No Place For Old Men at the Oscars 2008

Benjamin Strong


No Country for Old Men not only won Best Picture at the 80th Academy Awards last night, it also proved conclusively the theorem of its embittered title. Early in the broadcast, as isn’t-he-so-handsome Javier Bardem was on stage accepting the Best Supporting Actor trophy for a pancake thin performance in the film, the camera cut for a moment to his elder and cratered co-star Tommy Lee Jones. He was fussing with his tuxedo cuffs.

You can’t blame Jones for feeling cheated. Although he gave the deeper performance (he was the only actor in No Country for Old Men not preoccupied with faking his Texan accent), Jones was instead nominated for work in an inferior picture (In the Valley of Elah), and he must have known that he wasn’t even losing to a younger, hipper colleague so much as the little punk’s kitschy haircut.

And not that anyone was counting, but Michael Clayton’s Tom Wilkinson was also a whole lot better in the same category, not coincidentally as a widower experiencing a midlife crisis. For that matter, what moviegoer at home would have complained if the little gold man had been awarded to Hal Holbrook for his subpar turn as an aged fountain of wisdom in Into the Wild? The Academy is, after all, notorious for its sentimental, after-the-fact handouts. But the odds in 2008 were with youth and beauty, not experience––or haven’t you been following the race for president? Like all the other losers in the Kodak Theater, I’m guessing Hillary Clinton could relate.

“I love the movies. They entertain us. They offer us hope…,” said Jack Nicholson, invoking a favorite word of Hollywood’s preferred Democratic candidate. But Nicholson was disconcertingly—even chillingly—subdued. Maybe the three-time winner thought he deserved a nod for his senior-baiting role in The Bucket List, or maybe someone at home had phoned him and told him that, inexplicably, he was receiving about as much screen time as the cast of the In Memoriam montage––which this year kicked off, inauspiciously for him, with his Shining co-star Barry Nelson.

Harrison Ford could sense the changing of the guard too. “Movies are made of pictures. And ideas. And words,” Ford said. I’m not sure about that middle part, and he didn’t look too certain either. In fact, he seemed pretty infirm altogether. Clearly, a contract dictated his appearance. He’s got another Indy picture out this summer, and shades of Short Round, his producers have forced junior sidekick Shia Laboeuf on him.

I know I complained last year that the Oscars were too focused on the past, but this year’s broadcast went way beyond overcompensating. Puns go with the territory, admittedly, but it was surreal to hear a generic ingénue who couldn’t even play the Invisible Woman convincingly described as “the always fantastic Jessica Alba.” It ought to have been enough to satisfy the youth theme that Bardem had finished ahead of the geezers, or that baby-faced soldiers in Iraq were announcing nominees, or that Jon Stewart was shown in a back-from-commercial-break bit playing Wii tennis. Yet the point was further underscored when the roll call of the dead finished not with Michelangelo Antonioni, Ingmar Bergman, or the recently departed Suzanne Pleschette, but with a twenty eight-year-old hunk who will forever be overrated because he overdosed (though no such luck for Brad Renfro, who died by the horse in January but was mysteriously omitted from the list). If the Academy was so determined to appear forward thinking, they could at least have put the kibosh—finally—on the obsolete song and dance routines, which this year required Amy Adams to drop her undeniable sex appeal so she could do her best Julie Andrews imitation.

Still, across the board Sunday evening, the momentum belonged to the Obama generation. After months of rusting on the picket line, Jon Stewart’s writers were destined to come up with some duds, but they really should have known better––in this year especially––than to send him out there with an Obama joke, the punchline of which involved, if I heard it correctly, a politician named Gaydolf Titler. “How great is that?” the host repeatedly asked, never managing to strike the right balance between irony and sincerity. Don’t be surprised if next year the Academy makes a change.