March 4, 2012

Oscars 2011: What Went Down

Filed under: Movies,Oscars — DB @ 11:52 pm
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Complete List of Winners

It’s been a week since the coming and going of another Oscar night. Dreams came true, hopes were dashed and cymbals were clanged. It was definitely a better show than last year, though a pretty middling one in general. Still, we must debrief. Or at least, I must debrief. You’re under no obligation to join me.

The inevitability of The Artist came to pass, though interestingly it scored the same number of wins as Hugo, with five each. Not that it matters now, but I just don’t get it. I thought The Artist was fresh and charming, but Best Picture? I never saw that, and I still don’t. It’s too much of a trifle. Enjoyable as it is, it’s also paper thin…and I don’t mean that to be a criticism of the movie. It’s not like it aimed high and fell short. It had no lofty ambitions, and accomplished exactly what it wanted to. But a Best Picture winner should have more meat on its bones. Best Director I can understand even if I wouldn’t have gone that way, but not Best Picture. And certainly not Best Actor, all respect to a delightful performance by Jean Dujardin. Seriously, Best Actor?!? The more I consider it, the less sense it makes.

My emotions are mixed around Best Actress. Meryl Streep’s win can’t be called a surprise exactly, since everyone agreed that the race had boiled down to her and Viola Davis. But most predictions also agreed that Davis would take it, so hearing Colin Firth announce Streep’s name was a curveball of sorts. I feel badly for Davis. She and Streep were both deserving, but Davis – as I said in my predictions post – is going to have a harder time finding roles that will bring her back to the Oscars. And even then, becoming a frontrunner again is always a stroke of luck. Davis is good enough and respected enough in the industry that she’ll probably be back sooner or later. But it would have been nice for her to ride this wave of acclaim all the way.

Yet at the same time…Meryl Streep!!! At last!! It’s been said before – by me, and others – that no one but Meryl Streep could already have two Oscars and still be considered overdue. But it’s been a long drought – 12 nominations since her last win, in 1982 for Sophie’s Choice. Every few years she’s back, and a part of that season’s narrative becomes, “Will this be Meryl Streep’s year?” It feels surreal, in a way, that it finally happened. You know that scene near the end of Terms of Endearment, where Jeff Daniels says to Debra Winger, “I’m thinking about my identity and not having one anymore. I mean, who am I if I’m not the man who’s failing Emma?” It’s kinda like that…who is Meryl Streep if she’s not the actress who keeps getting nominated for Oscars and keeps losing? And how long will it be before she’s overdue again? It was confirmed within the last few weeks that later this year she will begin filming an adaptation of the play August: Osage County, a Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize winning play in which Streep will take on the dynamic lead role of a dysfunctional Oklahoma family’s pill-addicted matriarch. The actress who originated the part on Broadway won a Tony, and if Streep isn’t back in the race next year for the comedic drama Great Hope Springs (due out this summer), surely she’ll be in the 2013 hunt. And probably several more after that.

Anyway, it can’t be denied that it was great to see her holding an Oscar again. As usual, she gave a down to earth and self-deprecating speech in which she paid tribute to the many friends she has made over her 35 years in the movie biz. Incidentally, Streep joins a select group of actors who have collected three Oscars: Jack Nicholson, Walter Brennan and Ingrid Bergman. She’ll need one more to tie the record of four acting wins, held by Katherine Hepburn.

No major surprises going down the line. I only managed a middling 15 correct predictions out of 24 his year, but admittedly I knew I was going against the grain in my picks for Best Actor (I stuck with Clooney), Best Adapted Screenplay (I followed my first instinct – Moneyball – instead of going with the favored The Descendants) and Best Visual Effects (where I should have known that Rise of the Planet of the Apes wouldn’t be able to fend off the more Academy-favored Hugo). In the below-the-line categories, the biggest surprise was The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo‘s win for Best Editing. Few pundits saw that coming. Even winners Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall – who became the first back-to-back editing winners since 1936 (they won last year for The Social Network) – didn’t see that coming, and were so stunned that they could barely muster a speech.

Speaking of speeches, other highlights included Asghar Farhadi, writer/director of Best Foreign Language Film winner A Separation, offering a gentle and heartfelt reminder that Iran does not exist solely in a political context, and that there are plenty of people from that nation who respect all cultures and want to share experiences through art. (Of course, Iran’s political leaders were celebrating the win because it came at the expense of Israel’s nominated film. I prefer Farhadi’s point of view…and Jon Stewart’s as well). It was also nice to see The Artist‘s Ludovic Bource, winner of Best Original Score, stop on his way to the stage to hug or shake hands with his fellow nominees Alberto Iglesias, Howard Shore and John Williams, and then acknowledge them in his speech.

