Song, Dance, and Commendation:
Turning the 2009 Oscars into a Television Event
When the Academy Awards brought on a set of new producers, there was the usual buzzwords: on time! Big surprises! Excitement! On time! Thrilling! And yet, we all doubted that it could live up to the expectation, especially after the year’s most populist films were all but shut out of major awards, and the chance for big surprises was more or less out the door the second that the runaway train of Slumdog Millionaire pulled into the station. The odds were stacked against this show from being something that felt like a real television event, which is really the point of this whole affair.
Or, well, one of the points. In reality, this is an event that is about celebrating the best in the year of film, but that is an idea that is always so subjective and often disconnected from what the movie-going public actually experienced. At the very least, then, it’s supposed to be a celebration of the talent in Hollywood, something that is always tough with the red carpet affairs and the grasps at star power drive attention towards those with the most cache. And all the while they have to be entertaining, keeping us moving between awards and keeping our attention.
And while it didn’t run on time (who ever expected it to?), and there weren’t many major surprises (here’s a full list of winners), tonight’s Academy Awards will go down in the books as one that provided entertainment you’d see nowhere else, a celebration of the year in movies and not just those movies which happened to be nominated, and one where the fine line between indulgent self-aggrandizing and commending the year’s finest actors was walked with great control. And that, at the very least, created three and a half hours of engaging television.
From the word go, a lot of the show’s general charm has to do with Hugh Jackman, someone who is capable of controlling a room with his charm. His time hosting the Tony Awards was more or less what you saw here: someone who can crack a joke when need be, but is more likely to chat with the audience casually, and just make you feel sort of comfortable about the whole show. Jackman, more than being a host, was a Master of Ceremonies, someone who gives the show a grand sort of feel and, on a few occasions, contributes to its grand scale events.
In terms of being entertainment, that’s what Jackman was there for. His two musical numbers were both a bit uneven, suffering from that balance between cleverness and ceremony that can sometimes befall numbers like these. But the opening number took a turn for the better when, after giving quite a simple little investigation into Benjamin Button, two very enjoyable decisions were made. The first was to have The Reader’s contribution to the number be a tongue-in-cheek techno dance number that made fun of the fact that no one had seen the reader and thus they couldn’t properly write a parody song about it – it was clever, funny, and watching Hugh Jackman be unable to keep a straight face during the dance was worth the price of admission.
While it lasts, YouTube of the Opening:
The other decision was to have Jackman pull Anne Hathaway from the audience in order to play Richard Nixon, despite her being seated next to Frank Langella, who was nominated for, you know, playing Richard Nixon. This led to Hathaway getting to belt out her side of the duet, Hugh Jackman (as Frost) singing of his love with Nixon, and just a lot of fun to be had. Billy Crystal had his schtick of singing about the nominees, and Jackman’s Song and Dance experience kind of indicated he would be doing the same, but Jackman was quite admirable in his performance here.
The later musical number was a bit more conflicting, primarily because it was announcing something quite debatable: I’m not sure that the musical is really back just because of Mamma Mia’s success, and certainly pairing that hit film’s young stars (Dominic Cooper and Amanda Seyfried) with those from High School Musical 3 only reminded us of the highs and lows the musical genre tends to operate on. That being said, it’s clear that Beyonce still has a bright future in film if she finds musicals, as her performance here was electric, and the great conclusion featuring “Somewhere” (from West Side Story) and “Somewhere over the Rainbow” (from The Wizard of Oz) was a highlight. That Baz Luhrrman was behind the number was perhaps most clear in the performance’s manic energy and epic scale: it was something out of Moulin Rouge, and that’s a fairly good cinematic bellweather for the entertainment level of the program as a whole.
YouTube: The Musical is Back
But those were really the only indulgent moments for Jackman, who stood back for the remainder of the show. The rest of the time was spent focusing on something quite fascinating: the awards themselves and the people who were receiving them. While there were jokes for the celebrity presenters, only one or two (See: Ben Stiller’s Joaquin Phoenix) didn’t connect with the awards being presented. They did a very smart thing this year in linking together the sets of awards which could connect, and giving them a theme of sorts. The Kodak Theatre was transformed for mainly the smaller awards, turned into a backlot soundstage for the Artistic awards, or becoming a high-tech LCD paradise for the tech awards. It kept things quick, rattling off the awards one after another with the same presenters, but still felt like they were celebrating those people for the work that they were doing.
It was a strong combination of aesthetics and message, something that was consistent with the unique way they presented the acting awards. Usually given out by the winner of the opposite gender from the year previous, this year five past winners of each award took to the stage and introduced one of the nominees with words of praise and acknowledgment. At first, it felt indulgent, like actors congratulating actors, and for some of them it did (Halle Berry mentioning her own success before transitioning into Melissa Leo). But over time, you realized that what it did was give each actor their own moment: when you got to someone like Richard Jenkins, or someone like Michael Shannon, it is respecting their long shot chances as much as the eventual winners.
