Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Slumming millionaires

My favorite moment on Sunday’s Oscars telecast was the Best Feature Documentary award. Winner James Marsh summoned Philippe Petit, the mercurial subject of his documentary Man on Wire, to the stage to share his allotted 45 seconds. The stunt-prone French performance artist bounded up, said his few words, made a lucky coin disappear and then balanced the Oscar statuette on his chin. It was one of those spontaneous moments that was delightful, memorable and impossible to script in advance.

On the whole, the ceremony was better than it has been for at least a couple of years. Not one honoree was “played off” by the orchestra, and no one abused the new apparently tolerant attitude to ramble on endlessly. And I cannot say a bad thing about the choice of Hugh Jackman as the host. He was dynamic and affable but did not attempt to make the night all about him. It seemed like a fiasco in the making when it became clear that he was going to attempt a Billy Crystal-like song-and-dance montage saluting the Best Picture nominees, but what it lacked in scale and technical accoutrements it made up for with pure energy. In the end, the appearance (if not the reality) of scaling back only helped the evening. And Jackman’s singing and hoofing performance must have come as a delightful surprise to those familiar with him only as an action movie star and romantic lead. (Amusingly, the BBC’s Mark Kermode has taken to calling him Huge Action.)

The other nice moment of the evening came when comedy legend Jerry Lewis accepted the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. It is always emotional when an entertainment icon who has had serious health problems and who has been around as long as Lewis has and gets up to be acknowledged and provides the crowd with a touching moment. And it didn’t have to go that way. In the past, the comedian has shown he could be outspoken about being snubbed by the entertainment elite. But he has apparently mellowed with age and gave a very gracious thank you.

If Lewis’s presence was a reminder that the Oscars have always given short shrift to comedy (not to mention science fiction and fantasy, except in the technical categories, although fans of those genres have less to complain about since the Lord of the Rings sweep five years ago), comedy was certainly front and center during the awards ceremony. So many of the setups for the early awards were produced in a hip, ironic, post-modern sort of way. It was like the Academy Awards as presented by The Daily Show. Steve Martin and Tina Fey did their usual shtick taking the mick out of screenwriting. In presenting the Best Cinematography award, Ben Stiller parodied Joaquin Phoenix’s recent strange turns. Before the Best Live Action Short award, James Franco and Seth Rogen appeared in a tribute to comedy as the characters they played in Pineapple Express. Generally, I love this kind of stuff. The more irreverence, the better.

But then I noticed something interesting. For the most part, the acting awards were exempt from the kidding and the antics. The acting awards were treated as deadly serious. And I do mean deadly. Instead of following the tradition of having last year’s winner of the opposite gender announce this year’s winner after a clip showing the nominated performance, we had, well, Babylon 5 fans will understand what I mean when I say that it was like the Minbari Council of the Grey. Five previous winners appeared on stage and each one, in turn, said very complimentary things about one of the nominees. It was like a strange combination of a This Is Your Life tribute and college board oral exams with just a touch of a 12-step program encounter session. Watching the nominees in the audience trying to look properly humble while some other actor (ranging from legend to lottery winner) poured on the praise. It’s as if some committee somewhere got together and decided that actors’ egos weren’t already big enough and, in the spirit of economic stimulus, the only solution was to try to make their egos even bigger.

Now a big aspect of the Academy Awards has always been about Hollywood congratulating itself, sometimes to absurd levels. But what became clear with Sunday’s ceremony was that it is okay to poke fun and have a laugh at people who work off camera but when it comes to those who appear in front of the camera, they must be treated as some sort of gods. Does anybody else smell something elitist here? When Germany’s Jochen Alexander Freydank stepped up to collect his statuette for his short film Spielzeugland, he looked truly shell-shocked, and it seemed to have as much to do with the Judd Apatow stoner video that had preceded it as the fact that he had won the most coveted award a filmmaker can get. No wonder nearly all he could say was that the moment was surreal.

Okay, not every single acting award was treated with undue reverence. After all, Robert Downey Jr. was ostensibly in the running for Best Supporting Actor for his turn in Ben Stiller’s Tropical Thunder. Yeah, I bet that made the odds-setters think twice before going with Heath Ledger’s chances. I would have liked to see some actor (it fell to Cuba Gooding Jr., of course) praise that performance with a straight face.

As my own Oscar predictions suggest, I am pretty okay with who got the awards. In fact, I am more than okay. Slumdog deserved everything it got. Indeed, the sheer joy and genuine nature of the Brits and Indians involved in that movie made a lovely contrast to the posturing and preening of so many of the Hollywood crowd. It is telling that so few of these ostensibly American awards went to actual Americans for actual American movies. If any American actor really deserved an award, it was Mickey Rourke or, barring him, then Richard Jenkins or Frank Langella. But the Best Actor award went to Sean Penn and, if his performance as Harvey Milk was not predictable, then his acceptance speech surely was. Well, mostly.

It is a grand tradition of the Oscars that at some point in the evening someone will get up and scold the country, or at least part of the country. No one doubted that Penn would do this, and he did not disappoint. What was remarkable, aside from the fact that this was Penn’s second opportunity to make such a speech and he still didn’t thank his wife, was that Penn acknowledged up front that he is a colossal jerk. (“I want it to be very clear, that I do know how hard I make it to appreciate me often.”) And that, before that, he acknowledged that the award had as much or more to do with the movie’s politics and his own as with his performance. (“Thank you. Thank you. You commie, homo-loving sons-of-guns.”) And then he fumbled with digging out a crumpled piece of paper and putting his reading glasses in order to thank “my best friend,” whose name he read as if seeing it for the first time. Perhaps the oddest bit of the speech was his strange praise for Barack Obama. (“I’m very, very proud to live in a country that is willing to elect an elegant man president.”) At first I thought I had misheard and that he must have said “eloquent.” And maybe that is what he meant to say, but it turns out he really did say “elegant.” Either way, it is a funny thing to be proud of. And dare I say, elitist?

Now maybe I am picking on poor Sean Penn by dissecting his words, spoken in a high-pressure situation with the world spotlight on him. But contrast his speech with the pure heart shown by Penélope Cruz or Kate Winslet or the family of Heath Ledger or, especially, Danny Boyle, who showed how to give a truly great acceptance speech. And another contrast struck me. In hyping his own movie while setting up the award for Best Feature Documentary, Bill Maher said, “I know it’s a touchy subject, but someday we will all have to confront the notion that our silly gods cost the world too greatly.” In accepting his award for Best Score (for Slumdog Millionaire, his first of two Oscars for the night), A.R. Rahman gave a lovely speech and ended by saying, “And I want to tell something in Tamil, which says, which I normally say after every award which is ella puhazhum iraivanukke: ‘God is great.’ Thank you.”

Quite apart from the fact that Mr. Rahman had just won an Oscar and Mr. Maher never will, Mr. Rahman seemed to be, by far, the more centered and content man.

-S.L., 26 February 2009

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