I was a little surprised by Hugo taking both sound awards, and by The Artist taking Best Costume Design despite the black-and-white that I thought would derail its chances. And while Hugo undoubtedly sported some fine cinematography from Robert Richardson, that award so should have gone to The Tree of Life. Pretty soon Emmanuel Lubezki may join Roger Deakins as one of recent history’s most unjustly Oscar-less lensers.

Billy was back, and it was like he’d never left. Literally. He stuck to his traditional schtick, and it was just like a plate of comfort food, though perhaps one left sitting out to cool just a touch too long. Crystal is one of Oscar’s all-time great hosts, and part of the fun of having him there is watching him do his usual bits. I like seeing him insert himself into nominated movies for the opening gag…but the last few times he’s done it, he’s played the angle of, “Should I go back and host the Oscars again?” That gets a little old. I did like the Justin Bieber cameo though, a cleverly executed jab at the Academy’s foolish efforts to lure younger viewers. And Crystal’s deliberately cheesy Best Picture medley is always fun, but none of this year’s lyrics were too memorable (whereas, über-Oscar nerd that I am, I can still sing parts of his medleys from the early 90s, which had great lyrics for The Godfather Part III, JFK and The Prince of Tides, among others). Plus, couldn’t the song’s writers have come up with a better way to address Moneyball than just calling attention to Jonah Hill’s weight loss?

The monologue was surprisingly brief, with most of the time yielded to the opening film and the medley. Usually Crystal banters with the audience a little more, but he got right down to business this time. He had plenty of good one-liners throughout the show, but there wasn’t anything special for him to work with. No Jack Palance one-armed-pushups, no non-stop flow of New Zealanders winning in nearly every category (though NZ was represented by a win for “Man or Muppet” songwriter Bret McKenzie). It was a dry show by and large, fitting for a ho-hum year of movies, and Crystal did what he could with it. As we’d all hoped for and expected, it was an improvement over last year’s misguided Franco/Hathaway experiment.

It was a pretty good slate this year. We got some stalwarts like Tom Hanks, Michael Douglas and an ageless Tom Cruise, along with plenty of funny presentations that I thought worked well. Best in Show goes to Chris Rock for his hilarious introduction to Best Animated Feature…

…followed by Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis emerging from the orchestra pit to present Best Original Song.

Great stuff…but no joke about there only being two nominees for Best Song?

I enjoyed the bits by Ben Stiller and Emma Stone (preceded by a funny intro with Crystal and Melissa McCarthy), as well as the Robert Downey, Jr. and Gwyneth Paltrow presentation, though each one seemed to play only decently in the room. In fact, the audience seemed pretty stiff this year overall, which is too bad, because I thought these presenters did well. Kudos to Paltrow too, for selling her part of the stint with Downey. Award show banter often lives or dies on the strength of the straight-man – or straight-woman, in this case. If they can’t sell the joke, the awkwardness can be painful. But Gwyneth’s got the goods.

It was great to see Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy on the show, if only briefly. Next time, give them a bit more to do and invite some of the other Muppets to join them. (In fact, why not have Statler and Waldorf in the balcony all night, lobbing insults at the host?) The show also made smart use of the Bridesmaids cast by having the six women present a string of connected awards in pairs of two, rather than having them present one award and utter a single line each. Kristen Wiig and Maya Rudolph did an amusing “size does matter” riff about Best Live Action Short Film, while Rose Byrne and Melissa McCarthy carried forth a joke from the SAG Awards in which the Bridemaids ladies discussed a drinking game based around the mention of “Scorsese.”

Angelina Jolie seemed to get a lot of humorless attention for the leg-flashing stance she took upon reaching the microphone to present the Best Adapted Screenplay award, but it seemed obvious to me that she was just trying to be playful; same with Cameron Diaz and Jennifer Lopez when they did their little spin-around before announcing the Best Makeup winner. But as I said, the crowd wasn’t so receptive to playfulness this year. Nor was the entertainment media apparently, as I read numerous comments in the day or two after the show about how Jim Rash, one of the adapted screenplay winners for The Descendants, was insulting Jolie when he mimicked her leggy pose. I read one headline that blared something like, “Award Winner Savagely Mocks Jolie.” Jesus people, bring it down a few notches. There was nothing savage about it. Jolie did something kinda funny, and Rash played with it. I doubt anybody’s feelings were hurt, and both Rash and Jolie’s gestures were all in good fun.

