“We are at war.” With that stately declaration, a rapid-fire reel of the 10 Best Picture nominees began to unspool, with crisply edited power, just before the presentation of the crowning honor at last night’s Academy Awards ceremony. The speaker was Colin Firth, and the words came right out of The King’s Speech — in fact, it was the king’s speech, directly from the film’s soundtrack, his final, deliberately spoken, non- stuttered exhortation to stand up to your enemies at a time of conflict. The clips from all the nominated films bore out that defiant warrior spirit, whether it was the dueling brothers of The Fighter or the clashing talking heads of The Social Network or the domestic combatants of The Kids Are All Right or the embattled playthings of Toy Story 3 or the hero of 127 Hours facing down his rocky predicament or the heroine of Winter’s Bone standing up against her community of varmints.
Watching this montage, accompanied by Firth’s noble words of war (which seemed to presume, rather strikingly, that everyone already knew that The King’s Speech was going to win — but what the hell, everyone did), I thought: Yes, the most celebrated movies this year really were mired in tumult, conflict, and a palpable touch of darkness. A number of them, in the end, lifted your spirits, but overall they reflected the anger and anxiety around them. Popular art tends to get sharpened and honed when it emerges from troubled times, and you could argue that we’re now living through the most troubled era since the 1970s. So it felt right, somehow, that the Oscars unfolded last night with more than a touch of knockabout ’70s scrappiness, an eager, messy, no-frills sincerity that transcended what has become the standard overpackaging. Here are a few random thoughts about how the show looked to me:
James Franco and Anne Hathaway were breezy and puppyish and winning, even if (or maybe because) they were saddled with less-than-great material. I was honestly surprised when Bruce Vilanch, that acid-tongued human Muppet who has penned jokes for the Oscars for a million years, was listed as one of the writers in the show’s closing credits, since most of the material delivered by the ceremony’s first-ever male and female co-hosts was decidedly toothless and mild and, at times, sort of amateurish. It lacked that polished Vilanchian sting. Maybe he had been ordered to tone it down in the wake of the tidal wave of bad publicity generated by Ricky Gervais’ Johnny Carson-gone-Lenny Bruce insult fest at the Golden Globes, but Franco and Hathaway sounded, at times, like they were co-hosting some ancient network variety show.
The odd thing is, the cheesy, upbeat forgettableness actually worked for them. It allowed their new-generation sexiness and lack of cynicism to shine through. Together, the two made for a glamorous, easy-on-the-eyes, mildly sweet-and-sour comedy team, and they bounced off each other nicely: The more ingenuous that Hathaway got, the more that Franco looked off to the side, with that scrunchy-eyed is-it-a-put-on? flakiness of his. (He turned phoning-it-in into a style.) The two may not have been all that funny, but they seemed to know that they weren’t funny, and not to mind it. Unlike too many recent Oscar hosts, they possessed the grace of not trying too hard. By the end, Hathaway may have been laying on the worshipful introductions a bit thick (when she introduced Steven Spielberg, she lifted her hands and shouted his name to the heavens in can you believe this? wonder, as if she had just won her first trip to Hollywood), but beauty, as they say, has its privileges, and Hathaway was never less than vivacious in her star-struck ingenue act. Her heart mixed with Franco’s dry self-amusement into the Oscar-host equivalent of a sweetly consumable cocktail.
Remember Pulp Fiction vs. Forrest Gump? That upstart-indie–vs.–the-establishment battle has become THE Oscar paradigm. We’ve seen it repeated, over and over, most recently last year, with The Hurt Locker vs. Avatar. The irony is that this year, the traditional middlebrow heart-tugging establishment favorite was The King’s Speech, distributed by the independent Weinstein Company, led by Harvey Weinstein (who had originally changed the game with Pulp Fiction), whereas the edgy, hip, dark, more-brainy-than-heartwarming “indie” drama was The Social Network, which was a pure studio film. But it’s the eternal dueling sensibilities at work that really count. And the Academy, as The Hurt Locker proved last year, now goes either way. What makes the difference? It all depends, but this year, I think that there was one decisive factor, and it is this…
Harvey Weinstein is back! He stayed mostly in the shadows, not even coming up on stage to share in the glory of The King’s Speech winning Best Picture. (He would have been up there 15 years ago.) And you may say: Look, The King’s Speech was a beloved film, critically acclaimed and a smash hit. It would surely have won on its own, right? Maybe so, but it’s important to recognize that The King’s Speech was brilliantly positioned and marketed and distributed, from the outset, as an Oscar favorite. I started hearing awards buzz about it weeks before it came out, whereas The Social Network, while avidly anticipated (“the Facebook movie!”…but what exactly was that?), was still a giant question mark until the moment it was released. And when Harvey Weinstein is pushing the glory of England, look out. He’s got that tasteful middlebrow Anglophilia in his blood, which is why, during the Oscar campaign season, he can speak so effectively to all the Academy voters who have it in their blood, too. For a few years there, as the Weinstein Co. struggled to shape itself into the kind of player that Miramax had been, it looked as if Harvey was out in the wilderness, maybe permanently. But he’s got his mojo back again, and it feels good to have him back as a force.
