/ 12 March 2010

Going, going, gong


Ladies, gentlemen and non-members of the academy: welcome to almost-live coverage of the heartbreakingly succinct Oscars telecast, which — despite the fact that no one would dream of doing anything as transgressive as swearing — is being brought to you with a 24-hour time delay.

Right off the bat I want to join the salutes for The Hurt Locker — a movie just too damn important to bother with stuff like narrative, and which will one day be deemed just as hilariously underrated as American Beauty (which, you might dimly recall, won a mere five Oscars) and Dances with Wolves (a paltry haul of seven, including a best director statuette for Mister Kevin Costner). As for James Cameron’s hopes for Avatar, his groundbreaking, record-breaking movie … well, they are with Eywa now.

This was indeed a night that made history — David Letterman is no longer the worst Oscars’ host. Co-presenters Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin proved they couldn’t hit a gag with a trunkload of improvised explosive devices, falling back three times on comedy misreadings of the autocue, to ever-diminishing returns.

As is too often the case with this marquee event, it was a night that lived down to expectations. The Oscars telecast is like one of those movies where you just know that, at some point, someone is going to slide down the back of a door with their head in their hands. That someone will be you — but we’ll come to the soi-disant “Legion of Extraordinary Dancers” later. For now, it’s time to sling out some more gongs.

Best drinking game
The one where you do a shot every time someone mentions Meryl (surname very much de trop, obviously). Ever since the heyday of the studio era, an adorably defensive Hollywood has wanted you to know that it doesn’t just have sex symbols who can turn in a role. It has actors — men and women who deliver something so much more epic than mere performance.
These days the mantle once worn by the likes of Norma Shearer and Greer Garson is all Meryl’s, and failure either to nominate her or mention her less than three times in any given Oscars’ ceremony would trigger an industry-wide existential crisis.
This year’s second-best drinking game? The one where you take a gulp every time a member of the motion-picture community salutes the troops fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. It really puts stuff into perspective.

Most tediously predictable seating arrangement
Placing James Cameron directly behind Kathryn Bigelow (director of The Hurt Locker). Hey, did you hear that those guys were married once? Even if you did, I’ll bet you haven’t listened to nearly enough yakking about the subject yet.

Best acceptance speech
This year produced that rarest of occurrences, both a best actor and a best actress whom you’d love to have a drink with. For all Jeff Bridge’s immense charm, though, Sandra Bullock takes the speech honours.
Wherever you stand on the United States’s Sorta Sweetheart, she played it just the way you should: surprised, sweet, sisterly, self-deprecating and with the brief threat of tears, but not so you feared she’d be overwhelmed by them. A class act.
Plus, she gets triple points for the joke about Meryl being “a great kisser”.

Best ‘they don’t make ’em like they used to’ moment
Footage of Lauren Bacall accepting an honorary Oscar at a gala a few months ago.
“A man at last,” drawled Bacall of her statuette. “The thought that when I get home I’m going to have a two-legged man in my room is so exciting I can hardly stand it.”
At the Oscars, this was immediately followed by a cutaway to Cameron Diaz chewing gum. Truly, it was the stars that got small.

Best diva moment
Best-director presenter Barbra Streisand walking almost to the front of the stage, then waiting imperiously for a lackey to rush out of the wings and help her down three steps to the microphone. Long may she fib about the farewell aspect of her tours.

Worst cutaway
A tough category, now that reaction shots appear to be subject to the most heavy-handed ethnic profiling. Ethan Coen was the night’s go-to Jew, the guy they cut to right after Steve Martin made the joke about Inglourious Basterds star Christoph Waltz playing a Nazi “obsessed with finding Jews”, and observed that the contents of the Kodak Theatre were pretty much “the motherlode”. Don’t worry, viewers — see, Ethan’s laughing! The Jews totally get the joke!
The sledgehammer cutaway was also deployed each time an African-American star was mentioned. The fact that you could practically hear a producer screaming, “Close-up on Morgan Freeman! Or one of the other four, goddammit!”, really added to the sense of how far we have come.

