nothing but garnered six nominations. And in what universe are Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands considered horror films?

-The “37 years” bit was just one piece of misinformation delivered throughout the night. Some may have just been bad teleprompter reading, but I suspect they were the result of sloppy writing. Alec Baldwin introduced Robert Downey Jr. as an Oscar winning actor, but in fact Downey has never won the award. Samuel L. Jackson said that Up was only the second film to be nominated for Best Picture and Best Animated Film…but that’s not really true, since there was no Best Animated Film category when Beauty and the Beast was nominated for Best Picture. And when Charlize Theron introduced Best Picture nominee Precious, she said that it had earned four nominations when it actually earned six. Note to the Academy: You need to get your friggin’ facts straight, and I’m happy to offer my services next year to make sure you do.

-The John Hughes tribute fared much better than the Horror presentation, and was a wonderful gesture on the part of the Academy given that while Hughes’ films had a strong impact on a generation of filmgoers, they were never the kind of movies embraced by the Academy. For them to single him out for special tribute was damn cool, and the montage did his career justice, working in footage not just from the teen angst films that we immediately associate with Hughes, but also comedy gems like Planes, Trains and Automobiles, Mr. Mom and Vacation. Having so many of his stars there added to the presentation, even if Jon Cryer, Anthony Michael Hall, Ally Sheedy, Judd Nelson and Macaulay Culkin got trotted out only to say one sentence each.

-For the second year in a row, the In Memoriam montage was accompanied by a live song performance rather than a piece of canned score, and it was once again a nice way to go. There was plenty of talk afterwards about the omission of Farrah Fawcett, which Academy executive director Bruce Davis attributed to her career consisting primarily of television, rather than feature films. I actually think it’s a fair point, until people rightly point out that Michael Jackson was included. Davis’ justification for that is pretty weak in my opinion, and his last comment is flat out insulting.

-It jumped out at me that presenters were all saying, “And the winner is” instead of the more traditional, “And the Oscar goes to.” Shankman told Entertainment Weekly, “I always thought it was overly polite. I wanted a sense of tension in the show. We thought of [the Oscars] as the most well-dressed reality competition show in the world.” Well, it didn’t add any tension, and Shankman’s status as a reality show judge doesn’t make this Dancing with the Stars. It also struck me that in nearly every category, presenters read the names of the nominees awfully quickly, barely giving the audience time to applaud. Tom Hanks came out to present Best Picture and didn’t even read the list of films one last time. I know I’m in the minority, but I’d rather let the nominees savor their brief moment than sit through a pointless dance number. Sorry Doogie.

-The Best Animated Feature introduction was clever, as newly created animation featured each film’s main character talking about what winning an Oscar would mean to them.

-Oh, and while the explanation of the two sound awards was a nice, helpful touch, using The Dark Knight as the example doesn’t make up for not nominating it for Best Picture last year.

-This year’s ceremony turned out to be the highest rated in five years, since The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King swept the accolades. Avatar‘s presence was probably the biggest factor, and the expanded Best Picture category – which also allowed for hits like District 9 and The Blind Side – probably helped. I’d guess the pairing of Martin and Baldwin was a draw as well. If 2010 sees a box office phenomenon make the Best Picture list, then perhaps we’ll be able to draw more likely conclusions. But the ceremony itself hardly re-wrote the book or did anything likely to excite new viewers. Even with the removal of song performances and honorary awards, the show still clocked in at three-and-a-half hours. So while Shankman and Mechanic are surely taking pride in the ratings boost, I think they should be thanking James Cameron and the Academy before they pat themselves on the back.

-Finally, I was pretty shocked that there wasn’t a single mention of the earthquakes in Chile or Haiti. Usually the liberal Hollywood crowd is all about calling attention to those kinds of disasters, but nary a word was heard or a ribbon displayed.

-Best in Show, Part I: Tina Fey and Robert Downey, Jr. They made for one of the night’s high points as Fey the Writer and Downey Jr. the Actor offered dueling perspectives on the importance of the screenplay. Fey scores two years in a row!

-Best in Show, Part II: Ben Stiller. Some people seem to think this gag was a misfire, but those people need their sense of humor checked. Stiller’s suit-wearing Na’vi made for yet another of his classic Oscar moments, which have included dressing as a bearded, rambling Joaquin Phoenix and a Lord of the Rings dwarf. I especially enjoyed the portion of his alien speech that was actually a Passover prayer in Hebrew.

-Poor Taylor Lautner, of Twilight and countless girls’ fantasy lives, looked out of his element in that room and was stiff as a board introducing the horror tribute. And his co-presenter Kristen Stewart proved once again that she doesn’t perform nearly as well on live stage as she does on film. These two were not the best representation of young Hollywood…though maybe they were the most accurate. At least Zac Efron showed some charisma when he came out later on.