Stop cutting off the acceptance speeches with those damn music cues! Okay, okay: We all know that long, wheezy, sleep-inducing acceptance speeches are the infamous bane of the Academy Awards. But now the producers, in their audience-pleasing obsession, have swung way too far in the other direction. They’re taking people who are perfectly lively speakers and cutting them off before they’ve even had a chance to get rolling. Why should a figure as hallowed as Aaron Sorkin, in the middle of some very crisp and witty remarks, have to endure the obnoxious intrusion of music that cues everyone in the universe to realize that the producers are saying, “Wrap it up, you idiot! You’re boring us to death! Next!!” Last night, even the folks accepting the Best Picture award for The King’s Speech were treated like microphone hogs by the speech police. Actually, it’s the show’s producers who are now too easily bored. If they agreed to let everyone just ramble on, it would add a total of maybe five to ten minutes to the whole show, but it would also allow for a great deal more spontaneity and drama.
Who was that man holding court on the Red Carpet “fashion skyway?” It was designer Randolph Duke, and the more that he talked and talked, calling 14-year-old Hailee Steinfeld a “nymphet” and offering a bizarrely withering description of Amy Adams (“She let her hair down. Not…bad“), the more he sounded like Fred Willard in the second half of Best in Show. Here’s hoping that Duke gets invited back and goes even more over-the-top next year.
The Oscars now pay homage to movie history as a big golden-age abstraction. Once again, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Over the years, the inevitable genre clip reels, sometimes related to the night’s presumed winner (great war films! great musicals!), sometimes not (great film noir heroes! — hey, why are we watching this? Oh, to remind us that Hollywood has a past) have become real time-to-grab-a-beer moments. This year, the enforced nostalgia that few in the audience are old enough to feel anyway was reduced to a handful of back-projected images of landmark films and events (Gone With the Wind! Titanic! The first Oscar ceremony in 1929!) that felt sketchy and perfunctory but went down easily, without making you feel as if you were breathing the musty pages of a film-history coffee-table book. Besides, Kirk Douglas, as ancient as an old gnarled tree, but feisty in a great-granddad way, was all the film history we needed. His “playful” delayed reading of the Best Supporting Actress winner may have been a little too passive-aggressively extended, but his shout-out to Anne Hathaway’s gorgeousness said as much about stardom across the ages as the whole night needed.
Speaking of history, here was Barack Obama, movie critic. At the end of a reel of fans choosing their all-time favorite movie song, he picked…”As Time Goes By.” Wow, how original! It’s an unassailable choice, but a song that could just as well have been chosen by George H.W. Bush or Dwight David Eisenhower. Couldn’t the Critic in Chief have tried for something a little hipper? It didn’t feel like a personal choice — it felt like movie fandom as triangulation.
If you want to win an acting Oscar, work with Darren Aronofsky. Natalie Portman, in Black Swan, was actually the first performer in an Aronofsky film to walk away with a gold statuette. But Mickey Rourke almost did it in The Wrestler, and if you think back to the movie that put Aronofsky on the map, the bravura, twisty-headed drug drama Requiem for a Dream, that movie almost won it for Ellen Burstyn. (She had the misfortune to be going up against Julia Roberts.) What unites these performances is that Aronofsky, as a filmmaker, gets incredibly up close to his actors. He’s like a surgeon-psychologist who peels and reveals them in intensely new ways, which is why he’s such a wizard at rescuing lost careers. He sees, and shows, what other directors don’t. (Natalie Portman’s career may not have been lost, exactly, but the tremulous anxiety and fire she displayed in Black Swan was something brashly novel for her.) He’s got a reverence for acting that is real, which makes any new Aronofsky film a potential virtuoso Method showcase.
What, exactly, was going on when Josh Brolin and Javier Bardem appeared as co-presenters wearing white ties and jackets? They looked like waiters. Hell, Bardem looked like the Soup Nazi. This is a trend that should not — and, I suspect, will not — catch on.
But the evening’s worst fashion faux pas was… I am not a fashion critic, but I do know that Cate Blanchett’s dress, a wispy pale-violet number, looked like Jabba the Hutt drank grape juice and regurgitated big bubbles of it onto her shoulders.
Did the show have a great ending or what? When I first heard that a chorus of fifth graders from PS 22 on Staten Island was going to be performing on the Oscars, I wasn’t exactly overwhelmed with anticipation. It sounded like Glee meets Waiting for “Superman”, and a transparent audience sop. But when those beaming kids, in their dressed-down T-shirts, came up on stage and sang “Over the Rainbow,” and the Emerald City of Oz flashed behind them (finally, one of those back-projected images really worked!), it was a genuine Moment — a stirring tribute to the eternal magic and splendor, the dream, of movies. And when everyone, from the co-hosts to the winners, joined them up on stage, it felt very old-fashioned in a very good way. Here’s hoping that the Oscars, in their ever-evolving manner, can stay the way that they were this year: scrappy and alive.