|Condon and Mark Go Slumdog, or: The Curious Case of a Crummy Oscar Night
by David Cornelius
Congratulations, loser! At least Whoopi said you were nice.
What better way to sum up 2008 in film than to give a pile of Oscars to the movie that covers its lead character in liquid excrement.
It was a long, bad year for movies, especially of the “prestige” variety. Sure, summer was fantastic - Iron Man and Indiana Jones and WALL-E and the Kung Fu Panda and a certain caped crusader all kept things rolling wonderfully all season long; indeed, nearly all of the year’s best movies were popcorn flicks released at this time - but then came the fall, and all those shoo-ins for the Academy Awards wound up disappointing. With the Academy refusing to acknowledge the success (commercial or artistic) of several of the year’s better blockbusters, the only frontrunners for Oscar’s top prize wound up being a noisy, condescending drama and a clumsy, ruthlessly dull fantasy, both disguised as feel-good dramas.
“Slumdog Millionaire” and “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” at ten and thirteen nominations, respectively, offered little excitement over the big night. “Milk” and “Frost/Nixon,” both solid works, felt too much like obligatory nominees. And I have yet to find anyone who loved the utterly mediocre “The Reader” enough to think it one of the year’s five best films; its nomination was more a testament to Harvey Weinstein’s return to Oscar influence than to the quality of the movie itself. Despite hopes that some of the big races would be tight, most of the winners were depressingly predictable, so even when they were deserved, it was tough to get excited.
Show producers Laurence Mark and Bill Condon, both new to the ceremony, promised to counter such potential audience apathy with an evening of dazzling entertainment certain to shake up the stuffy old formulas and offer something modern and vibrant. This is the sort of promise made often when the Academy skips over Gil Cates and hires someone new for the job; sometimes it works (as in Quincy Jones’ and Richard and Lili Zanuck’s telecasts), but usually you just end up with Rob Lowe singing “Proud Mary” with Snow White.
Mark and Condon swore that the show would be shorter, faster, livelier, and at times, they lived up to the promise. Having a single pair of presenters announce technical awards in themed batches (makeup, costume, and set design, for example) kept things moving ahead fairly well, and is a terrific idea, as was allowing those presenters to get snarky on stage - Ben Stiller’s riff on Joaquin Phoenix’s beard, Jack Black’s jokes about Pixar success, and Seth Rogen clowning around with Janusz Kaminski are precisely the sorts of humor the Oscar telecast needs, especially if they want to avoid another round of unbearable TelePrompter readings by unfunny celebrities.
And yet the show quickly became a series of huge contradictions. We were told that host Hugh Jackman (who was often very enjoyable, despite having too little to do, and despite never offering any commentary on the evening’s events themselves) would offer no opening monologue in an effort to speed things up - but then he tossed us a sometimes-funny, sometimes-not Billy Crystal-style musical number in its place. Rushing through the technical awards picked up the pace, but a lame attempt to tie the evening together through a “story” of making a movie (each batch of awards walks us through another phase of production) dragged that pace down. (Sure enough, while it still made it in under the three-and-a-half hour mark, this year’s show still wound up running longer than last year’s.)
But to kill that pace completely, it took the acting awards. Having five presenters on stage to deliver a single acting award, complete with tedious verbal praises for every single nominee, may go down as one of Oscar’s all-time missteps. Not only was the gimmick unbearably dull, it was something of an insult to the nominees in non-acting categories, who weren’t offered similar hospitality. Some presenters bungled their lines, making their praises feel phony; attempts at comedy were cute (Cuba Gooding, Jr.’s jokes about Robert Downey, Jr.’s “Topic Thunder” blackface were clever indeed) but hid the fact that nothing of substance was being said about the performance itself; and some speeches were so eager to dole out hyperbole that one wonders if anyone bothered to step back for a moment and realize that maybe Ben Kingsley shouldn’t tell Michael Douglas that his Nixon put all other screen Nixons to shame while standing next to former Nixon Anthony Hopkins.
Video montages of the year’s hit movies might’ve helped pick up that pace had they not been so inelegantly crafted. Packaged as highlights from a “2008 movie yearbook,” we were offered montages of genres - action, animation, comedy, documentary - that seemed to contain no quality filter. The idea, I suppose, was to mention any movie fitting the bill, not just the good ones, thus offering the only possible way “Space Chimps” and “The Love Guru” would find themselves as part of an Oscar telecast. Don’t we watch this show to avoid remembering crap like that?