But do Taylor Lautner and Miley Cyrus really belong at the Oscars? Mechanic told The Los Angeles Times, “The younger side of the audience has been drifting for years, so we’re more conscious of trying to build a youth element into the show.” Oh brother. First of all, I think I can tell you why the youth audience has been drifting for years: because most kids couldn’t give a shit about the Academy Awards. Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t think No Country For Old Men, Million Dollar Baby, The Last Emperor and The English Patient are big draws for the 12-17 demographic, and you’re kidding yourself if you think hordes of them are going to tune into the telecast waiting around for some tween star’s minute-and-a-half in the spotlight. Even in the years when a popular film like Titanic, Lord of the Rings or Avatar is nominated, the youth crowd is still unlikely to be a significant part of the audience. Plus, the awards begin at 8:30 on the east coast, so a big chunk of the youth audience you’re courting could very well be in bed. So please, future producers: stop trying to win teenage viewers by throwing pretty faces with no real accomplishments onto Oscar’s stage. If you want to spotlight younger actors, try some like Dakota Fanning or Saoirse Ronan, who’ve actually done some real work (and to be fair, Kristen Stewart, Amanda Seyfried and arguably Zac Efron do fit that bill). But putting Cyrus and Lautner on the Oscars is just cheap pandering.

– I would like to suggest to the Academy that next time you invite Jennifer Lopez to be  presenter, go out on a limb and let her present in a category that doesn’t have anything to do with music. I’ll bet she can handle it.

-Sean Penn is one of our best actors, but he often finds it difficult to string together a coherent thought. A few nights before the Oscars, he was on Real Time with Bill Maher talking about his humanitarian work, and I’m pretty sure half of what he said didn’t really make any sense. His comments on Oscar night seemed headed for the same place, although upon second viewing I think he was trying to apologize to his ex-wife Robin Wright for not thanking her when he won last year, while also chiding the Academy for not nominating her this year for The Private Lives of Pippa Lee. Sean, you might be best sticking to the script.

-I liked that most of the Best Picture clips were presented by people who had an association with the filmmaker – Keanu Reeves, for example, saluting The Hurt Locker, which was helmed by his Point Break director Kathryn Bigelow (that’s right, the director of Point Break won an Oscar!), or Jeff “The Dude” Bridges introducing the Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man, etc. And it was kind of cool to have them do it on a raised platform in the middle of the auditorium, rather than on the main stage.

Being a fan of beautiful women, I’m as interested in the parade of dresses as any Sex and the City fan. I was largely underwhelmed by this year’s crop, but that’s not to say the ladies themselves weren’t looking good, so a shout-out to this year’s MVP’s: Penelope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, Tina Fey, Carey Mulligan, Zoe Saldana, Charlize Theron, Kristen Stewart, Demi Moore (still hot), Michelle Pfeiffer (also still hot, and really needing to make more movies), George Clooney’s date and of course, God love her, Kate Winslet.

The switch to 10 Best Picture nominees was not the only big change the Academy instituted this year. In the past, honorary Oscars for lifetime achievement and such have been given out during the ceremony like any other, but this year a special, private ceremony was held to recognize those artists. I’m disappointed about this, since I enjoy seeing these presentations as much as any other, and I like that they get the high profile recognition that comes with appearing in the broadcast. On the other hand though, rather than having to be be squeezed into a 5-10 minute slot amidst the three-hour telecast, they can be feted more intimately and more time can be devoted to celebrating their careers. This year’s honorees were Lauren Bacall; Roger Corman, the king of low-budget B-movies, who launched the careers of Jack Nicholson, Ron Howard, Francis Ford Coppola, James Cameron and many others; and Gordon Willis, whose extraordinary cinematography was seen in such films as The Godfather trilogy, All The President’s Men and each of Woody Allen’s movies from Annie Hall to The Purple Rose of Cairo. The Irving G. Thalberg Award, which is given to producers with a lasting body of work, was presented to John Calley, whose credits include The Cincinnati Kid, Postcards from the Edge, The Remains of the Day and Closer. If you’re like me and like to see these presentations, click here for video clips, photos and more.

As usual, the Oscars tend to cast a shadow over the other award show that always takes place the same weekend, The Independent Spirit Awards. It’s always a fun show – certainly more casual and looser than the Oscars, and always good for some quality laughs. One of the things I always like about the Spirit Awards is that there’s a palpable sense of community. At the Oscars, the camera often catches stars in the front row looking bored or not bothering to applaud while the winner in a “lesser” category is heading to the stage or delivering a speech. The stars are just as big at the Spirit Awards, but the atmosphere feels much more embracing. Winners aren’t played off stage after 45 seconds, but are allowed to say what they want, as long as it takes. Once again I’m sure I’m in the minority here, but I like that.

Precious was the big winner, taking Best Feature, Director, Actress, Supporting Actress and First Screenplay. Jeff Bridges also won, and as he finished his speech, he held the award up to his wife and told her it was really gonna tie the room together. Nice, Dude. Very nice.

Ben Stiller was on hand as well, and once again was a highlight of the ceremony as he presented Best Feature…

And so another award season comes to and end. Though later than I would have hoped, I’m putting together a list of the movies I’m most looking forward to this year, so we’ll see how many of them show up in next year’s Oscar race. Now then…I think I have a Lost write-up to go work on. Farewell, sweet Kate.

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