The 82nd Annual Academy Awards
By Hugh Lilly
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences held its 82nd annual awards ceremony on Sunday March 8th. After opening with a song-and-dance number from TV actor Neil Patrick Harris—part of the night’s “Old Hollywood” theme—hosts Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin got down to the business end of things: making unfunny jokes. The Oscar hosts aren’t usually particularly humorous—it’s difficult given the scripted nature of the role—but it’s made worse when not one but two natural-born comedians are made to read unusually bland one-liners from a teleprompter written, seemingly, without their individual comic timing and other idiosyncrasies in mind. Ben Stiller livened things up a bit later on though: he presented the Best Makeup award—which went, deservedly, to Star Trek—dressed as a Na’vi, one of the blue creatures from James Cameron’s Avatar. He was able to get in a few gibes at the director, and the spot seemed better-executed and funnier than Sacha Baron Cohen’s proposed stunt might have been. In a similar vein to the time he sat, pantless, on Eminem’s face (in character as Brüno) at the MTV Awards, Baron Cohen had planned to come out dressed as Neytiri, the character from Avatar played by Zoë Saldaña, and announce that s/he was carrying Cameron’s love-child—but the bit was pulled in rehearsal, most likely because the director heard about it and insisted it be taken out.
The jokes that evening weren’t all at the expense of James Cameron’s gargantuan blue space monkey “Pocahontas”-re-enactment-cum-computer-demo (sorry, “‘game-changing’ cinematic experience”), though. Avatar was the recipient of three awards, the most egregiously undeserving of which was Cinematography. Instead of giving the statuette to Christian Berger for his work on Michael Hanneke’s The White Ribbon, or to Robert Richardson for Inglourious Basterds—never mind that Roger Deakins wasn’t even nominated for A Serious Man—the Academy chose to honour Mauro Fiore. While he has amassed a considerable body of work and is clearly talented at imbuing films with a brand of glossiness and style beloved by a certain kind of audience—he shot The Island, Smokin’ Aces and Peter Berg’s Iraq war film The Kingdom—he did not deserve the award for Avatar. While the film is undeniably visually mind-blowing, much of what appears in the film is not the work of the art of cinematography, which is, by definition, the manipulation of light through a lens. More than 90 per cent of what appears on screen in the film wasn’t even in front of the camera when the actors were being photographed or motion-captured—it was generated in post-production. In addition to that award, Avatar picked up Best Visual Effects, perhaps the only one it deserved—and Best Art Direction. Unlike, for example, the fabulously-decorated sets of fellow category nominees The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, Nine, and Sherlock Holmes, Avatar didn’t actually have sets to design—its ‘look’ resided in a series of computers; this is not to say that it should not have been praised, but rather that it should have won only technical awards.
Speaking of praising animation, though: Pete Docter’s UP won Best Animated Feature—in lieu of Best Picture, a category it would never have won—and Michael Giacchino picked up Best Original Score, although his work for Star Trek is equally deserving of praise. Carter Burwell’s score for A Serious Man was sadly overlooked, and, while it is more than deserving of praise on its own, Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders’ music for The Hurt Locker is so intricately bound with the rest of that film’s aural landscape that it did not need to be nominated. Best Documentary went to The Cove, an excellent, thrilling exposé which combats dolphin slaughter, and, by extension, whaling—topics made freshly relevant by John Key’s recent decision to consider a proposal in favour of allowing Japan, Norway and Iceland to resume commercial whaling with quotas. Moving on, though: Jason Reitman’s dull recession-era dramedy Up in the Air went home empty-handed, even though it was nominated for six awards. Best Costume Design went, somewhat predictably, to The Young Victoria, and, in her gracious acceptance speech, Sandy Powell—dressed, wonderfully, like a young Edith Head—asked that the Academy and moviegoers in general recognise the efforts of designers not working on full-blown period dramas—those, in other words, making contemporary films, whose work is so often overlooked.
Sandra Bullock was awarded Best Actress for The Blind Side, a film which has yet to be slated for release in New Zealand. In the same weekend, Bullock won the Worst Actress Razzie for her performance, if it can be called that, in All About Steve. Best Supporting Actor and Actress went to the expected recipients: Christoph Waltz, repeating his BAFTA and Golden Globe triumphs, won for his portrayal of Colonel Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds, and the stand-up-comedienne-turned-actress Mo’Nique for her role in Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire. That film also scored some little golden men for its script, winning Best Adapted Screenplay over Armando Iannucci, Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell and Tony Roche’s wonderfully profane dialogue in In The Loop. Jeff Bridges deservedly won Best Actor in a Leading Role—an award a long time coming given that his first major role was in Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show in 1971—for his performance as Bad Blake in the otherwise terrible, cliché-ridden Crazy Heart. That film also won Ryan Bingham and T-Bone Burnett the Best Original Song award for “The Weary Kind.” The song performances, traditionally a staple of the broadcast, were cut in favour of two questionable interludes—but the montage of the recently deceased (accompanied by James Taylor singing a cover of “In My Life”) remained, and was preceded by a bizarre interpretive dance segment set to a survey of the nominated film music for Best Original Score—a segment more insulting to the composers than it was artistically relevant. While Sacha Baron Cohen’s aforementioned stunt would have seemed a little too juvenile to include in the ceremony, the producers didn’t throw out the idea of running an homage to horror movies—a genre, Kristen Stewart mumbled in her introduction amid nervous twitches and a cough, that is “often overlooked.” Another tribute, and one more in line with the “Old Hollywood” image the producers were apparently aiming for, was the one made to John Hughes, the late writer, director and producer who made Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club and Home Alone, among others. The collection of actors known he bought together, known as The Brat Pack, appeared on stage, some looking a little worse for wear, along with Macaulay Culkin, during the touching but overlong tribute, which unnecessarily included a cutaway to Hughes’ family, who were in attendance.
But of course the big news of the night was that a film that has so far grossed only US$14.7m domestically beat the most financially successful film in history to win Best Picture. Interestingly, at the very first Oscars, there were two categories at the top: “Most Outstanding Production” and “Most Artistic Picture.” The wonderfully-named William Wellman won the former award for Wings, about World War I, while F. W. Murnau’s Sunrise won the latter. The following year, the two awards were folded into one—Best Picture—and Wings was retroactively given the top prize. Had the distinction between cinematic art and mere entertainment remained, James Cameron could have once again crowned himself King of the World.
The Hurt Locker, not released in New Zealand until April 1—380-some days after it premièred at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas—also won Best Editing, Best Original Screenplay (former journalist Mark Boal, against many predictions, beating Quentin Tarantino), and both awards for sound design. Beating Avatar—which is, by commercial standards at least, The Most Entertaining Film of All Time—with a film, like so many before it, that takes a left-wing approach to an unpopular war, is quite a feat. The film is directed by a woman who has steadily amassed a solid body of work in the years since her criminally under-seen 1987 début, a vampire film called Near Dark. Completing a season that has so far seen her film win some 70-plus awards, Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman in Oscar history to win Best Director. She deserved the award not simply because she is a woman making terrific films—although in this particular awards season her gender was undeniably a benefit, along with the fact that she was in direct competition with her ex-husband—but because she made the best film of the year. She’s not a “great female director”—she’s a great director, period.
As the critic Dana Stevens wrote in Slate:
“It’s unbelievably gratifying to see a woman who does fine, small-scale work triumph over a man who erects monuments to his own vanity.”