storagecanoecaEven if you don’t like what the Academy Awards represent–those questionable nominees, that PR flackery, all the “industry” sanctimony–it’s more than possible to enjoy the show itself. Didn’t we all kind of grow up with it? I watched it with mom, in college, in Hong Kong, Italy, and San Jose, CA, with my Oscar posse in Manhattan and now in Brooklyn, with my family (not that I kept my infant daughter up).

For me, 2008 stretched from 6:30pm EST and the first red carpet roundup on ABC (Phoebe Cates, in red, was the premiere star sighting, if she and husband Kevin Kline still rate in the firmament), through Barbara Walters’ 28th pre-show special (with Barbara chatting up the Jonas Brothers on purity, Anne Hathaway on her state of mind–“happy”–Mickey Rourke on suicide, and getting a lap dance from show host Hugh Jackman), a second, official red carpet roundelay with the A-listers (tip: Wear Chopard, win an Oscar) and onto the show, a promised “new look” Oscars. Just under midnight, Oscar’s 81st was (finally!) one for the books. I swapped a few thoughts with Scott (Kung Fu Panda) Malchus, who began with this as we move semi-chronologically, Reader-style, through the evening:

Scott Malchus: When I was a child, I loved Academy Awards night (it was a Monday back then). I was one of the many who dreamed of someday holding one of those gold statues and thanking all of the people I knew, etc. (BC: It can still happen, Slumdog. Thank me from the podium.) Something happened in the late ’90s when these awards lost some of their glamor to me. It was probably around the time that Harvey Weinstein was campaigning the shit out of Shakespeare in Love that I realized that these awards weren’t so much about quality, but about marketing. Convince enough people that your movie is the best and they’ll probably vote for it, even if they haven’t seen the movie. Each year since my kids have been born, I take less interest in the awards to the point that I completely forgot when the nominations were announced this year.

Of course, one of the things that existed when I was younger that doesn’t now is the mystery of who might actually win. With so many award shows, anyone can follow the trends and easily predict who will win. That said, there always seems to be one or two upsets in the major categories, usually the Supporting Actor/Actress slot. I hope that holds true this year, too. (BC: There were exactly two upsets, but not there.)

Bob Cashill: Well, we made it through the ABC Red Carpet segment, which you deemed “atrocious.” (Wear Chopard next year and see how you feel.) You’re jazzed about the hard-working Michael Giacchino finding time from Lost to act as musical director. I’ve interviewed David Rockwell a few times about his set design work, and as we move on in I like what he’s done, giving the space a cooler, more intimate nightclub feel–but I’m not sure about what they’ve put up there on center stage. It’s not Hugh Jackman–he’s a consummate pro–but it didn’t quite come off. Not an Allan Carr disaster, but not a slam dunk, either, for the “new look” Oscars.

Not crazy about bringing all the past winners onstage, like the knights of the roundtable, to welcome the newcomer to the fraternity. Kind of reality TV cheesy. I love the ladies, but the material’s weak–Whoopi Goldberg must have written her own–and it’s adding minutes to the telecast, not subtracting them. But an unsurprised Penelope Cruz was heartfelt in winning.

You know the movies aren’t quite at the epicenter of the entertainment experience when a TV star (Tina Fey) gets the biggest hand of the night thus far. She and Steve Martin did what they could to get us through the screenwriting Oscars, and we got a bit of personal politics when Milk won, and the first evidence of a Slumdog sweep.

The two animated films I most admired last year were Waltz with Bashir and Wall-E. The montage was weird, reminding us that there were others out there, too, that have gone begging. The winner–no surprise–was Wall-E. Jack Black would’ve lost half of his (joking) bet, though–Presto, Pixar’s companion short to Wall-E, was not an automatic abracadabra.

SM: I thought it was almost a slap in the face of the other animated films that they only included a select few in their montage.

RC: I’m sorry Kung Fu Panda lost…I know you had hopes. (Not that I saw it. Or Vicky Cristina Barcelona. Or The Duchess. But I will. Maybe not The Duchess. The haberdashery tells you all you need to know.)

My joints are already a little stiff…

SM: Hugh Jackman was great. He really pulled off the opening number with ease. And the way they presented the Best Supporting Actress Award was…well, it nearly had me in tears. As my wife pointed out, it allowed for each nominee to have a moment of her own before the winner was announced. And to bring out past winners was such a classy move. Penelope Cruz’s speech was a classic moment and she nearly had me crying. Now, I wonder how this will work when it’s the actors up there.

BC: It may work for me yet. I’m adjusting. I’m tied to the old ways. The one that got me was the 1998 Oscars, when Titanic swept, I co-won my Oscar party’s pool for the first time…and all the veterans came out to be venerated.

I like what Rockwell did with the art direction/costume set, which adds visual interest to categories that interest me but I suspect have viewers refilling their pretzel bowls. The Duchess winning was rote–when in doubt, go for the oldest period represented by the threads–but if I were in an Oscar pool this year, I’d be doing well with Benjamin Button. A very accomplished movie on the technical side.

I’m a big sucker for the clip montages. When they don’t click they can be kitschy, but they’re almost always fun to watch, and some of them are quite moving.

Making headway…

SM: Man, David Letterman must be grinning from ear to ear. Not only does Alec Baldwin imitate Joaquin Phoenix on Conan’s show, but now Ben Stiller nails his imitation on another competing network. What that means is more people will be checking out the clip on YouTube, sending more people to Letterman’s show. The mark of a great television moment is how often it keeps popping up in the pop culture and Letterman’s Phoenix interview will be watched for years to come.

RC: You may be right. But the Phoenix breakdown-hoax-whatever thing already seems played out; Ben Stiller may have killed it altogether, as a billion viewers not in on the joke went “huh”? Cinematography has been much better handled in the past, via montages. That’s what I want: An all-montage Oscars, with the new winners montage-d in.

SM: Umm, if you’d told me I’d be laughing my ass off because of Janusz Kaminski, I would’ve told you you were high, which is appropriate since he showed up in Judd Apatow’s Pineapple Express-inspired short film. Loved the meta moment of Franco’s character watching himself in Milk and Seth Rogen’s uncomfortable reaction.

RC: It was the first time I laughed all night. I should have seen The Reader and Doubt stoned. I may inhale, a lot, if I see The Duchess.

What this Oscars is trying to be came together with the Jackman/Beyonce number. Terrific. Baz Luhrmann makes good after the misery that was Australia.

SM: You’re kidding, right?

RC: No, perfectly serious. I wish it had been the opener, which flat-lined for me about halfway through. (It played better the second time I watched it.)

SM: Wow, I thought the opening was much better, maybe I had low expectations. A difference of opinion, for sure.

RC: It kicked off the strongest “movement” of the program, starting with the Best Supporting Actors, who were better matched to the nominees. (Ghoulish Christopher Walken offering a tribute to ghoulish Michael Shannon was perfect, and Cuba Gooding, Jr. had fun in his highest-profile gig since winning.) Heath Ledger’s win (the comics crowd triumphs!) was a true lump-in-the-throat moment, followed smartly by Philippe Petit’s delightful Man on Wire balancing act, the classic acceptance moment of the show.

SM: I agree that Ledger’s win was a powerful moment. Walken was so…stiff, it was uncomfortable watching him.

RC: The not-stiff Will Smith had the required force of personality to bull through four, or five, or 20 technical awards, which began with a montage of action pictures (Iron Man, Quantum of Solace, etc.) that had the hoi polloi high-fiving “Hey, I actually saw that one!” (No one high-fived over The Duchess. Ever.) Nice work.

And was that Oscar grump Eddie Murphy being gracious, introducing Jerry Lewis at his most restrained? Wonders never ceasing.

SM: John Legend is awesome, I really love this guy. If you have to replace Peter Gabriel, Legend is a nice choice to fill his shoes. Of course, Wall-E never stood a chance in this catergory. Has Thomas Newman ever won for his music? If not, it’s a shame.

RC: The song category was fubar this year. No Bruce Springsteen? C’mon. And if he had been nominated, would he have been restricted to a minute? Peter Gabriel was right to walk.

Newman is a 10-time (!) nominee, who should have won this year for his amazingly on-the-button score for Revolutionary Road–if it had been nominated.

A show short on surprises got one, as Departures, which has just started press-screening in New York, won for Best Foreign Film–well, it gave me a jolt. Waltz with Bashir was the favorite, with The Class not far behind. What happened, I wonder? Was Bashir too political? Not political enough? A mystery.

Queen Latifah accompanying the always touching memoriam segment was a highlight. There were an awful lot of folks to get through, and I’m sure there were omissions (Heath Ledger was memorialized last year, and of course this year, too). But I was gratified to see Jason and the Argonauts producer Charles H. Schneer, Vampira (!), and a clip from the excellent “Them!” used for James Whitmore.

And the Best Director is…Danny Boyle! Another had-it-in-the-bag winner, but it couldn’t happen to a nicer guy, one I had the pleasure to interview.

SM: Every time they cut to Danny Boyle I feel so warm and fuzzy inside. The joy he’s expressing is so sincere, so un-Hollywood.

As a whole, I thought this was one of the better Academy Awards in recent memory. I thought it was bold to have the Best Director come before the Best Acting awards, but that shows you who has the power in Hollywood…the people who put butts in seats. I was thinking that Melissa Leo may be the real winner in the acting categories. Oh, there was no chance in hell she was going to win, but this marvelous actress who spent years on a low-rated (albeit fantastic) TV show and
small indie movies will now get bigger roles.

I’m glad Penn acknowledged his old friend, his “brother,” Mickey Rourke. Both were so good in their roles that voting must have been difficult for some people.

As for Slumdog‘s win, while it wasn’t a surprise, it was one of those great underdog stories that everyone loves. It’s one of those wonderful instances in which the story behind the movie is just as good as the story of the movie. I’m so happy for Danny Boyle. I’m sure he’ll get huge offers, but I have a suspicion he’ll just continue doing his own thing, which is such an inspiration.

That’s all I have to say. Good for Kate Winslet! Good for Slumdog!

RC: Summing up…

I thought the guys handled the whole presentation thing better than the gals, who were too long-winded and “fawning,” as my wife put it. Robert De Niro was loose and funny in his, leading into the second semi-surprise of the evening, Sean Penn’s second win for Milk. I felt Frank Langella’s hold on the statuette slipping away as Mickey Rourke’s somewhat overstated “comeback” narrative steadily gathered steam (his greeter, Ben Kingsley, has had as many clunkers in his career, and a disorganized personal life to boot), but Penn proved irresistible as he ventured outside his roomy comfort zone. Good for him.

And good for Kate Winslet, who won for the wrong picture this year. I bet she wishes she and Sam Mendes were celebrating together over Revolutionary Road. But there it is, like Al Pacino winning for Scent of a Woman. For those Reader skeptics among us there were a few jokes at its expense as compensation.

I don’t know. It had its moments, but an Academy Awards where I’m not appalled by at least one of the dresses or displays of bling is missing something. (The big sartorial surprise would have been Rourke turning up in a tux.) Maybe it was not being part of a gang this year; my antennae were down. And all the new add-ons, replacing the old ones, added up to a lengthy butt-clencher of a program. But that, too, is part of the fun of it, the love-hate that keeps some of us coming back for the promise of higher highs and lower lows.

Final thoughts: Those photographic “flashes” on the back screen probably had some viewers convulsing. Maybe I’ll catch The Duchess on cable. Ah, screw the damn duchess. This East Coast slumdawg is tired. Here’s to a more scintillating 2009 nominee slate and an Oscars to match.

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