The most disappointing among the presenters  – not that it was her fault – was Tina Fey. She’s been a highlight of the show in recent years, but this time she was given almost no material to work with. They had her out there to present three awards, but didn’t come up with anything funny for her to do. What a waste. Her co-presenter Bradley Cooper was funny…but that was more due to his goofy handlebar moustache. (The one joke Fey cracked can be seen in the Best Film Editing clip above.)

And by the way, congratulations to the show’s producers for entrusting Jennifer Lopez with presenting an award that wasn’t for music. She’s presented several times over the years, but I think that was a first.

-This is the Oscars. It’s the big leagues. It’s also 2012. Can we really not solve the problem of a microphone buzz persisting through the entire telecast?

-There were a handful of montages during the course of the show in which actors, against a simple black screen, talked about the magic of movies. One of the reasons we watch the Oscars is to see movie stars and great actors, so appearances by people like Edward Norton, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Gabourey Sidibe were all well and good, but the Academy has done this self-indulgent “power of the movies” stuff before. I’m a huge movie fan, and even I was rolling my eyes a little bit. On the plus side, the interviews were directed by Bennett Miller, so…that’s cool.

-The pre-filmed Wizard of Oz focus group bit starring Christopher Guest and his amazing troupe of improvisors was an inspired idea. I thought it could have been a little funnier, but it was still a treat to see that gang – Guest, Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara, Fred Willard, Jennifer Coolidge and Bob Balaban – together again.

Alas, no Michael McKean, Jane Lynch, Parker Posey, Ed Begley, Jr. or John Michael Higgins. Maybe they’ll do another one next year. Imagine a crowd of similarly uptight characters trying to make sense of 2001: A Space Odyssey? Actually – that should have been a running gag through the show. Instead of listening to actors telling us how movies transport them, there should have been different focus group films with Guest and Company.

-Once again, the show’s director Don Mischer – also the co-producer – seemed to be operating from the booth as if he were blind. The guy seems bizarrely incapable of cutting to famous faces in the audience. He fared a tiny bit better this year than last, capturing some reactions from George Clooney, Steven Spielberg and others here and there. But the number of times the camera cut to a shot of the crowd featuring a bunch of total unknowns was staggering. Where was Gary Oldman all night? Or Rooney Mara, who was seen only when the Dragon Tattoo editors addressed her from stage? Natalie Portman? Viola Davis? Glenn Close? They were hardly featured at all. It’s like Mischer was sending his cameramen into the most remote corners of the audience to capture anonymous members of the crowd and then cutting to the shot that was furthest away from the nearest celebrity at any given time. I don’t care how many years of experience this guy has; any skill he may have once possessed is no more. Mischer has got to go. Somebody get me Louis J. Horovitz stat! (Note the first line of trivia next to his picture. I doubt Mischer will earn any such honors.)

-One thing I will give Mischer credit for – or maybe it goes to his fellow producer Brian Grazer – is letting nearly every winner complete a speech without getting played off the stage by the orchestra. Whenever a category has more than one winner, it seems like whoever talks second is doomed to be cut off. But in almost every case, multiple winners were not only allowed to speak, but actually finish! In fact, the only category where the winners got cut short was Best Documentary. One of the recipients did drop an F-bomb, but it was caught by the delay, and the speech still went on for a bit before they were cut off. They weren’t even up there that long. So obnoxious. Let people have their moment, damnit!

-Having the Best Actor and Best Actress presenters directly address the nominees isn’t working anymore. When it was first introduced for the 2008 awards, it was a neat and novel device: bring out five previous winners in all four acting categories and have each of them salute one of the current nominees. It was a great idea. But it worked because it was unusual and unexpected, and even though the comments were being read from a teleprompter in most cases, the gesture still felt personal and intimate. The next year, they tried for something similar, but it was clunky: dissing the two Supporting categories, the producers brought out former co-stars of each lead acting nominee and had them salute their nominated one-time co-star. Then those presenters exited the stage and the previous year’s acting winner came out to actually open the envelope and hand out the award. This year and last, the presentations were further streamlined by just having the previous year’s winner (opposite gender, in keeping with Academy tradition of one year’s Best Actor presenting the next year’s Best Actress, and vice versa) pay tribute to all five nominees before opening the envelope. But the magic is gone. That first time, it felt special to have, for example, Shirley MacLaine honoring Anne Hathaway, Robert De Niro lauding his friend Sean Penn, Kevin Kline paying tribute to Heath Ledger and Whoopi Goldberg addressing fellow onscreen nun Amy Adams. But now it feels stiff, it drags the presentations out and the presence of the teleprompter feels more noticeable, making the remarks seem less genuine. Next year, let’s just go back to reading the names and showing a clip. Or find another creative way to conduct the presentation. Maybe have video clips of fellow actors – not necessarily former winners, not necessarily former co-stars, but just a small assortment of respected actors discussing all the nominated performances in a given category and what they liked or admired about them. There are videos on the Academy website in which some of this year’s below-the-line categories are reviewed this way. Just an idea. But it’s time to retire this bit for a few years. Oh, and whatever is done, it should be done for the Supporting Actor and Supporting Actress nominees too. Where’s the love?

