Woo-hoo, I can’t believe it—after acknowledging how bad I am at predicting Oscar winners, I hit it out of the ballpark this year and guessed right on all four acting awards (even Penelope Cruz!) as well as Best Picture and Best Director. I also nailed both of the writing awards and the best animated feature. The only category I missed was the one I was the most sure about. I was truly shocked that Israel’s “Waltz With Bashir” didn’t win. The Japanese film that did was the only one of that bunch I didn’t see. I’d like to accuse the Academy of anti-Semitism but I can’t. My friend was on the Foreign Film nominating committee and I went with her to many of the screenings which were so full of middle-aged Jews I felt like I was at my grandfather’s synagogue.
This was one of the best Oscar shows in memory, in my opinion, especially compared to last year’s drudgery. I was very skeptical about all the hoo-ha the Academy was making about keeping the presenters a secret and how they were going to shake things up this year. I couldn’t imagine any scenario where this would pay off but they found it—at least for the acting awards. I LOVED having former winners from each category introduce the nominees individually before presenting the award. That was a stroke of genius. It created, in most cases, real emotion, appropriate acknowledgement of the nature of the Academy and the voting by these folks’ professional peers, and a moving tie-in to the Oscars’ gloried past. My only complaint is that they should’ve asked more of the old-timers to come out in these segments. Kendall wanted either Olivia de Havilland or her sister Joan Fontaine to be one of the Best Actress presenters since they are among the very small group of women left who won back in the old days. (Who else is there? Is Luise Rainer still alive? Jennifer Jones? I would have also liked to see Patricia Neal or Joanne Woodward.) In any event, it was a brilliant move. I wonder if it’s something they'll try again next year. They’ll run out of living actors very soon so they’ll have to think of something else.
Let’s face it—a truly ghastly show is way more fun to talk about and, believe me, I was at no loss for words in 2005, 2006, 2007, or 2008. Since I actually enjoyed this year’s telecast, I find I have much less to say. But here are some brief (for me) comments on the evening.
The Big Opening. I can’t imagine how nerve-wracking it must have been to do such a complicated musical number involving so many people and so many set changes live in front of millions of people. I have to give Hugh Jackman and everyone involved a lot of credit for pulling this off. The hand-made set conceit (because of the recession) was sorta funny even though the curtain the Academy had made to frame the arch of the Kodak Theatre featuring over 100,000 Swarovski crystals flown in from Austria was hardly a nod to tough economic times. But I’m glad they didn’t go overboard with the recession talk, I don’t think it was mentioned again after the opening bit and despite rumors that some of the glamour would be toned down this year, it did not look like the Academy members were shopping at Ross Dress for Less. Only someone with Hugh Jackman’s natural charm could pull off the line in the song about “swimming in a sea of excrement” as he lovingly looked into Kate Winslet’s eyes. My least favorite section in the number was the German techno-pop bit for “The Reader,” especially since the main point was to stress that Jackman hadn’t seen the film. On the other hand, what were they going to do—make fun of Hanna Schmidt’s role as an SS guard at Auschwitz? The best part was the funny “Frost/Nixon” tribute with Anne Hathaway unexpectedly getting to shine and demonstrate her excellent singing voice. Who knew?
¡Digame, Penelope! We all cheered when they unveiled the great new way to present the acting awards, especially starting with the luminous Eva Marie Saint (can you believe she’s turning 85 this year?) and the always hot Angelica Huston. We had a few comments about Goldie Hawn’s eye-popping breasts, but enjoyed what all of these women had to say, including Whoopi Goldberg and the talented Tilda Swinton. Despite my prediction, I was still shocked when Cruz won and found her speech endearing. Ay, dios mio, her Spanish makes me hot under the collar. Hope she makes some more Almodóvar movies, if for no other reason than to hear her speak in her glorious native tongue.