Nothing was as embarrassing, however, as the music. Jackman’s opening routine had enough clever jokes to make up for a terrible premise: the economic downturn creating low-rent versions of the year’s big films. (What’s not to like about Anne Hathaway as a sexy Nixon?) And musical director Michael Giacchino’s blend of classic movie themes with big band swing provided some of the evening’s highlights. So far, so good.
Then came Baz Lurhmann’s horrific medley of past-and-present movie musical songs, which offered us Beyoncé badly lip-synching and Zac Efron trying to convince us that a tune from “High School Musical 3” is as memorable as any Rogers and Hammerstein classic. Lurhmann’s theme was “The Musical Is Back,” perhaps marrying the box office success of “Mamma Mia!” with the Broadway talents of Hugh Jackman, but it overlooks the fact that, thanks to such hits as “Moulin Rouge!” and “Chicago,” the theme was outdated by a good six years.
Queen Latifah was on hand to croon through the “In Memoriam” montage, but having her sing us through “I’ll Be Seeing You” was only part of the tacky failure of the moment. (No fault to Latifah, however, who sang quite nicely.) The tawdriness of the “Parade of Dead People” montage has been debated for years, but I’ve always felt it to be an acceptable tradition (always undone, that is, by dependably poor delivery, most infamously the turning on of the house microphones so we at home can hear which dead actor gets the most applause). This time, the desire to keep the camera on Latifah and make sure home viewers can see the set design of all those monitors spread across the stage meant we could barely make out anything at all, most of all the names of the supposedly honored. But that curtain sure looked pretty, didn’t it?
And what of that Best Song nominee medley? Peter Gabriel had already made waves by refusing to perform “Down to Earth” at the telecast, and now we know why: not only were all three nominees truncated beyond reason, but then all three were shoved into a crummy medley that culminated with an ill-fated effort to sing all three songs at once. The cacophony was excruciating, a mess of ideas that don’t fit together - perhaps best summing up the entire evening itself.
At least we had a few terrific acceptance speeches to lighten things up. Domo arigato, Phillippe Petit!
A few random notes for the Oscar Trivia buffs out there:
“Slumdog Millionaire” is only the fifteenth Best Picture winner to earn at least eight Oscars.
“Slumdog Millionaire” is the eleventh film to win Best Picture without earning any nominations for acting.
“Slumdog Millionaire” joins “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King,” “Titanic,” “Gigi,” and “Going My Way” as the only Best Picture winners to also win Best Song.
“Slumdog Millionaire” is the first Best Picture winner since “The Return of the King” not to be set in the United States, and the first since “Gladiator” to be set in a real-life non-U.S. location.
“Slumdog Millionaire” is the fourth R-rated film in a row to win Best Picture, marking the first time since the creation of the MPAA ratings system that four R-rated films have won consecutively.
“Benjamin Button” joins “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring,” “Mary Poppins” and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” in an exclusive club tied for the most Oscar nominations - thirteen - without a Best Picture win.
“Frost/Nixon” joins “Good Night, and Good Luck,” “Seabiscuit,” “Gangs of New York,” “In the Bedroom,” and “Chocolat” as recent Best Picture nominees to walk home without a single Oscar win.
“Doubt” joins “Tom Jones,” “Peyton Place,” “My Man Godfrey,” “Sunset Boulevard,” and “The Hustler” as the only films earning at least four acting nominations but winning no acting awards. Of those, “My Man Godfrey,” “Peyton Place,” and now “Doubt” are the only ones to fail to win an Oscar in any category.
Sean Penn’s Best Actor win for his performance as Harvey Milk extends to eleven years the trend of awarding at least one acting Oscar to a portrayal of a real-life person.
While several biopics have won the Adapted Screenplay award, “Milk” is the first biography to win an Original Screenplay Oscar since 1982’s “Gandhi.”
An adaptation of the novel “Q and A,” “Slumdog Millionaire” is the first Adapted Screenplay winner since 1998’s “Gods and Monsters” to be based on a book but not share its title with its source. (“The Departed” and “Traffic” also changed titles from their sources, but those were adaptations of a film and a TV miniseries, respectively.)
“WALL-E” is the fourth Pixar film to win Best Animated Feature. Since the category’s inception, only two Pixar films (“Monsters, Inc.” and “Cars”) have lost the prize.
“Departures” is only the fourth Japanese film to earn a Best Foreign Language Film trophy, and the first to win since 1955’s “Samurai I.” Back then, the category was a non-competitive special honor, making “Departures” the first Japanese film to win the category as we know it today.
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originally posted: 02/23/09 22:00:11
last updated: 02/23/09 23:18:02