Oscars: better to laugh than weep

Of course non-white actors and actresses should be lauded for their work when they deserve it; but doing it all in one fell swoop seems just as racist as denying them the awards outright.

Allison Felus

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There were so few things to be happy about at the end of this year’s Academy Awards ceremony, it seems particularly important to emphasise the bright spots.

(Or, as the telecast’s writers would have phrased this statement: ‘Now more than ever we must continue to celebrate what the seventy-fourth annual Oscars mean to us.’)

Errol Morris’ opening montage of non-celebrities talking about their favourite movies was lovely, witty and generous. No matter how hard Tom Cruise may have tried to diminish its impact with a ‘serious’ prologue that had about as much authenticity as wax fruit, the clip gleefully isolated the many ways movies insinuate themselves into our lives. Who else in contemporary Hollywood but a gifted documentarian would have had the good taste to edit this sequence in such a way that it wouldn’t belittle or sanitise its talking heads?

So far as the empowerment of minorities in Hollywood goes, seeing Ian McKellan hold hands with his male companion on camera was worth more than Halle Berry and Denzel Washington’s Oscars combined. The gesture was simple, quiet, un-self-conscious – in other words, the antithesis of all the ‘see how much we love black people’ hype surrounding Washington, Berry and lifetime achievement award winner Sidney Poitier.

The road to hell is paved with good intentions – and apparently, so is the road to Oscar gold. The fact that both Berry and Washington were given top honours in the same year for their above average (but by no means stellar) performances smacks more of the Academy’s desire to appear diverse rather than actually to be diverse. Of course we all want to see non-white actors and actresses lauded for their work when they deserve it; but doing it all in one fell swoop seems just as racist as denying them the awards outright.

The usually vapid Berry was right on the money when she said in Entertainment Weekly that she looks forward to the day when it’s no big deal for more than one person of colour to be nominated at the same time.

Tributes to the 11 September tragedy were inevitable, but they definitely could have done worse than Woody Allen’s introduction of Nora Ephron’s ‘I Love NYC’ montage (see, again, Tom Cruise’s speech). The Woodman was right to acknowledge that there were a host of other filmmakers who easily could have replaced him in his capacity as directorial representative of New York. But his obviousness was safe, reassuring and apolitically pleasant.

However, it’s still somewhat mysterious why the crowd leapt to its feet when he appeared on stage. Allen himself is not actually New York; he just makes movies there.

Ephron’s reel likewise seemed calculated to make us stand up and cheer ‘I love New York, too, by golly!’ – and succeeded beautifully. It was celebratory without being overly maudlin, a minor miracle. When later in the ceremony, though, Kevin Spacey asked for a moment of silence in honour of all the lives lost on 11 September, I kept waiting for Donald Sutherland to drawl in voiceover, ‘This moment of silence was brought to you by Clairol!’.

Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson set a high comedic standard while presenting the award (to Moulin Rouge) for Best Costume Design. Their pre-recorded film clip showing Wilson dressed as Harry Potter and Stiller in full Lord of the Rings troll regalia seemed effortlessly funny. I don’t know why it is funny to put somebody in a ridiculous costume and then have the person protest that the costume looks stupid, but it always is. (So why didn’t a similar bit work when Whoopi tried it?) Their breezy and razor-sharp banter is what the rest of the ceremony was sorely lacking. And has been lacking for years.

In terms of the awards themselves, the only one of much genuine worth was Jim Broadbent’s Best Supporting Actor trophy for his portrayal of John Bailey in Iris. Just as Berry and Washington’s wins took into account more than just their individual performances, it is likely that voters were also honouring Broadbent for the fine work he did this year in Moulin Rouge and Bridget Jones’ Diary as well. The fact that the man who sang a kick-line version of ‘Like a Virgin’ in Moulin Rouge is now an Oscar winner is almost enough to restore my faith in the Academy. (Almost.)

There must be a special place in heaven for award winners who have the presence of mind to be witty at the podium. Broadbent will certainly be one of them, on account of his thankyou to John Bailey for allowing the film to ‘plunder and…misrepresent his life’.

The angels had also better tune up their pianos to welcome singer/songwriter Randy Newman. There’s no way his song from Monsters, Inc was more musically worthy of the Best Song award than Sting or Paul McCartney’s offerings, but his acceptance speech was so hilarious it hardly mattered. Sarcastically thanking Milos Foreman and Barry Levinson borders on genius. I’ll take that over the requisite pretty girl freak-out speech (exemplified by Berry and past winners Julia Roberts and Gwyneth Paltrow) any day of the week.

Roberto Benigni, Best Actor winner in 1998 for his Life Is Beautiful and perpetrator of one of the most outrageous acceptance speeches of all time (‘I would like to be Jupiter and kidnap everybody and lie down in the firmament making love to everybody!’), was a welcome presence in his video clip. The energy and joy he bubbled while explaining his affection for Ben-Hur made the Cirque du Soleil performers look positively run-of-the-mill by comparison. Somebody bring this guy out of retirement.

Unintentionally funny sight-gags abounded during this year’s telecast. Josh Hartnett, current star of the execrable 40 Days and 40 Nights, wins the ‘Where’s Waldo?’ award for repeatedly popping up in the strangest places. Apparently there were no other actors in the audience available for reaction shots after each mention of Pearl Harbor and Black Hawk Down, so it was all Hartnett, all the time. You could almost see the thought bubble hanging over his head reading, ‘Hey…I was in that movie!’.

Peter Jackson’s appearance must be inversely proportional to his talent. The man was so unbelievably unkempt, he was beautiful. I wish that he had won Best Director for Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring on the off-chance he would have sprayed fake blood all over the audience or something equally befitting his horror movie pedigree. But, alas, Ron Howard (director of A Beautiful Mind) was the name inside the envelope. His baldness was just as shocking as – if not more so than – Jackson’s mange. The shininess of his pate is so obvious as to need no mention; but has anyone seen his eyebrows in the past 20 years?

Howard was an appallingly bad choice for Best Director in this year when he was surrounded by such heavy-hitters as Robert Altman and David Lynch. The only good thing about his trip to the podium was the opportunity to see Altman and Lynch consoling each other in the audience, arms draped around shoulders, while Opie gushed his thankyous.

It can’t be coincidence that the Academy Awards ceremony takes place every year in the spring. It’s the season of crucifixion, and this year John Nash’s life died in A Beautiful Mind for the sins of a saccharine-addicted public. And though I doubt our Lord and Saviour of the Rings will make up for 2001’s disappointments with its resurrection in December, spring is perhaps best at simply giving the opportunity to try again.

spiked-issue: Film

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