Funny/Not-So-Funny Presenters. Tina Fey and Steve Martin were the funniest. By far. When they started to get too cloying, Martin interrupted at just the right moment, begging Fey not to fall in love with him. I thought the Ben Stiller and Natalie Portman bit was much less successful. True, Stiller was doing a killer Joaquin Phoenix, but I’m not sure how that played to audiences around the world who may not be aware of Phoenix’s latest eccentricities. If Joaquin is faking his new persona, Stiller’s impression is kinda funny. If he’s serious, it’s pretty mean. Jennifer Aniston and Jack Black tried to be amusing but it came out as awkward. Maybe that’s because the director couldn’t resist repeatedly showing Aniston’s ex-husband and his Perfect Wife™ sitting just a few feet away from poor Jen with smiles plastered onto their faces. Oy. Oh, and WTF was Zac Efron doing in three different segments on the show, I just don’t get it. Is that the producers’ attempt to appeal to a younger audience? Get him off that stage. And fellow teen heartthrob Robert Pattinson (from “Twilight”) has not yet earned the right to be so weird. Jessica Biel presenting all the tech awards? Who is she again? Sore Loser of the Year Award goes to blowhard Bill Maher who presented the Oscar for Best Documentary even though his film “Religulous” was not nominated. Did he really have to diss people's “silly gods” in his speech? Even though I agree with Maher on many issues, he often gives liberals a bad name and comes across as smug and elitist as Stephen Fowler from “Wife Swap.”
Best Film Clip. I’ve been reluctant to jump on the Judd Apatow bandwagon but I have to say that his short film about comedies starring James Franco and Seth Rogen was the funniest thing on the show, especially when it showed the two of them laughing hysterically at clips from “The Reader” and “Doubt” and having a special moment with each other during “Milk.” Nice touch to have cinematographer Janusz Kaminski join them in the clip and on stage. He seems like a good sport. Kaminski is (surprise, surprise) working on the new Apatow film right now and then returns to frequent employer Steven Spielberg for his upcoming movie about Abraham Lincoln starring Liam Neeson and Sally Field. That film will either be the butt of all jokes at the 2011 Academy Awards or will win ten Oscars.
Maybe I Don’t Like Musicals After All. Kendall and I kept looking at each other during the splashy salute to musicals starring Jackman and a smokin’ hot Beyonce and wondering why we weren’t enjoying it more. Again, they managed to pull off an incredibly complicated live sequence, but I just felt there was no rhyme or reason to the selection of songs they paid tribute to. I was straining to find a running theme, any excuse for the odd assortment of musical bits, but the number was devoid of clarity and paid scant attention to the golden age of musicals. And then Zac Efron appeared again, wandering aimlessly through the set with his girlfriend. Huh? And the girl from “Mamma Mia” barely getting to sing a note and looking confused. Better they should have brought Anne Hathaway back on stage.
Most Moving Moment. It was hard not to shed a tear seeing Heath Ledger’s family go up to accept his award. I still don’t think he would have even been nominated for that part if he were alive but I have no problem honoring his work in this way, he was certainly a gifted actor and it’s sad that his life and career were cut short. This was our second take of the five actors introducing the nominees and again we were hoping for more old timers. Let’s see, who’s still alive who won this award? Not many, I guess. George Chakiris could have been asked. I saw him at Cyd Charisse’s funeral last year and he looked great. Wow, after him I think Joel Grey is the earliest recipient who’s still with us and it was nice to see him there (he looked about 15 years old in the clip of him winning for “Cabaret”), then Christopher Walken who appropriately introduced the crazy guy from “Revolutionary Road,” a part that would have been perfect for Walken thirty years ago. Ouch, Alan Arkin got Philip Seymour Hoffman’s name wrong, but maybe he was distracted by the RIDICULOUS knit gangsta hat Hoffman was wearing. Come on, Phil, what were you thinking, didn’t you have time to wash your hair before the show? Meryl Streep should have ripped that thing off your head when she passed you on the red carpet.