There’s something very powerful about that, and especially with the Best Actor presenters (ranging from Sir Ben Kingsley to Sir Anthony Hopkins) there was a real sense that there was a passing of the guard, a mutual respect that didn’t feel self-aggrandizing so much as a unique opportunity that isn’t available at other awards shows. It felt special, something that the Oscars rarely feel, and while their speeches were no doubt scripted some of them (like Robert DeNiro’s for Sean Penn and Whoopi Goldberg’s for Amy Adams) were extremely funny and felt like they were impromptu. More than ever, I feel like the people who were nominated got to have their day in the sun, and that’s hard to complain about even if some of them dragged on a little long.
But this theme of commending the year’s best in film was not found only in that decision, but throughout the show’s various montages. Often focused on things such as the history of the typewriter in film, or something as pretentious as that, they were instead about creating a 2008 Yearbook. In categories ranging from Animation to Documentary, from Action to Comedy, it felt like this was an awards show that would incorporate things such as comic book films, that has paid attention to even the worst of the animated films, and that gave each documentarian nominated for an award a chance to speak about their subject and their art. That is something that doesn’t often happen with the Academy Awards: even at night’s end they had a montage of clips from 2009 films, something that again felt like an attempt within the show’s production to appear more populist, to engage more with moviegoers and not just with their membership.
The Oscars are always the most entertaining when they are either dazzling us with things we’d never see on television normally or showing us an all too human side of people we normally see within the context of their on film performances. We’ve seen Kate Winslet win countless awards this season, but the moment when she yelled for her father to whistle so that she could thank her parents in the proper direction was pure television magic, especially since he thankfully is quite capable of an extremely effective whistle. While Sean Penn’s win wasn’t really all that much of a surprise, his great introduction (“You commie loving homo sons of guns”) was wonderfully self-deprecative and the political elements of his speech were well-stated and justified by the show’s location in California.
It really shouldn’t be too much of a surprise that these in the end were feel good Oscars: Slumdog Millionaire’s 8 wins might have been fairly easy to forecast, losing only Sound Editing and to itself in Best Original Song, but the film is just so uplifting and the story of its production so Cinderella-esque, and its Indian setting so inspiring, that every time it won the predictability (kind of like the predictability of its own story) was buoyed by that feeling you get when you see the film for the first time. Combine with seeing Winslet finally pick up an award, and the bittersweet emotions of Heath Ledger being honoured posthumously for The Dark Knight, it seemed like there wasn’t anything terribly remiss.
And for an Oscars that didn’t recognize the year’s most popular films (The Dark Knight and Wall-E) as much as some would have liked, that had a host who really isn’t that well known in the States, that many have gone on record as suggesting would be the lowest rated ever…I kind of liked them. A fair bit, in fact: when at the end of the night they put together a montage of the Best Picture nominees that wasn’t just another clip reel, but was rather a thematic connection between these nominees and nominees from the past, you realize that the Oscars are still a better television event, and this year at least a better celebration of film, than any other show out there.
- There was really only one major snub/shocker of the evening: Waltz with Bashir, which has taken almost every single precursor in the Foreign Language category, was beaten out by Departures, from Japan. This was actually Japan’s second win of the night, having also taken the award for Best Animated Short Film (in what could be considered another surprise, albeit a smaller one). This is not the first time this has happened in this category: Pan’s Labyrinth also famously lost Foreign Language Film. The category is one part of the show that feels out of touch with both critics and moviegoers, and one has to wonder at what point some changes will need to be made…or, maybe, it’s us who are out of touch.
- There was a great moment on the red carpet: Canadian commentator (and hack) Ben Mulroney was talking to the kids from Slumdog Millionaire, and he asked the actor who played Youngest Salim about his plane ride. After confirming it was his first flight, Mulroney asked him if it was exciting, and he answered “No” quick as a whip, purposefully cracking the joke. It was marvelous.
- Anne Hathaway did herself a lot of goodwill for future nominations during the show: she had her song and dance number with Jackman, she was emotional and affected by all of the show’s heartfelt moments, and she seemed so honestly thrilled that Shirley Maclaine even spoke her name that I don’t even think she cared about losing. Grace can go very far in this business.
- The one thing that kind of fell a bit flat was the Best Original Song performances: Peter Gabriel pulled out after his song from Wall-E, “Down to Earth,” was given only 65 seconds, and just overall the performances felt off. John Legend kind of killed Gabriel’s song in my books, and while A.R. Rahman is well deserving for his two wins for Score and Song, he isn’t the world’s most electrifying performer and it felt like we were watching a dance routine and not much else. Cool idea to remix the two songs together at the end, but it just didn’t work for me overall.
- Other good elements of the show’s production includes the pre-show use of Tim Gunn (who is always entertaining), the inserts of previous Oscar fashions for the fashionistas out there, and the contemporary and very eclectic orchestra music that Michael Giacchino (Lost, Ratatouille, etc.) brought to the show, especially in transitions.
- For those who follow me on Twitter, you might have tuned in to hear me offer my commentary on the first half of the show with Dave, Devindra and some special guests at the /Filmcast. It was a lot of fun, and you can tune into their show at http://www.slashfilm.com/live/ for their own thoughts on the show Monday night at 10pm Eastern.