-The In Memoriam tribute was given an elegant presentation, but once again most of the names came and went without any reference to the films the deceased had worked on. A few clips or sound bytes were included for the most well-known in the montage, like Elizabeth Taylor, Peter Falk and Sidney Lumet. But for all the lesser known folks, particularly those who worked behind-the-scenes, it’s nice to see a sampling of the films they worked on so we have some context.

Before winning Best Actress, Meryl Streep took the stage to call attention to this year’s honorary Oscars, which were presented back in November. These awards used to be given out on Oscar night, but a new tradition was started a few years ago to honor the recipients at a separate event, known as the Governors Awards. This year’s honorary Oscars, as shown in the highlight clip introduced by Streep, were given to pioneering makeup artist Dick Smith (The Godfather, The Exorcist, Amadeus) and James Earl Jones. Oprah Winfrey received the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, which has been awarded over the years to people like Bob Hope, Audrey Hepburn, Paul Newman and Jerry Lewis. All three were in attendance on Oscar night, and while I do miss having these honors incorporated into the ceremony, the Governors Awards evening really allows them to be properly celebrated, without having to abbreviate the tributes so as to cater to an impatient TV audience. The acceptance speeches and clips of the presenters are available on the Academy’s website and are worth checking out. I especially enjoyed J.J. Abrams’ tribute to Smith:

When I arrived at the Oscar party I was attending, the TV was already tuned to the red carpet, though thankfully the sound was muted. I can’t abide the vacuous comments and stupid questions posed by most of the interviewers, but I do like looking at the beautiful belles in their dresses and gowns. Natalie Portman pretty much took my breath away when I first saw her on the carpet. Seriously, I think I lost my balance and had to grope for the wall behind me to steady myself. Dear lord, she looked good. I liked the Grace Kelly hairdo sported by Penelope Cruz, and Jessica Chastain’s dress was a standout as well. I haven’t looked up how the fashion police rated Jennifer Lopez, but I had absolutely no problem with her seashellish get-up. Michelle Williams, Cameron Diaz, Viola Davis, Kristen Wiig, Milla Jovovich, Maya Rudolph, Tina Fey and Gwyneth Paltrow all looked nice, and it has to be said: Janet McTeer? Totally hot. She was in disguise as a hulkin’ dude in Albert Nobbs, but in reality she’s a serious cougar. Anyway, to preserve my memory, here’s a sampling. It’s okay…I respect them all for their intelligence and acting chops as well as their ability to look good.

Every year, Oscar night leaves in its wake reviews about how the show is boring and stale, how the Academy is irrelevant and out of touch (complaints that also spring up after nominations are announced and provocative films like Shame are inevitably omitted) and how it can all be fixed. I wanted to weigh in on that, but I also want to get this post finished while this year’s show is still reasonably fresh in our memories. So I’ll save it for another time…not a bad idea anyway, since there’s more than enough to say on the topic to fill its own post. Instead, we’ll just end this Oscar season with a polite smile, and hope that the films in contention next year will be a stronger lot. Based on how 2012 is looking, that shouldn’t be a problem. (I’ll have more to say on that in the next few weeks.)

A final reminder of this year’s Oscar night, this clip comes not from the broadcast, but from the red carpet. It was a moment that merited unmuting the TV: Sacha Baron Cohen, in character for his new film The Dictator, encountering a legitimately unsuspecting Ryan Seacrest. General, I salute you.



  1. I loved Sasha Baron Cohen spilling those ashes on Seacrest! I thought the focus group Christopher Guest bit was kind of funny. It WAS a slap in the face to about 90% of movie fans, but whatever… they can get away with it, I suppose. I think most people who deserved to win won (Davis, Clooney were probably the two biggest snubs). Hugo’s technical sweep was impressive. And the director of A Separation was rocking an Evil Abed goatee.

    Comment by themovieblogger — March 9, 2012 @ 6:43 pm | Reply

    • Seacrest handled it like a champ, I gotta say. I don’t watch American Idol or really pay attention to anything else he does, but I’ve seem him display a good sense of humor about himself. His cameo in Knocked Up is priceless.

      Comment by DB — March 9, 2012 @ 7:39 pm | Reply

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