Jerry Lewis. Oy. You gotta give 83-year-old Jerry Lewis credit for raising billions of dollars for Muscular Dystrophy (even if some of his “kids” have turned on him) but the Eddie Murphy intro and Lewis’s speech were lackluster at best. I thought he was going to launch into some Mickey Rooney-like rant but he was appropriately grateful and boring as hell. This was the one chance in the evening for a true hiding-under-the-table-in-horror-and-humiliation moment but instead it was just uncomfortable. The clips showing Lewis’s career should have been better and if he really had courage, he would’ve brought up the Holocaust movie he made but never released where he played a German clown sent to Auschwitz who makes people laugh in the gas chambers. I’m not kidding, look it up! It was called “The Day the Clown Cried” and Lewis refuses to talk about it today. How perfect that would have been in this year of Holocaust movies.
Honoring the Dead. I worship Queen Latifah and I thought her performance of “I’ll Be Seeing You” was perfect for the sequence where we pay tribute to all the people who died last year. Bad camera work, though. Sometimes they pulled out to show Latifah singing so that the screen showing the honorees was too small to read, even on our friends’ new HD widescreen set. Names were missed that way. But I was watching closely and, if I’m not mistaken, at least one important Academy member was left out. Where the fuck was Irving Brecher, whose funeral I attended last November. Hello? The man wrote the Marx Brothers movies, for God’s sakes, not to mention other classics like “Meet Me in St. Louis” and “Bye Bye Birdie.” I was screaming at the set which got Kendall going again about what was probably the worse omission in Academy history: not mentioning actress Dorothy McGuire following her death in 2001. When called on it by outraged fans, they claimed they didn’t have enough time in the segment to list everybody. Not okay.
Kate Winslet and Sean Penn Bring It Home. Two more chances to listen to former winners toasting the nominees. Only Sophia Loren could talk to goddess Meryl Streep in such a sassy tone, I loved it, and Streep seemed genuinely moved. Loren is exactly my mother’s age, she’ll turn 75 this year, and she is as gorgeous as ever. Loved what Shirley Maclaine said to Anne Hathaway, Nicole Kidman looked a little pained up there but those were nice words to Angelina Jolie, I thought Hallie Berry was the perfect choice to honor Melissa Leo, and I was surprised Marion Cotillard’s English was so good in her lovely tribute to Kate Winslet. Great to see Winslet and Streep nominated together, they are both so talented, so brilliant, so incapable of a bad performance even when they appear in God-awful movies. Loved Winslet’s speech and I think the best moment of the whole evening was when Winslet asked her dad to whistle so she could find him in the crowd. And he did. Sean Penn reminded me again why I hate awards shows. I wanted him to win for “Milk” so desperately over Mickey Rourke and then the second he did I felt bad for Rourke, wishing he had won. On the other hand, Mickey can’t complain after Sean’s strange mention of him in his speech. I had no problem with Penn’s shaming remarks about the passage of Prop 8 even though I read several complaints about his “liberal speechifying” today but why oh why did he forget to thank Harvey Milk himself as well as his gorgeous wife Robin Wright Penn? Or did he thank her? Kendall was sure that when he thanked his “best friend,” Sata Matsuzawa, that was some kind of code for his wife. I also thought he might mention his actor brother Chris who sadly died a few years ago.
Did I say “brief?” Who am I kidding? And I haven’t mentioned the big winner of the evening, “Slumdog Millionaire.” Badhaayiaan, people. It was nice to see all those kids from the movie there although they disappeared after the red carpet. They were probably sitting in the third balcony. My friends enjoyed being at the show, said the hors-d’oeuvres and champagne were excellent, that the crystal curtain was spectacular in person, and that they were sitting near former screen goddess Jane Russell.They also described the Mengele-like selection on the red carpet—really big stars go to the left to run the gauntlet of reporters and photographers and everyone else goes to the right, to get in line for the bathrooms and drinks. All in all, the evening was a refreshing tribute to some particularly good Hollywood product. Kudos to Bill Condon and Hugh Jackman for pulling it off.