Let's Talk Oscars

Loved the Screenwriter of Milk
All about the Academy Awards.
Feb. 23 2009 12:00 PM

Let's Talk Oscars

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Troy, Seth,

Didn't I tell you Jackman would bring the old-time showbiz chops? That opening number was the highlight of the show: for Jackman's winning delivery (and Anne Hathaway's competent cameo as a mezzo-soprano Nixon); for the lyrics' implicit acknowledgement that The Reader is an unwatchable dud; and for the flimsy backdrops and taped-together props, the ceremony's only concession to an economic reality outside the Kodak Theatre. Yes, the show was admirably competent and compact, but to me a truly interesting Oscars has to allow some place for that tension between the red carpet and the real world. You know, will Marlon Brando send Apache proxy Sacheen Littlefeather onstage to turn down his award? Will Michael Moore hijack the podium with a "shame on you, President Bush" speech? Jon Stewart's very discomfort in the role of host, the fact that this New York-based political satirist was so manifestly not part of Oscar culture, served to puncture a hole in the Oscars from within. A hole that, granted, let some air out of the ceremony, but at least his presence opened things up. Last night, the danger of disruption seemed entirely remote, which made for a sleek ceremony but also a smug one.

Dana Stevens Dana Stevens

Dana Stevens is Slate's movie critic.

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And, while this doesn't quite count as disruption in a room as Prop 8-unfriendly as the Kodak, I was quite moved when Dustin Lance Black, the screenwriter who won for Milk (and who's adorable enough to have played one of Harvey Milk's rent-boy protégés in the film) spoke of his dream as a 13-year-old Mormon boy that "maybe even I could fall in love and one day get married." The simplicity of that aspiration—how could the state possibly deny any citizen so basic a hope?—was more powerful than Sean Penn's schoolmarmish scolding of Prop 8 supporters in his acceptance speech, urging them to imagine "the shame in the eyes of their grandchildren." (As enjoyable as it is to imagine the eventual comeuppance of bigots, it's equally galling to take one's moral marching orders from Sean Penn.) Anyway, I have a feeling that after last night's speech, the dreamily high-cheekboned Mr. Black will have no shortage of proposals for everything from one-night stands to eternal wedded bliss.

We haven't touched on the second musical number, Jackman and Beyoncé's frenzied top-hat-and-tie-clad medley of seemingly every Broadway tune ever written. Each of the excerpted songs was cut off precisely at the moment the listener might begin to recognize or, God forbid, enjoy it. (Beyoncé's one-line version of "At Last" sped by like an LSD flashback of Obama's inaugural ball.) The effect was that of tuning the radio in a dictatorship run by Tin Pan Alley strongmen. The jarring unmusicalness of this segment, its primal failure to grasp the most basic principles of entertainment, was confounding—until it was revealed at the end that the medley had been directed by Baz Luhrmann, sworn enemy of attention spans everywhere.

A few more shards of ephemera, and I'll bid you both goodbye:

  • My secret and sentimental hope that Mickey Rourke would win for best actor was assuaged by his win, and nutty speech, at the Independent Spirit Awards on Saturday (in which he had to be reminded by the audience to thank Melissa, er, Marisa Tomei). As we've seen in the past, Rourke doesn't do so well with out-and-out, top-of-his-game success; maybe the equivocal victory he's lived out this year (not unlike Randy "The Ram" Robinson's own) will spur him to keep acting (and acting out) like nobody else. May the wind be at his back.
  • Ben Stiller's Joaquin Phoenix impersonation is proof positive that the Phoenix collapse is a put-on. If he were really slipping into addiction or mental illness, there's no way his lawyers would have granted clearance for that segment.
  • I sense that the culture is in full Kate Winslet backlash: The Reader is dreadful, her dress looked matronly, she wanted it too much and too openly. But much as I loathe that the road to Oscarsville is paved with Holocaust victims (and, as of this year, perpetrators), I did love hearing Kate's dad give a proud taxi-whistle from whatever remote corner of the audience he'd been plonked in. And the part of her speech about having practiced for this since age 10 in the bathroom mirror, with a shampoo bottle standing in for the statue, captured what these awards are for most of us watching them, an excuse to fantasize for a moment about being recognized as the superstar that every child knows he or she is.

It's an honor just to have been nominated by Slate to stay up all night with you, exchanging e-mails about what was happening beneath Sophia Loren's upsetting choker. I'm most persuaded by Seth's theory about a head transplant gone wrong.

So glad we had this time together,
Dana

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