Kate Winslet, Sean Penn, and Penelope Cruz after winning at the Oscars

How did you do in your Oscars pool? My guess is very well. Like the rest of us. I made predictions for every category except the short-film races, which I knew little or nothing about. Of the categories I predicted, I was correct on every race but two: Sound Mixing (I picked The Dark Knight, the winner was Slumdog Millionaire) and Foreign-Language Film (I picked France’s The Class, the winner was Japan’s Departures). Was the Oscar telecast predictable? Resoundingly so. Was it boring? No.

Host Hugh Jackman, who seemed on paper to be an unlikely choice for the gig after a string of comics like Ellen DeGeneres, Jon Stewart, and Steve Martin, proved an inspired choice for the role. His experience as a song-and-dance man — he’s a Tony winner for the musical The Boy from Oz and an Emmy winner for helming a Tonys telecast — served him well and indeed served us well, beginning with a comically downsized opening number that he filled with his outsize personality. His interaction with the audience was inspired, from serenading Kate Winslet to dueting with the winning Anne Hathaway. He was more than the match of Beyonce Knowles in a Baz Luhrmann-produced tribute to movie musicals, which featured teen idols Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens lending support rather than hogging the spotlight.

He guided us through a presentation of awards that was refreshingly relevant, walking us through the stages of filmmaking. It was perhaps wise to bunch some of the technical awards together to keep the show moving at a brisk pace, and even more inspired to give us presenters who breathed unexpected life into the usual patter, like Tina Fey, Steve Martin, Jennifer Aniston, Jack Black, and Will Smith.

However, the performance of the Best Original Song nominees was slightly muddled. The two nominated Slumdog tunes sandwiched Peter Gabriel’s WALL-E song, “Down to Earth,” sung by John Legend, but there was a moment where Legend sang his song over A.R. Rahman’s “Jai Ho,” as if they were engaged in a sing-off. I half expected Legend to change the lyrics “We’re coming down” to “You’re going down.” Actually, it might have worked better that way.

The acting awards — they were distinguished not just by the winners but by the presentation of the winners. Breaking from the usual format of naming the nominees and showing clips, the categories were introduced by a quintet of winners in each category, who warmly and graciously singled out every nominated performance for praise. To watch the faces of the nominees as they were honored by their anointed peers and then for one to be welcomed by them into Oscar history was an ingenious choice. Certainly a lot better than a couple of years back, when they trotted all the technical nominees on stage like victims for a firing squad to save time.

Oscars were awarded to Slumdog Millionaire, eight in total, and other films settled for whatever was left. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button won three (art direction, makeup, visual effects), The Dark Knight won two (supporting actor, sound editing), Milk won two (lead actor, original screenplay), and The Reader and Vicky Cristina Barcelona won an acting prize each, for Kate Winslet and Penelope Cruz respectively. The documentary feature award went to Man on Wire, the lovely film about daredevil tight-rope walker Philippe Petit. The Best Animated Feature was WALL-E, which in my estimation was the year’s best film, period.

Did Slumdog Millionaire deserve to sweep? It’s hard to begrudge the film and the talented, hard-working artists who made it. It’s effective, well made, a successful picture. But I have made no secret of not loving it as much as most critics did, and while it earned prize after prize I thought about all the great film achievements that were being ignored — those that were nominated and those that weren’t. I thought about the remarkable cinematography and editing of The Dark Knight. The lovely music from WALL-E. The terrific scripting of Doubt, Revolutionary Road, Snow Angels, and Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day. The remarkable visuals of The Fall. The great score from Waltz with Bashir. The brilliant songs from Hamlet 2, The Wrestler, and Gran Torino. To watch the Oscars, you would think Slumdog was the only film of merit released in 2008. Not so.

The acting winners were satisfying, and so were their speeches. Heath Ledger’s family stoically accepted the late actor’s well deserved award for playing the Joker in The Dark Knight. The typically serious-minded Sean Penn cracked a grateful smile upon winning his second Oscar, for the biopic Milk, for which he accused Oscar voters of being “Commie, homo-loving sons of guns.” … And proud of it. I was rooting for Mickey Rourke for his extraordinary career resurrection in The Wrestler, but Best Actor was a category with no bad options, and Penn’s transformation into slain gay-rights activist Harvey Milk elevated the biopic into something special.

Winslet won lead actress for The Reader. I thought she was better in Revolutionary Road, but I’m glad she won for one of them. 2008 was a remarkable year for her, and after five previous nominations, she was overdue. At only 33 years of age, she has enough years ahead of her to one day be overdue again, and I suspect she may be the one to eventually catch or even surpass Meryl Streep’s ever-growing total of nominations.

A deeply touching speech was made by original screenplay victor Dustin Lance Black, whose winning Milk script was the first he has written. The openly gay writer was inspired by Harvey Milk and expressed his desire to one day be able to fall in love and get married.

Who were the best and worst dressed? Browse the many, many photos on the web and decide for yourself. I have ceased to be interested in dissecting gowns and designers. When Tilda Swinton won her Oscar last year for Michael Clayton, why was all the attention on the dress she accepted the award in, rather than on the performance that earned it? And why was she judged so harshly for it? Women are held to unfair standards, especially when some men fail to even comb their hair. Winslet looked beautiful. So did Penelope Cruz. And Anne Hathaway. It’s hard to come up with a Hollywood star who didn’t look beautiful. Mickey Rourke went rogue with an open collar and white jacket, but I think the picture of his late dog Loki he wore around his neck will mean more to him than anything Tim Gunn has to say about his attire. As it should be.

Advertisements