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Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Oscar® to the barricades

Here’s a fun fact. How many of us who watched Julianne Moore and Eddie Redmayne play a really screwed-up mother and son in Savage Grace could have dreamed that, seven years later, they would be collecting the top acting Oscars on the very same night? Not me anyway. As is now well established, my Oscar predictions are rubbish.

My two main reactions to the Academy Awards telecast on Sunday night: the old people are gone and the winners are getting more pragmatic.

Something I noticed this time around was the music that was played as presenters walked out onto the stage. Instead of choosing a piece of music associated with one or other of the people presenting (e.g. the theme from Schindler’s List, which was played when Liam Neeson appeared), the orchestra in many cases simply played random music from classic movies. This was a nice touch because, otherwise, there was not a lot of wallowing in Hollywood’s past, as has been the case in many previous years. Nostalgia was largely confined to the opening musical number (a cracking performance by host Neil Patrick Harris that got him off to a strong start) and a golden anniversary tribute to The Sound of Music.

But the playing of evocative music from previous eras to announce various stars born well after those eras ended was a reminder that the titans of Hollywood’s golden age have largely passed. I can remember spotting only a couple who might fit into that category. One was Shirley MacLaine. Another was the always lovely Julie Andrews, who appeared at the conclusion of the Sound of Music salute but who, sadly, had to leave the singing to Lady Gaga. Between Gaga’s impressive belting of Rodgers & Hammerstein and her recent Grammys duet with Tony Bennett, she’s demonstrating that she will have no trouble transitioning into maturer phases of her potentially lengthy career.

There are no longer any Burt Lancasters or Charlton Hestons. We did have the likes of Clint Eastwood and Robert Duvall in the audience, but they never got the chance to leave their seats. What seems to pass for éminence grise these days is Sean Penn. It seems like only yesterday he was playing a long-haired surfer dude in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and even now he is only 54, but he sure looks a lot older. He’s already moved to the geriatric action hero genre, soon to be seen in Pierre (Taken) Morel’s The Gunman.

Sadly, the faces and names of the halcyon days are increasingly becoming the fodder of the “In Memoriam” segment. They did a mostly okay job of it this year, and it was a pleasant surprise to see the late Nobel Prize winner Gabriel García Márquez included—even though he is much more renown for writing novels than screenplays. On the other hand, it is hard to figure out how Joan Rivers missed the cut. Of course, she was more known for TV work than for film, but still her big screen career did run from 1951’s Mister Universe to 2013’s Iron Man 3. Did the Academy not like Rabbit Test? Or was this just payback for all her infamous snarky red carpet digs at what people were wearing? And what about Polly Bergen and Richard Kiel? Hard to explain those oversights.

The worst snub by far, though, was relegating Maureen O’Hara’s lifetime achievement award to the non-televised satellite event the previous evening. Really, did not the star of such films as The Hunchback of Notre Dame, How Green Was My Valley, Miracle on 34th Street, The Quiet Man, Our Man in Havana, The Parent Trap and many, many others deserve much better than that? Of course, she did—and so did we, the viewers.

The other main reaction I had to the telecast was that the winners are becoming more pragmatic. What I mean by that is that quite a few of them have finally copped on to the fact that those precious 45 seconds—or however many they can grab beyond that—which they have on the stage if and when they win an award are pretty darn valuable. For a moment in time they have the attention of practically the whole world. And more and more of them are determined to make use of it. And I don’t simply mean the time-honored custom of dedicating the Oscar statuette to everyone who has the disease or condition featured in the movie.

Unsurprisingly, director Laura Poitras, winner for Citizenfour, used her time to promote Edward Snowden. Screenwriter Graham Moore, winning for The Imitation Game, gave the most moving and most personal speech, reaching out to kids who, as he once did, feel weird or different. (Note to future winners: mentioning a suicide attempt or a suicide in your family seems to be a pretty effective way to stave off the orchestra from playing you off.) In the final speech of the night, triple winner Alejandro González Iñárritu called for his home country of Mexico to finally get the government it deserved, and he appealed for “dignity and respect” for the current generation of Mexican immigrants in the U.S.

Accepting the Oscar for Best Song mere moments after rousing the auditorium with their performance of “Glory” from Selma (bringing touchingly heartfelt tears to the eyes of David Oyelowo), John Legend appealed for a fix to the section of the Voting Rights Act that was invalidated by the Supreme Court. His co-winner Common had the good grace to link the events depicted in the film to current situations in France and Hong Kong—and he could have added a few other places around the globe.

The moment that really caused people to wake up, though, came when Patricia Arquette ambled through her fairly standard thank yous and then burst out with a stirring clarion call for equal pay for women. Suddenly the front row of the audience was nearly on its feet, and Meryl Streep was gesturing in triumph like some personal assistant suddenly realizing that she might now finally at long last be able to afford premium cable.

The evoking of issues is nothing new in Oscar speeches, but I cannot remember an evening when the political urgings were quite so pervasive—and so rapturously applauded. It’s a far cry from 1978 when vocal Palestine supporter Vanessa Redgrave took to the podium and shocked the audience by denouncing “Zionist hoodlums.” Two hours later fellow winner Paddy Chayefsky retorted by saying, “I’m sick and tired of people exploiting the occasion of the Academy Awards for the propagation of their own personal political propaganda. I would like to suggest to Miss Redgrave that her winning an Academy Award is not a pivotal moment in history, does not require a proclamation and a simple ‘thank you’ would have sufficed.”

Despite the new expectation for political expressions, on Sunday the acceptances were still dominated, as always, by people praising their bosses and proclaiming love for their families and significant others. My favorite was when one of the writers on Birdman gave a shout-out to Larry the family dog. Props to Pawel Pawlikowski (Best Foreign Language Film for Ida) for beginning so eloquently by saying, “We made a film about the need for silence, withdrawal from the world and contemplation, and here we are at this happy center of noise and attention” and then being so persistent that he actually had to be played off twice before he would leave the stage, as he mentioned his family in strange but touching detail.

As for the Best Actors, Moore took the opportunity to make sure everyone knew she had a younger husband. And Redmayne was clearly in the midst of the best honeymoon ever.

Oscar winner lovemaking is something that all but a very select few on the planet can only dream of.

-S.L., 24 February 2015

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