What we learned from the Oscars

The results are in and the red carpet is rolled up – but what do the Academy Awards tell us about the state of Hollywood? Lisa Schwarzbaum reflects.

As any sane fan of Hollywood’s annual and always glamorous Academy Awards show knows, what wins Oscars has little correlation with what will endure for the ages. Instead it has everything to do with how the movie industry wants to see itself in the moment. A sane fan also realises that the whole overlong TV show, from the choice of host to the selection of pop stars who warble the tunes in the minor category of best song, is a referendum on self-presentation. And naturally, the event is also a business calculation, a big-budget gamble on ways to draw more television viewers and sell more movie tickets.

Now hold that thought while I report that the theme of last night’s 86th Annual Academy Awards show was ‘heroes’. Not surprisingly, the hero angle wasn’t handled very heroically: a couple of haphazard film-clip montages flashed images of everyone from Daniel Radcliffe as Harry Potter (hero!) to Meryl Streep as Karen Silkwood (heroine!). Afterwards, the appearance of Bette Midler singing “Don’t you know that you’re my hero” from Wind Beneath My Wings, as a part of the creepy portion of the evening saluting the showbiz dead, was a nutty miscalculation.

Never mind. Also keep in mind the notion of the Academy Awards as a psychological snapshot of the US when considering that 12 Years A Slave, winner of this year’s Oscar for best picture, dramatises a true story about one of the most painful and shameful chapters in the country’s history  – a time, not all that long ago, when it was legal for one human being to ‘own’ another. 12 Years spares no viewers’ eyes in depicting the brutality that accompanied the racism built into that distortion of human relations – a racism with effects that linger in America still. Director Steve McQueen’s graphic images result in hard viewing; not everyone wants to volunteer for the experience. (Some professional prognosticators wondered for months whether registered Oscar voters, predominantly old, white, and male, would subject themselves to the ordeal at all.) 

Theoretically, American racism was rebuked last night: in addition to the movie’s best picture win, stunning Kenyan acting newcomer Lupita Nyong’o took home an Oscar for her powerful performance as the tormented slave Patsey, and John Ridley took the honours for best adapted screenplay, working from the 1853 book by the real Solomon Northrup, who survived his dozen years of servitude.

All right on the night

 Meanwhile all the actors who were frontrunners to win the performance awards – Cate Blanchett and Matthew McConaughey in leading roles, Jared Leto and Nyong’o in supporting roles – won their statuettes as predicted.  Alfonso Cuarón, the director of Gravity (a box office triumph as well as a technical marvel) and a favourite to win also fulfilled expectations.

There was, though, one intriguing hiccup: nominated in 10 categories and on the shortlist of frontrunners (along with 12 Years and Gravity) among the nine movies in the best picture race, American Hustle left the theatre empty-handed: nothing for Hollywood’s young darling Jennifer Lawrence, nothing for cute Bradley Cooper and nothing for director David O Russell, who triumphed last year (with Cooper and Lawrence) in Silver Linings Playbook. And there was nothing for Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, either. Perhaps American hustling and scenes of rampant, cocaine-fueled greed don’t fit Hollywood’s desired self-image this year.

But Ellen DeGeneres did. Following the proudly crude, stupidly sexist antics of last year’s host, Seth McFarlane, the return of DeGeneres brought relaxed professionalism back to the lucrative, four-hour televised show. Dressed in the trademark tuxedos she trots out for fancy events, DeGeneres was even-keeled and droll. She did a nice bit of comedy involving the delivery of pizza. She wrangled some of Hollywood’s biggest stars (including Streep, Pitt, Jolie, Cooper, Lawrence, and a random Kevin Spacey) into posing, impromptu, for a celebrity “selfie” that almost instantly became the most tweeted photograph ever on Twitter.

No one messed up too badly, if you don’t count John Travolta’s mangling of Broadway star Idina Menzel’s name (for which he was teased mercilessly by internet commenters; his curiously synthetic-looking coif also came in for some snarky scrutiny). Some presenters, on the other hand, were outstanding, notably the impossibly beautiful Angelina Jolie, who graciously steered a rather frail looking Sidney Poitier through his portion of the introduction.

Perhaps the secret of the Academy Awards’ enduring popularity as a spectator sport is this: a sane fan knows that big gestures, foolish missteps, grandiose intentions, and small triumphs are also hallmarks of the human condition, both on screen and in real life. And so we watch this ritualised, conservative, glittery, silly, self-congratulatory, entertaining extravaganza with tenderness. And we cheer. Cate Blanchett? She’s my hero!

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