23 February 2009
The producers of the 81st Annual Academy Awards, presented Sunday night at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood, promised big changes this year. And they mostly made good on that pledge.
Hugh Jackman, best known for portraying the surly mutant Wolverine in the X-Men movies but a song-and-dance man on the stage, was an inspired choice as host. His good nature and enthusiasm seemed to spread throughout the room from the moment he took stage. The show could have used more of him as it plodded on toward midnight.
No matter how many entertaining bits it has, the show is still too long, coming in this year at about three and a half hours—10 minutes longer than last year. Cutting an hour would make it a much more manageable length.
The idea of taking us through the less heralded awards in the order in which they are addressed in the filmmaking process was a clever one, but eventually I started to feel like I was back in one of my college classes. The manner of presenting the acting awards looks good on paper, but played as overly talky and long-winded on stage.
Nevertheless, I think this year's show was a step in the right direction. If you missed it, I have the highlights for you.
(To refresh your memory, I made predictions in nine categories: Slumdog Millionaire, best picture, director and adapted screenplay; Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler, best actor; Kate Winslet, The Reader, best actress; Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight, best supporting actor; Viola Davis, Doubt, best supporting actress; and WALL-E, best animated feature and original screenplay.)
8:30 p.m. And we're off ... The stage, which has a nightclub feel that is both elegant and intimate, could use a little more crystal.
8:32 Jackman (star of last year's flop Australia): "Everything has been downsized this year because of the recession. Next year, I'll be starring in a movie called New Zealand."
8:33 Our host says there is no money in the budget for a production number but does one anyway, a tribute to the nominated films complete with corny props made from cardboard. He pulls Anne Hathaway out of the front row to portray Nixon in the Frost/Nixon segment. (Hathaway: "Frank Langella was right next to me.") "I haven't seen The Reader." Don't feel bad, Hugh—no one has. He closes: "I am a wrestler. I am a slumdog. I'll rent The Reader." A standing ovation from a genuinely jazzed audience. We're off to a good start.
8:39 Jackman acknowledges several of the nominees. On Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie: "I actually don't have a joke for them. I'm just contractually obligated to mention them at least five times during the show." On Meryl Streep and her record 15 nominations: "I hate to say it, but when someone puts up numbers like that, it's hard not to think: Steroids." Mickey Rourke just looks creepy.
8:43 In the night's first twist, five previous best supporting actress winners (Eva Marie Saint, Tilda Swinton, Whoopi Goldberg, Anjelica Huston and Goldie Hawn) welcome the newest member of their club, Penelope Cruz for Vicky Cristina Barcelona. Cruz signals a trend at the start of her acceptance speech: "This is not going to be 45 seconds, I can say that right now." She speaks in Spanish at the end. I'd tell you what she said, but the transcript provided by the Oscar Web site says only, "Speaks in Spanish." (I'm 0-for-1.)
8:52 Tina Fey and Steve Martin present the screenplay awards after some amusing back-and-forth banter. Fey: "It has been said that to write is to live forever." Martin: "The man who wrote that is dead." Original screenplay goes to Milk, and adapted goes to Slumdog Millionaire. (1-for-3)
9:03 Jennifer Aniston and Jack Black, who insults DreamWorks Animation, which released his nominated film Kung Fu Panda, present a montage of animation in 2008, then the animation awards. Animated feature goes to WALL-E, which seems like a consolation prize since it should have been up for best picture. (2-for-4)
9:15 Taking the awards "from the page to the stage," Sarah Jessica Parker and Daniel Craig present best art direction (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button), costume design (The Duchess) and makeup (Benjamin Button).
9:25 Twilight's Robert Pattinson and Mamma Mia!'s Amanda Seyfried introduce the romance in 2008 montage.
9:31 In the night's comedic highlight, Natalie Portman and Ben Stiller, as a bearded, sunglasses-wearing, gum-chewing Joaquin Phoenix lookalike who wants to "retire from being the funny guy," present best cinematography to Anthony Dod Mantle for Slumdog Millionaire.
9:40 James Franco and Seth Rogen, as their Pineapple Express characters, watch clips from some of the past year's movies, in what's billed as a short film by Judd Apatow. It's surprisingly not very funny.
9:45 The great cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan) joins Franco and Rogen to hand out the best live action short award, becoming the first of his trade to be an Oscar presenter. Kaminski: "Suck on that, Anthony Dod Mantle!"