Most never-ending segment
If you had spent the past few weeks wondering what the score from The Hurt Locker would look like interpreted in the medium of modern dance, this was the night for you.
In what felt like a 47-minute medley, each and every nominee for best score was … glossed, would you call it? … by a troupe called the Legion of Extraordinary Dancers, who really know how to distil the tension of bomb disposal into a soft-shoe number.
This year’s ceremony was produced by one of the judges of So You Think You Can Dance, which goes some way towards explaining that excruciating segment, but nowhere near excusing it.

Best reminder of what Hollywood dreams are made of
Oprah Winfrey’s tribute to Gabourey Sidibe. “She was a student trying to earn some money to go to college. On Monday she skipped school to audition for a movie called Precious. On Tuesday they called her back to meet the director … On Wednesday, she got the part. And tonight, she is sitting at the Academy Awards in the same category as Meryl Streep.” Ain’t that the movies? Nicely done, Oprah.

Best fauxhemian
Sean Penn. Even though Sean knows that real outsiders simply wouldn’t show for the Oscars, he agreed to present best actress, and used the occasion of someone else’s big moment to announce, “I never became an official member of the academy”, before taking an incoherent swipe at them for failing to acknowledge his soon-to-be-ex-wife, Robin Wright Penn. I know! You can almost smell him mocking the institution.
Still, although Sean is only a country member of the academy, fans of Team America will recall that he is a leading light of FAG, the Film Actors’ Guild — a powerful lobby coincidentally led by Oscars’ co-host Alec Bardwin.

Most awkward staging
As a tribute to the various 12-step programmes with which so many attendees are familiar, the best actor and best actress nominees are now bigged up in a segment that resembles an AA sponsors’ meeting.
Julianne Moore eulogised Colin Firth, making it clear they had “only worked together for three days”, while Colin Farrell recommended Jeremy Renner with a reminiscence about “that trip to Mexico, which I wish I could remember more of”, while saying “brother” a lot.

Worst sound design
The Oscars’ ceremony. I fell asleep in that desperately called-for discourse on the difference between sound editing and sound mixing, so I might have missed the explanation as to why, in the year 2010, the Oscars telecast sounds as though it was engineered by a competition winner.
Is it really beyond the wit of early 21st-century TV professionals to raise the level on the auditorium announcer’s mic to “discernible”?

Best lecture
Courtesy of best supporting actress Mo’nique, who thanked her husband for advising her that “sometime you have to forgo doing what’s popular to do what’s right”. Blithely undermining her fellow nominees, the Precious star praised the academy for rewarding “the performance not the politics”, apparently under the impression that Oprah’s campaign juggernaut for the movie is about as far away from power-player politicking as you can get.

Worst definition of horror
No-time Academy Award-winners Taylor Lautner and Kristen Stewart introduced a tribute to the horror movie genre, which took some bizarre detours.
Movies you never realised were horror flicks include Marathon Man, Edward Scissorhands, Little Shop of Horrors, Jaws, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, Beetlejuice and, um, Twilight, which was really flattered by being interspliced with The Shining. Do adjust your records accordingly.

Most self-regardingly graceless hosts
The academy, which banned The Hurt Locker‘s producer Nicolas Chartier for sending the most innocuous email to a circle of acquaintances, in which he asked them to vote for The Hurt Locker “and not a $500-million film”.

This is apparently an “ethical lapse” in breach of the academy’s negative-campaigning rule, so the man who financed and produced the movie wasn’t there to see it have a night he could only have dreamed of. Yet teen star Zac Efron is given pride of place up front near Meryl. Where’s the justice?

Worst fact-checking
Demi Moore introduced the “in memoriam” section to people we’ve lost in a montage that failed to include her pre-2003 bodywork. Rather more glaring, however, was the omission of Farrah Fawcett, whose failure to make the cut, an academy spokesperson would have you believe, was totally intentional. “Major fail” is critic Roger Ebert’s view on the matter. —