Oscar Lessons

Benjamin Strong


Just before he began another medley—this one with Beyoncé Knowles, Amanda Seyfried, Zac Efron, Vanessa Hudgens, and Dominic Cooper—the host of Sunday night’s 81st Academy Awards ceremony, Hugh Jackman, announced that “the musical is back, ladies and gentleman.” This was a peculiar assertion coming from the star of Australia, a movie with an awkward musical number that was among 2008’s most memorable commercial disasters. But Jackman, an Aussie native, had already explained away this glaring contradiction during his opening monologue-cum-song with a joke about the Academy preferring to reward cultural diversity. The punchline, lest he sound politically correct, was made at the expense of the entire nation of New Zealand.
It is a fool’s game to worry over the logical inconsistencies of the American movie industry, especially on the occasion of what is more or less its annual prom night. Still, as Jackman belted his way through a three-and-half-hour broadcast on Sunday (as always, the show ran longer than scheduled) it was difficult not to trip over Hollywood’s cognitive gaps. Jackman, People’s reigning Sexiest Man Alive and a former host of the Tony Awards, was the first Oscars MC in memory who has no background as a stand-up comedian. His selection last fall was an early warning that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences planned to put on a wholesome face for our deepening recession.

Some wore this face comfortably, including the omnipresent Efron, and best actress nominees Anne Hathaway and Meryl Streep. Although she was nominated for her performance in Doubt and not Mamma Mia!, Streep gamely got into the song-and-dance mood. Critically pillored, Mamma Mia! was a smash worldwide (there’s no accounting for the taste of ABBA fans) and yet Streep recently told an interviewer that the movie was difficult to get off the ground:

Because [producers are] all men! Not that there is anything wrong with it. It just puts certain blinders on to, you know, what is going to be popular. But it is very gratifying because it’s so hard to get enough financing. I mean the budget for [Mamma Mia!] would have fit into the props budget for any Matrix film or, you know, Hellboy II. It so outdid Hellboy at the box office.

Streep’s comments were revealing. Not because she’s wrong about the chauvinism prevalent in Hollywood (she isn’t) or about Mamma Mia! being a better return on its investment than Hellboy II: Golden Army, which barely recuperated its $75 million budget. Streep was letting slip a certain industry feeling, one that must be shared by many, but by no means all, of her colleagues—namely, that she is superior to the kind of movies that actually kept Hollywood solvent in 2008.

The four highest-grossing movies in the United States last year—The Dark Knight, Iron Man, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and Hancock—were not musicals; they were action pictures. Which explains why Will Smith, no stranger to guns, muscle cars or supernatural powers, and the star of Hancock, sounded both apologetic and confused when extolling the virtues of the action genre, while presenting the awards for Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing, and Best Film Editing—categories in which The Dark Knight, the fourth-highest grossing movie of all time, might have swept, if it hadn’t run up against the evening favorite, Slumdog Millionaire.

The Dark Knight ultimately earned two trophies, one of them a posthumous shoo-in for Heath Ledger. But Iron Man, Indiana Jones and Hancock collectively took home zero. And while 2008’s fifth-biggest film, Wall-E, beat out the sixth, Kung Fu Panda, in the animated feature category (though the latter is the better film), by and large, those movies most representative of the Hollywood assembly line were not those films the Academy chose to honor last night. Whatever your opinion of The Dark Knight (I voted it worst film of the decade) there’s no escaping that it was the year’s definitive studio picture. One must have a selective memory—or else a mind for musical theater—to regard the Bollywood-crewed Slumdog Millionaire, or any of the other Best Picture nominees, as a better example of Hollywood’s bread-and-butter than Christopher Nolan’s critically-lauded Batman sequel.

But don’t take my word for it. An opposing view, originating in the Academy’s publicity office, was already taking hold yesterday morning. In this version of Sunday’s event, the ratings were up, Jackman was “a natural at the hosting game” and the Academy was to be commended for having reverted, however oxymoronically, “straight to old Depression-era glamour.” This version of the Oscars had in fact already been promoted before the ceremony on Sunday evening by E!’s red carpet reporters, who stressed the muted quality of the jewelry and the gowns the women were wearing, even though fire-engine red, as a friend who was watching with me pointed out, was hands down the most popular color. Indeed, if the Academy wanted to dial down the bling quotient, to show that they really understood the troubles of common people, they could not have chosen a less apt Best Picture. Slumdog Millionaire is a movie, remember, in which an urchin goes from filthy—that is, covered in shit—to filthy rich, overnight. Capitalist fantasies don’t come much more basic or literal-minded than that.

Thus, there was Reese Witherspoon, she of Legally Blonde fame and the Type A company, providing investor education. When she presented the award for Best Director, Witherspoon said, “For those of you at home, they’re the CEO.” In any other year this analogy would have been unremarkable. But following this past season of bankruptcies, Ponzi schemes, foreclosures, and questionable federal bailouts (to say nothing of the suits who greenlit Australia) her invocation of corporate executives as competent managers, was more than simply ridiculous. For what is the meaning, after all, of her cornpone use of “for those of you at home?”  Inside-industry jokes had already been tossed around all evening—one, for example, requiring those “at home” to know exactly who is Jeffrey Katzenberg. Indeed, the funniest thing said all evening came from Jack Black, who made a comment about the difference between those animated movies made by Pixar and those made by DreamWorks, the company that produced Kung Fu Panda, a film for which Black contributed the voice of the title character.

“Each year,” Black said, “I do one DreamWorks project and then I take all the money to the Oscars and bet it on Pixar.” Musicals are back, baby. And so too is unreconstructed speculation.