There came a moment early during the evening when I, and I’m sure many other close Oscar watchers, thought the foregone conclusion of The King’s Speech winning Best Picture might not have been so foregone after all. At the beginning of the show, Tom Hanks presented the first two categories, Best Art Direction and Best Cinematography, mentioning an odd, mostly irrelevant statistic: no film had won those two categories as well as Best Picture since Titanic. The first envelope opened and Art Direction went to Alice in Wonderland. Then Cinematography went to Inception. So much for that.
I thought The King’s Speech had Art Direction in the bag; after all, so many of director Tom Hooper’s shots were designed to show off the opulent ornamentation of the sets. Perhaps, I considered, its loss was a canary in the coal mine. After earning twelve nominations, more than any other film, and sweeping the directors’, producers’, and actors’ guild awards, it seemed that The King’s Speech was bound to pull off a sweep on par with Slumdog Millionaire in 2009 (eight wins), and I remember that the winners of Best Original Song in 1997, for “You Must Love Me” from Evita, expressed gratitude that there wasn’t an original song from The English Patient, which was unstoppable in 1997, winning nine times.
But then The King’s Speech kept losing. It took Best Original Screenplay, but that was a gimme. By that point two years ago Slumdog had already won a ton of Oscars and most of the place-settings from the after-parties. One by one, expected or probable wins fell by the wayside: Original Score went instead to The Social Network, Costumes to Alice in Wonderland. The King’s Speech, the kind of lavish period film Oscar loves to award in fistfuls, won not a single technical award. Could it be? Could we have overestimated the Academy’s love for it all along?
But then Tom Hooper won Best Director, the one category – and an important one at that – The King’s Speech was widely expected to lose, and it was pretty much game over. Still, the fact that The King’s Speech won Best Picture with only a modest three other awards (Director, Screenplay, and Lead Actor for Colin Firth) seems reasonable to me. I didn’t think it was one of the best films of the year, and certainly didn’t think it among the best directed (especially against the likes of David Fincher and Darren Aronofsky), but if the Academy felt a lump in their collective throats for its feel-good, against-all-odds underdog story, at least they had perspective enough to properly award achievements by other films in as good a year for movies as any I’ve experienced. Inception won four awards, the three that were expected (Sound Mixing and Editing, Visual Effects), and one that came by surprise (Best Cinematography, besting True Grit, whose great cinematographer, Roger Deakins, is now 0-for-9). And The Social Network won three (Adapted Screenplay, Film Editing, Score).
The Fighter won two awards: Supporting Actor (Christian Bale) and Supporting Actress (Melissa Leo) – no surprises there, though I thought Hailee Steinfeld would pull off an upset because that was the only major award True Grit could possibly win. But it turns out Oscar voters didn’t care so much about awarding it in a top category, or any category – it lost all ten of its nominations, the biggest shutout of the night and one of the biggest shutouts in Oscar history. The fourth acting race was won by Natalie Portman, fending off Annette Bening to win Best Actress for Black Swan.
These winners were expected, and they’ve given acceptance speeches in the same categories for the same roles at myriad other award shows in recent weeks. Sometimes you wonder if by the main event they’re all speeched out. So amidst all the repeat winners it was gratifying to see such an unabashedly, goofily happy recipient as Luke Matheny, the wild-haired winner of Best Live Action Short for God of Love.
Best Documentary honors went to Inside Job. Its director, Charles Ferguson, previously made the rigorous and astonishing No End in Sight, which I ranked among my favorite films of 2007, but he lost that year to Taxi to the Dark Side. Elsewhere, Best Original Song was inexplicably awarded to Randy Newman for his theme from Best Animated Feature-winner Toy Story 3, “We Belong Together,” a pale imitation of his “If I Didn’t Have You” from Monsters Inc., which was itself a pale imitation of his “You’ve Got a Friend” from the original Toy Story. Has the Original Song category fallen so far?
Best Foreign Film went to In a Better World from Denmark. It is a curious and frustrating quirk of this category that this film has not been released in the United States yet, making it even more difficult to generate interest for American audiences. It’s an unfortunate truth that most Oscar viewers haven’t seen most of the nominated films (I attended an Oscar party where few had heard of Winter’s Bone, Blue Valentine, or Rabbit Hole), but even those of us who can’t get enough of this stuff haven’t seen most of these nominees. And worse, when they eventually are released in the United States, they will not be eligible in regular Oscar categories, having already been nominated or awarded the previous year when no one had seen them. This system needs to be broken down and sold for parts.
The telecast itself was a reasonable success. Hosts Anne Hathaway and James Franco were a controversial choice, a naked attempt by producers to appeal to a younger demographic, a fact the hosts acknowledged playfully as soon as they stepped out on stage. It’s a surprise that Franco – a multitalented iconoclast, who when he’s not guest starring on General Hospital is doing doctoral course work at Yale – was the one who at times seemed a bit ill at ease in front of the large crowd, while Hathaway was consistently relaxed and charming. But I can’t hold it against Franco; there are worse things than mild awkwardness under pressure, as proved by Ricky Gervais, who was much too comfortable making the rest of us very uncomfortable at the Golden Globes last month. (Note to Gervais: a Robert Downey Jr. rehab joke is funnier when Downey is in on the joke.) Overall, I’d say they were a marked improvement from last year’s more conventional hosting duo, Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin.
Though the show was not without its share of filler (I’m not sure the purpose of the tribute to a disembodied Bob Hope), it wrapped up more or less on time, which is more than you can usually say. The show was stolen by 94-year-old Kirk Douglas, who flirted with Anne Hathaway and then impishly prolonged his presentation of Best Supporting Actress, after which he told winner Melissa Leo that she’s much prettier than she was in her film. Robert Downey Jr., whom I mentioned above, presented Best Visual Effects with Jude Law with the same mock-contentiousness he showed when he memorably announced a writing award with Tina Fey last year. He has chemistry with just about everyone. He’s never hosted an Oscars before. He should.
At the Oscar party, it was suggested to me that I write about what the attendees wore, because that’s what most people care about. I think most of the women looked real pretty, and the men wore tuxes. Here are a few pictures of very attractive people: