By Kenneth Turan
February 24, 2009
I say this not out of unhappiness with the way things turned out or dissatisfaction with the show itself. Quite the contrary. The new-look Oscars played beautifully in my living room, and I could not have been happier to see that, despite multiple attempts by its detractors to muddy the waters, the Hollywood community recognized "Slumdog Millionaire" as one of its own and rewarded it with Oscars in eight of the nine categories it was nominated for, including best picture.
Rather, I found myself troubled with the way the protracted Oscar predicting season has become an endless game of gotcha, obscuring the movies themselves and the love of film that should be at the event's core.
While journalists who cared about the Oscars could at one time all fit into a small booth at Nicodell's on Melrose, the advent of the Web and its ugly, insatiable appetite for anything smacking of celebrity has meant that hordes of folks are now thick on the ground, scorching the earth in search of tidbits and chitchat.
The problem with this obsessive quest, with constantly taking the temperature of contenders as if they were billionaires in an intensive-care ward, is that it becomes an end unto itself.
In the case of "Slumdog," for instance, the dealing with rumors and counter-rumors about how the film's young actors were treated, of paying attention to the dunderheaded "poverty porn" backlash and then the backlash against the backlash, had the effect of obscuring the film itself. As a result, where ordinarily I would have felt nothing but joy at "Slumdog's" multiple victories, an underdog-makes-good tale every bit as improbable as the one told on screen, I found myself feeling simply relief that the film had survived the gantlet of 24/7 media attention without self-destructing or worse. This is the tail wagging the dog in a really unfortunate way.
Similarly, if you are passionate about films and the people who make them, rather than being addicted to the irresistible opportunity for gossip and snark they offer, it was hard not to be pleased by the reconfigured Oscars as conjured up by Bill Condon and Laurence Mark. If you love film, you love actors, and the notion of having five former winners present in each of the four acting categories was hard to resist. My Aunt Sarah, a big movie fan who used to love the show because there was a chance for her to see "my friends," would have been especially pleased.
Similarly effective was the notion of structuring the show like the process of making a film, from writing to post-production. And any opportunity to show clips, whether it be from previous Oscar acceptances or this year's otherwise neglected comedies and action films, is always a welcome one.
Given all that pre-Oscar prognostication, the awards themselves were remarkably free of surprises except for the best foreign language victory of Japan's "Departures" over the more highly regarded "Waltz With Bashir" and "The Class," and that win, though hard to predict, is easily explainable.
To vote in that category, you must be willing to put in the time and effort to see all five nominees, and the people who have that ability (a) skew older than the academy as a whole and (b) have a historic bias toward softer rather than tougher films. Of the five films nominated, only one film fit into that softer category. The tougher films canceled each other out and the soft votes all went to "Departures." End of story.
The best parts of the Oscars, traditionally, have been the event's live TV moments, like when "Man on Wire" aerialist Philippe Petit balanced the best documentary Oscar on his chin. The event also brings out unexpected honesty in acceptors, including "The Duchess" best costume design winner Michael O'Connor still smarting about being "the risk" in the production and Sean Penn candidly admitting "I know how hard I make it to appreciate me," after winning the best actor award for his performance in " Milk."
Finally, it's always great to see so many winners revealing themselves to be life-long fans of the Oscars, including Penélope Cruz staying up late to watch in Spain and Kate Winslet admitting to practicing an acceptance speech with a shampoo bottle as the award. No one is required to love the Oscars just for being the Oscars, but speaking for those of us who do, I think its only fair to ask everyone else nicely but firmly to butt out. This is cosa nostra -- our thing -- and if it's not yours we can live very well without your attention and your scorn.
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