Oscar put on the right show for the right times Sunday night. Gone was the cynicism and edge that has fallen flat in recent years. Instead, led by straight ahead host Hugh Jackman, these were the singing, dancing, Yes We Can Academy Awards, less of an Oscar show and more of a good old fashioned Hollywood variety show.
Perhaps it was because of lowered expectations but I thought Jackman did a great job as host. He didn't try to be a standup comedian, which was smart--even Jon Stewart and Chris Rock have struggled at recent Oscarcasts. The opening number--often all that matters when you are hosting this deal--was fun and lively, with Anne Hathaway in all her plucked-from-the-audience, Nixon victory sign glory. (All photographs courtesy ABC.) Jackman's hilarious song and dance goof on not seeing The Reader was cheeky and clever and had to have hit home with millions of viewers who hadn't seen it either.
Here's how good the show was: I stopped blogging and just watched about halfway through it. The producers had poured themselves into the details and I didn't want to miss anything.
Little things made all the difference. When Steve Martin and Tina Fey came on to present in the writing categories (including to Slumdog winner Simon Beaufoy), the writing was sharp! So were the on screen effects, the script lines that appeared on screen as the two presenters read them, the scene choices, all the visuals.
Later, transforming the mammoth set at the Kodak Theater into the inside of an old Hollywood sound stage while several set design and craft awards were being presented was pretty damn impressive. The whole theming of the evening, taking viewers through the various stages of making a film through the categories themselves was a smart choice, made all the more impressive by the generally spot on execution. This was a very ambitious live show, which is exactly what the Academy Awards should be.
I even liked the way that, throughout the evening, five Hall of Fame, former Oscar winners took the stage to affirm each of the five nominees in the acting categories. Yes, it slowed the show down and ran the risk of being cheesy and maudlin. And Sophia Loren should probably stop trying to look 40 when she's closer to 80. (It looked like her head was grafted onto somebody else's body last night with her necklace covering up the stitches.) But the emotions were genuine and the torch was passed when Robert De Niro was saluting Sean Penn and when Shirley MacLaine was championing Hathaway. With the cameras right up in the face of Robert Downey, Kate Winslet and others, you shared the impact of the moment. It sure beat somebody just standing there and reading names off a TelePrompTer when it comes to emotional wallop.
That camera work shone again during the acceptance of the Best Supporting Actor Award from Heath Ledger's family. Lot of teary-eyed closeups of actors and actresses who still can't quite believe that the dude is gone.
Thrusting the theatre audience closer to the stage also took away the separation for viewers at home. You really felt like you were at that show rather than just watching it.
It was nice, too. how nobody was rushed off stage when it came to the acceptance speeches. Sure, this added to the length of the show--nearly three-and-a-half hours--but it seemed worth it. You had to be happy for director Danny Boyle and all those Slumdog Millionaire people, who kept finding new ways to be gracious and humble in the midst of all their good fortune. "There are certain places you never imagine standing," said the writer for Slumdog. "The moon, the south pole, the Miss Universe pageant and here." Best actress winner Winslet did imagine herself there, telling viewers about accepting while holding a shampoo bottle in front of a bathroom mirror when she was eight. It was an image we all could smile at because, at some point, we have all done it.
The comedy that did intrude, for the most part, was as fresh as the evening's overall format. Ben Stiller (right, with Natalie Portman) killed as gum chewing, darkly unaware Joaquin Phoenix. The bit with Seth Rogan and James Franco sitting around goofing on the clips was pure Judd Apatow and thus very cool and au courant. Hilarious to see the two of them laughing their heads off at Doubt and Franco's pothead character from Pineapple Express get all verklempt at watching the clip from Milk.
Less funny was presenter Bill Maher, who came off as bitter about being snubbed in the doc category for his film Religulous. Two of the least funny guys on stage all night were--wait for it--Jerry Lewis and Eddie Murphy. Lewis's acceptance of the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award seemed a bit sad. Hard to see Jerry Lewis get old, I guess.
The "In Memoriam" sequence was handled with class, with Queen Latifah doing a beautiful rendition of "I'll Be Seeing You" over clips featuring the likes of Paul Newman, Charleton Heston and Richard Widmark. Will Smith was perfectly cast as the guy to present the sound and editing awards and cue the action clips. Those clips were so well edited, with the sequence flowing like they all were part of the same amazing action movie.
The evening wasn't perfect. Penn couldn't resist getting on his Liberal high horse during his acceptance speech, although he did acknowledge that he'd made it tough to embrace him over the years. We were cheated out of the spectacle of seeing Mickey Rourke thank his dead dog, or Jennifer Aniston and Angelina Jolie in some sort of Dynasty-like, hair-pulling, pool tossing fit on the red carpet.
Another pet peeve: CTV seemed a bit too fast on the trigger cutting away from the show at every opportunity to squeeze in 40 or 50 more L'Oreal "double extended beauty tube"ads. (I like how "lash dramatization" gets to substitute for "we've faked this beyond belief, mascara wearers.").
Still, this is nit picking. Sunday's ABC Oscarfest was a winner, as charming and delightful as that crazy French dude Philippe Petit, the Man On Wire who walked between the two World Trade Center towers and was on stage to help accept the prize for last night's documentary win. He need not have made that coin disappear--Hollywood already knows how to do that. But balancing Oscar on his chin--that was a cool trick, one the producers of last night's show pulled off with equally remarkable elan.