Oscar night: halfway measures

No miserables here: Daniel Day-Lewis, Jennifer Lawrence, Anne Hathaway, Christoph Waltz

For an Oscar year in which several big awards were foregone conclusions, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences soiree this past Sunday included its share of surprises.

It also featured an equable, perhaps accidental, distribution of the prizes among a range of movies. When we consider how set the Hollywood community appeared to be on anointing the sixth-best nominee as best picture, it’s gratifying that 2012 won’t go down in Oscar history as a sweep year.

Yes, as predicted here and just about everywhere else, the George Clooney–Grant Heslov–Ben Affleck production Argo copped the big one. But it won only two others, tying with the execrable Les Misérables and running one behind Life of Pi. Scoring two each on the tote board were Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, the James Bond movie Skyfall, and Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained.

It was Django that drew first blood, with the second supporting-actor win by Christoph Waltz in a Quentin Tarantino movie. As in Inglourious Basterds (2009), Waltz was really a costar rather than supporting player. And once again Waltz gave an impeccably gracious acceptance speech, naming and literally bowing to his esteemed fellow nominees and praising his writer-director through artful repurposing of Tarantino’s own words.

Did Waltz’s sorta-surprise win foreshadow an evening of academy voters taking pointed stands against pinched-face controversy? Django Unchained, an outrageous historical revenge tale framed as a spaghetti Western, had been deplored (especially by people who refused to see it) for its ballsy, N-word–laden take on slavery. What about Zero Dark Thirty—only the for-real best movie of 2012—glibly maligned for endorsing the efficacy of “enhanced interrogation” even though it hadn’t done so?

The next two awards were presented as if they belonged together, and you had to wonder how securely those PricewaterhouseCooper envelopes had been sealed, or how much these awards’ coupling had to say about the future of Hollywood cinema. Both cinematography and visual effects went to Life of Pi, a movie that, like 2009 winner Avatar, probably had more visual effects than cinematography. Life of Pi looks amazing, but what is it and who did it? Don’t expect an answer from cinematographer Claudio Miranda, who gave the most incoherent Oscar speech I can recall. Meanwhile, the great Roger Deakins (Skyfall), who actually photographs his movies, is now 0 for 10 at the Oscars.

Jennifer Aniston and Channing Tatum traded body-waxing jokes, then announced Anna Karenina for best costume design. Les Misérables won makeup-and-hairstyling; as Entertainment Weekly noted, “it takes a lot of work to make Anne Hathaway and Hugh Jackman look as ugly as they do” in that movie.

I’m sure there are any number of reasons to regret that the triumphantly feel-good Searching for Sugar Man took best documentary over a field of topical films, but others will have to find them. Characteristically, Sixto Rodriguez, the marvelous singer-songwriter and exemplary human being who is its subject, stayed away from the Oscar ceremony in order not to deflect attention from the filmmakers.

Les Miz won for sound mixing. Then sound-editing presenter Mark Wahlberg found himself officiating at a moment of Oscar history, a tie (“This is not a gag,” he had to assure the audience). The teams from Zero Dark Thirty and Skyfall both won. It would be ZD30‘s only victory—half a victory at that.

No weirdness occurred in the always-susceptible Foreign-Language Film category, so Michael Haneke won as expected for Amour, giving the same speech he had done the day before at the Independent Spirit Awards. No presses were stopped for the news that Anne Hathaway got best supporting actress for dreaming that dream in Les Misérables. The film-editing award is traditionally a harbinger of best picture, so William Goldenberg was called to receive Argo‘s first of three. (He was also a co-nominee for ZD30.) After losing a lot of the twelve categories in which it was nominated, Lincoln won for art direction/production design and surely deserved to.

Mychael Danna was the predicted winner of best original score for his ecumenical stylings on Life of Pi, and his speech was one of the evening’s most eloquent. Original song followed, with hurried renderings of the nominees serving as sacrificial victims till Adele’s “Skyfall,” previously showcased, could be declared the winner. (“The Song from Ted” was so poorly miked that its lyrics, by Oscars host Seth McFarlane, could not be heard; I wonder whether anyone has ever heard them.)

Argo screenwriter Chris Terrio claimed adapted screenplay and came near acknowledging that he didn’t belong in the company of Tony Kushner, winner of most critics-group awards for Lincoln. Academy voters stayed ballsy for Quentin, picking Django Unchained for best original screenplay, N-words and all. (I loved presenter Dustin Hoffman’s announcing simply, “Mr. Tarantino.”) Instead of the usual gush, QT saluted the high quality of all the nominees in both screenplay categories—”This is the year of the writer”—and congratulated both his cast and his casting because “a writer needs the right actor to make his character live and last.”

With Ben Affleck notoriously omitted from the directorial nominees (make that infamously omitted in Kathryn ZD30 Bigelow’s case), the best-director category was as adrift as poor Pi’s lifeboat. There were a lot of late predictions that it would be Steven Spielberg, mainly because he and his much-nominated Lincoln were so there. I wish it had been Spielberg, but wasn’t entirely surprised to hear Ang Lee’s name called; Life of Pi was meticulously directed, even if I could scarcely have been less moved by it. “Thank you, movie god,” the sweet man said. Again, ecumenical.

Silver Linings Playbook had run wild at Saturday’s Independent Spirit Awards, but only Jennifer Lawrence repeated her win as best actress. Still running, she tripped and slant-fell on her way up the steps to the Oscar stage, then attributed the subsequent standing ovation to sympathy for her embarrassment. What’s not to love?

Another magical moment: arguably the movies’ greatest actor and greatest actress embracing after Meryl Streep announced Daniel Day-Lewis as winner for Lincoln. Classy of her to get the envelope-opening over with as the nominee clips were running, so that she could simply pronounce the name everyone knew they’d be hearing. DD-L, the first three-time winner of the best actor Oscar, was pretty classy himself, never more so than when cherishing a key collaborator: “the mysteriously beautiful mind, body and spirit of Abraham Lincoln.”

And Argo won best picture. Not so bad. So many examples of the academy doing a lot worse.*

Queen Anne & Magnolia News, Feb. 27, 2013