Friday, February 27, 2009

Oscars 2009: Changing, but still the same

During his interview with Barbara Walters before the Academy Awards, this year’s host Hugh Jackman promised “a little more show and a little less biz.” As the 81st annual Academy Awards began last Sunday it looked like he’d make good on his word. Unfortunately, it turned out to be largely business as usual.

This year was meant to be a reinvention year for the Academy Awards, but the changes seem mostly cosmetic. The orchestra was moved out of the pit and onto the stage in a swinging big-band style. This was nice, but didn’t greatly alter the feel of the evening.

The other big change was having five previous winners in the Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Supporting categories present the awards this year. Each presenter would spend a couple minutes talking about why each nominee’s performance was so great. The speeches ranged from overly ingratiating to sincere praise to gentle ribbing. This was a fine addition that at times grew tiresome and added to the running time.

The choice of Jackman as host was a surprise. Instead of going with the traditional comedian to host, the academy went for an actor more known for dramatic work. But Jackman is also a song and dance man, who found great success on Broadway in “The Boy from Oz.”

Jackman opened the show with a fantastic song and dance reenacting the five best picture nominees (plus “The Dark Knight” perhaps as an unofficial sixth nominee). Billy Crystal had done something similar in the past, but Jackman’s routine had more of a Broadway edge.

The set piece featured cheeky lyrics like “I ironed all my men, and I frosted my Nixon” and a great bit with Best Actress nominee Anne Hathaway being pulled out of the audience to play Richard Nixon to Jackman’s David Frost. There was a romantic tense between the two that probably didn’t exist between the real Frost and Nixon, but, hey, you never know.

About halfway into the ceremony there was a medley of songs from movie musicals compiled by director Baz Luhrmann. Jackman got an assist from Beyonce Knowles and a couple of the actors from “High School Musical” and, as with the opening, the number was an absolute show-stopper. Both routines were well choreographed and presented with energy to spare.

Outside of these two numbers, though, this was a fairly standard Oscar’s presentation, which is a shame because the producers of the ceremony were onto something. If you’re going to have filler between awards, it should be spectacle.

Sadly, as usual the running time was padded out with the inexplicable inclusion of clip shows. There were fewer than usual, but the montages of the best action and romance movies of 2008 were gratuitous and added nothing.

These montages were cleverly parodied in a short film by Judd Apatow featuring Seth Rogan and James Franco in their stoner “Pineapple Express” personas watching and giggling through clips.

One clip shows did work: the always affecting In memoriam montage of those in the film industry who passed away in the previous year. This year it was given extra emotional weight by a live performance from Queen Latifah.

As for the awards themselves, the evening was mostly predictable with nearly all the favorites winning. As expected the late Heath Ledger won Best Supporting Actor for “The Dark Knight.” There was hardly a dry in the house as his family accepted on
his behalf, which wasn’t surprising, but still quite moving to see.

My personal favorite acceptance speech was when “Slumdog Millionaire” director Danny Boyle started jumping up and down at the podium and then explained that years ago he told his kids if he ever won an Oscar he’d do it in the spirit of Tigger.

The night’s one big upset was Sean Penn’s win over Mickey Rourke for Best Actor. Penn, who won for his performance as gay activist turned politician Harvey Milk, started his acceptance speech with a great line: “You commie, homo-loving sons-of-guns.” He proceeded with a surprisingly humble speech and then switched to activist mode.

In recent years, the academy has been nominating and awarding a more diverse pool of actors and filmmakers and spotlighting films that take on challenging subject matter. The academy knew exactly what they’d get if they gave the award to Penn, and it is probably safe to say they were making a statement by doing so.

Of the presenters, Ben Stiller stole the show with his impression of Joaquin Phoenix’s bizarre recent behavior on “The Late Show with David Letterman.” Jack Black also scored a big laugh with how he makes more money doing voice work than acting: “Every year I make a DreamWorks picture, come here and bet everything on Pixar.”

Overall there was plenty of stuff to see, but you had to sit through a lot of slow patches to get to the goods. For all the changes, you’re still dealing with an award show that clocks in at nearly four hours if you include the red carpet. The average American may stay up until midnight for a sporting event, but for an award show? I think not.

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