9:52 Mamma Mia! sold more tickets in the United Kingdom than Titanic. Jackman: "The musical is back!" Joined by Beyonce, Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens of High School Musical, Amanda Seyfried and Dominic Cooper from Mamma Mia!, and a host of dancers, he performs a medley of songs from famous movie musicals. Not as good as the opening production number.
10:01 The best supporting actor presenters are previous winners Alan Arkin, Joel Grey, Cuba Gooding Jr., Christopher Walken and Kevin Kline. As expected, the award goes the late—and very much deserving—Heath Ledger, who becomes only the second actor to posthumously win an Oscar. A standing ovation and many teary eyes in the house as his father Kim Ledger, mother Sally Bell and sister Kate Ledger accept the honor. Kate: "Heath, we both knew what you had created in the Joker was extraordinarily special and had even talked about being here on this very day. We really wish you were, but we proudly accept this award on behalf of your beautiful (daughter) Matilda. Thank you." (3-for-5)
10:13 Bill Maher presents the documentary awards. In one of the night's only spontaneous moments, Philippe Petit, subject of the feature winner, Man on Wire, balances the Oscar on his chin.
10:23 A look back at the action movies of 2008. Clips from—shudder—Speed Racer are included.
10:25 Will Smith talks about how much he loves action movies, then presents best visual effects to The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, which beat out two action movies (The Dark Knight and Iron Man) for the award. Smith then works overtime—did he owe the producers money or something?—and presents the awards for sound editing (The Dark Knight), sound mixing (Slumdog Millionaire) and film editing (Slumdog again).
10:41 "From one nutty professor to another," Eddie Murphy presents the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award to Jerry Lewis.
10:53 We've already had too much Zac Efron and here he is again, presenting, with Alicia Keys, best original score to A.R. Rahman for Slumdog Millionaire. Following a medley of the nominated numbers (with John Legend standing in for Peter Gabriel on WALL-E's "Down to Earth), they also present best original song to Rahman for "Jai Ho" from Slumdog.
11:10 "In Memoriam," with musical accompaniment from Queen Latifah. Saved for last, Paul Newman wins the annual postmortem popularity contest.
11:18 Reese Witherspoon presents best director to Danny Boyle for Slumdog Millionaire. He makes his way to the stage, then bounces up to the podium. Boyle: "My kids are too old to remember this now, but when they were much younger, I swore to them that if this miracle ever happened that I would receive it in the spirit of Tigger from Winnie-the-Pooh and that's what that was." He has high praise for the show itself, but the love Oscar is showing his movie might have something to do with that: "I don't know what it looks like on television, everybody, but in the room, it's bloody wonderful, really. So, well done, everyone." (4-for-6)
11:24 The best actress presenters: Previous winners Sophia Loren, Shirley MacLaine, Halle Berry, Nicole Kidman and Marion Cotillard. The winner: A truly elated (and probably relieved, after five Oscar losses) Kate Winslet for The Reader. Winslet: "I'd be lying if I hadn't made a version of this speech before, I think I was probably 8 years old and staring into the bathroom mirror. And this (Oscar) would've been a shampoo bottle. Well, it's not a shampoo bottle now!" (5-for-7)
11:35 A short montage preceding the best actor presentation provides what, as far as I noticed, was the night's only Jack Nicholson sighting. The presenters are previous winners Robert De Niro, Ben Kingsley, Anthony Hopkins, Adrien Brody and Michael Douglas. De Niro on nominee Sean Penn, who portrayed Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected public official in the United States: "How for so many years did Sean Penn get all those jobs playing straight men?" He is straight, and his wife, Robin Wright Penn, is in tears while he gives his acceptance speech after winning. Penn: "You commie, homo-loving sons of guns. I did not expect his, but I ... want it to be very clear that I do know how hard I make it to appreciate me often." It's obvious this role and his plea for "equal rights for everyone" has generated a lot of goodwill in the room. (5-for-8)
11:47 Steven Spielberg presents best picture, a formality at this point, to Slumdog Millionaire, which finishes with eight awards. (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, which had a leading 13 nominations, won three; The Dark Knight and Milk won two apiece.) Producer Christian Colson: "Most of all, we had passion and we had belief, and our film shows that if you have those two things, truly anything is possible." (6-for-9)
11:55 Jackman: "Congratulations to all of tonight's nominees and winners. ... For everyone watching, keep on making movies, keep on going to them."