Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Big Night

There is a lot to say about last night's Oscar telecast. I'm not quite sure how to say it all without the piece becoming a Stream-of-Consciousness Rant Gone Wild. As a result, I will try to take it one step at a time.

It has been, very honestly, a wonderful Awards Season. In many ways, I am happy to see it end. In others, I am sad it is all over once again, with eight-plus months between now and the kick-start of Oscar Season '09. There was a lot of predictability going on, as has become the standard order of business. But there was also a lot more uncertainty and surprise this year than in years past. My heart started beating pretty hard during three of the four major acting categories--that is a rare feat for a jaded film connoisseur. I also had a smile on my face for the majority of the ceremony, perhaps an even rarer feat. And finally, most importantly, the quality of the films and performances being honored was much higher than most journalists liked to say it was.

Similarly, the quality of the Oscar ceremony was also much higher than most of the Monday Morning Quarterbacks are giving it credit for. In fact, I would submit that last night's show was easily the best Oscar ceremony of the decade, and really even longer than that. Hugh Jackman, one of the best stage performers I have ever seen, took his job seriously and also allowed himself some room to have fun--the kind of fun that made him so effortlessly charismatic on Broadway. He was the perfect host, and the best host we've seen on the Oscar stage in years. The only stumbling block that could keep him from coming back year after year will be Jackman's own schedule and desire...and eventually the conflict of interest that will arise when Jackman scores an Oscar nomination of his own (I've said it for years now...put him in a quality musical adaptation and he will become the shoo-in Best Actor winner).

Regarding the nay-sayers who offer that the musical numbers were strange, the presenters flubbed their lines, and the show was overlong...those are the same types of criticisms we hear every year at this time. They are stale, bitter arguments, especially this year, when the show was reinvented by Bill Condon and Laurence Mark as a passionate celebration of the films and nominees (more on those pesky Oscar critics in a forthcoming post). The majority of the revamps worked brilliantly--the celebration of separate genres, the joining of a handful of similar technical categories in order to present the awards more quickly and in a more structured fashion, and especially the abandoning of boring clip packages in favor of five past actor/actress winners coming together to present each acting trophy. Most viewers get most excited about the major acting prizes anyway, but for lovers of film, followers of great actors, and viewers who cherish the Oscars through all its rocky incantations, the new presentation was absolutely golden. Rather than re-watch the same old clips--which can never fully encapsulate the power of an actor's performance in the first place--each of the five previous winners offered words of praise for each of their corresponding nominees. As a result, the presentation was not simply a rote announcement in which four blank-faced losers sit and clap once a winner is announced, but rather was a moment to celebrate each individual nominee, to put the power and importance of each body of work in proper perspective before announcing the winner. Beautiful stroke.

Each of the new ideas can be--and should be--tweaked and improved upon with each subsequent year, but what Condon, Mark, and Jackman have given us is a new template for what the Academy Awards show can be, and on which the Oscars can and should base the next decade of ceremonies. If they're willing, bring Condon and Mark back to retool and learn from their few mistakes, to continue this evolution they set into motion. As each idea is refined--with the biggest duds dumped in favor of newer, fresher, more effective ideas--the show will once again become as respected for its presentation as it is for the prestige of its awards.

The one element that could certainly be improved was the direction. There were plenty of swooping cameras, alright, but there were times--particularly during the "In Memoriam" segment--where we weren't seeing what we needed to be seeing at the moment we needed to see it. That is a live television directorial issue--since directing a live show such as the Oscars is essentially using several cameras and editing in real time--and one that I'm sure will be rectified next year.

Then, there were the winners. Slumdog Millionaire is about as deserving as they come, and its eight trophies are all well-earned. Danny Boyle was gracious as ever...so happy for him. Kate Winslet was fabulous as ever, and the moment when her father whistled out to her will be replayed in future Oscar montages. Penelope Cruz offered more wonderful words. Heath Ledger's family spoke very eloquently on behalf of their now-iconic son. Sean Penn continued to impress me with his words--after a very gracious and emotional SAG acceptance speech, Penn once again gave a very gracious, sometimes funny, slightly self-deprecating, and highly impassioned speech. And he gave a very important shout-out to his "brother," Mickey Rourke (even if he failed to mention his wife...the speech's one low point).

On that note, my one big disappointment was that we didn't get to hear Mickey speak. It would have been an acceptance speech for the ages, I'm sure. And in truth, I was pulling for Rourke all along, but I don't think I truly grasped the level of my passion for both Mickey and The Wrestler as a film until the moment before the Best Actor envelope was opened. I was really hoping to see the Big Dog win, and was very disappointed when it didn't happen. I hope that we see more great work--and more acceptance speeches--from Mickey in the future.

So...another year, another long and arduous Awards Season behind us. Now, we will chew on the results for a little while longer, go through the typical Oscar withdrawal stage, and then get back to where focus should be placed: The Movies.

Because soon enough, we will do the Oscar Thing all over again.


MadMike said...

I was also disappointed by the best actor award. I loved Rourke in The Wrestler. As a matter of fact it has been a long time since I have seen such passion for the art. By the way which of you guys would like to contribute to my blog? I would love to see some concise but passionate reviews on my site. I am thinking of going .com at some point so that I can add some advertising and widen my readership. I would be honored to have one (or both) of the best critics ever reporting for me:-)

J McKiernan said...

Hey, Mike,

I think we'd both be interested in writing for your site, and I especially would. K has the passion but often doesn't have the time. I eat, sleep, and breathe this stuff...it's all I want to do. So I am there, hands down, no matter what.

Let's talk further...

MadMike said...

OK J. You can reach me at madmikes1@gmail.com. Send me a mail and I will have your address and then we can talk about it. I'll look forward to it.