Monday, February 23, 2009

2009 Oscars: A 'Slumdog' triumph, but revamped telecast had mixed results

Dev Patel and Freida Pinto in Slumdog Millionaire.

By Hap Erstein

Call it Slumdog Snowball.

The sweet -- well, except for the terror scenes -- film about a lower-caste tea boy who triumphs on a Mumbai game show, rolled over the competition at Sunday night’s new-look Oscars ceremony. Slumdog Millionaire won eight of the 10 Academy Awards for which it was nominated, losing only for sound editing -- a category that most voters probably could not define -- and for its second nominee in the Best Song group.

Interestingly, it won best picture without a single nominee in the acting categories. The previous time that happened was Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King in 2004. Also rare is the fact that the four acting honors were divided among four pictures -- Sean Penn for Milk, Kate Winslet for The Reader, the late Heath Ledger for The Dark Knight and Penelope Cruz for Vicky Cristina Barcelona.

While it was a great night for Slumdog Millionaire, the Oscars were otherwise well-spread around, although Frost/Nixon and Doubt both came up empty-handed.

As to the new look for the Oscars telecast, the results were also mixed. The best idea that producers Bill Condon and Laurence Mark (both of Dreamgirls) had was presenting the acting awards by a quintet of past winners, each of whom singled out a nominee to deliver a tribute for his or her performance. The effect was novel and the result was personal, and it could become more so if presenters who could read teleprompters were chosen.

In the You Can’t Blame Them for Trying Department, Condon and Mark went for a song-and-dance man as emcee, instead of the usual comedians and talk-show hosts. Hugh Jackman is wildly talented and very charismatic, but his material was sorely lacking.

The opening production number, which crammed in lyric references to all the Best Picture nominees, made me yearn for the filmed vignettes with Billy Crystal. The number may have looked good in the Kodak Theatre, but it was badly captured for television. The “spontaneous” surprise of Jackman pulling Anne Hathaway out of the audience to play (and sing and dance as) Richard Nixon was the best moment of the opening.

About halfway through the three-and-a-half-hour show, Jackman, Beyonce Knowles, the young up-and-comers from High School Musical and Mamma Mia!, plus a lot of anonymous tuxedoed dancers, offered a Baz Luhrmann-directed, Busby Berkeley-ish salute to the return of the movie musical. It would have been fine if the telecast were running short -- which it never is -- but it was instead the sort of superfluous, show-stretching segment that the Academy keeps talking about eliminating, but never does.

To the show’s credit, the onstage orchestra never interrupted a long-winded acceptance speech, despite warnings that the “thank-yous” would be limited to 45 seconds.

The most moving of the speeches came from Milk’s screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, who spoke of the difficulties of penning an autobiographical film of openly gay San Francisco city supervisor Harvey Milk and his “promise” that equal rights for those of all sexual orientations would be federally mandated very soon.

Philippe Petit, the tightrope walker of Man on Wire, assured his place in future acceptance montages by juggling (at least briefly) the Oscar on his chin. And Sean Penn probably assured he would be cut out of those montages with his opening line, “You Commie, homo-loving sons of guns,” when accepting for his performance as Harvey Milk.

The advance word was that this year’s Oscars would cut out the cutesy banter between presenters, which mostly happened, but it was replaced by a strained attempt to group the awards in an order that told the story of the making of a movie. It proved just as arch and artificial as the banter. Besides, if the presenters were as funny as Ben Stiller, wearing a very fake beard and doing a deadly imitation of a spaced-out Joaquin Phoenix, the show would not have a banter problem.

With no front-runner for many of the awards, and Slumdog Millionaire capturing most of the Oscars it was up for, there were few real surprise wins. The Foreign Language award was said to be a toss-up between Israel’s Waltz with Bashir and France’s The Class, largely because they have gotten the most distribution in the United States. But the Oscar went to Departures, from Japan, seen so far only by Academy voters in screening rooms.

And in case you doubted that Kate Winslet is a terrific actress, she again broke into tears when she won the Best Actress Oscar, just as she did at the Golden Globes, Screen Actors Guild awards and several other ceremonies. Now, that’s acting.

1 comment:

rappa said...

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