Last Sunday’s broadcast of the 81st annual Academy Awards was a triumph in at least one way: The ratings didn’t completely suck. On average, they were up (33.57 million viewers) from last year’s record low (32.01 million). And at their peak (the telecast’s first half hour) they were rather impressive (37.70 million viewers). So how was the show? From where I was sitting, 2009’s much-touted “revamp” was a class act and a good foundation on which future Oscar shows can grow.
Host Hugh Jackman wasn’t an enormous presence, but the Academy Awards have de-emphasized the importance of the host-as-centerpiece over the last five or six years, preferring to show off the parade of guest presenters instead. Jackman wasn’t as casual and Hollywood insider-ish as high watermark Billy Crystal a decade ago. But he was a genial ringmaster, and it was good to see Jackman’s talents as a song-and-dance man exploited. Despite the “Look, we really are young and hip” presence of several “High School Musical” cast members and Alicia Keys (huh?), the show had a distinct “old-school” Hollywood feel.
Driving home the show’s sense of history was the brilliant concept of having all four best acting categories (Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress) handed out by a group of previous winners from each category. It was wonderful to see the likes of Sophia Loren, Cate Blanchett, Robert De Niro and Anthony Hopkins, and the 2009 nominees seemed genuinely touched to be saluted in such a direct way. Five minutes into the telecast and Viola Davis was already in tears.
Jackman’s opening number, featuring a bargain-basement salute to this year’s nominees, was funny and timely and set the tone for the night. All in all, this year’s awards came across as much more deglamorized than in years past. Mostly MIA were the outrageous gowns and eye-dazzling diamonds--a subtle but noticeable nod to our country’s ongoing economic woes. Simple elegance and understated humor were the benchmarks of the evening. Unlike previous years, many of the presenters (Tina Fey and Steve Martin!) were smartly paired and truly funny.
The show clocked in at an efficient three hours (give or take), and nobody got played off the podium by the orchestra. Highlights included Ben Stiller’s perfect(ly mean) riff on Joaquin Phoenix, Philippe Petit from Man on Wire balancing an Oscar on his chin(!), Heath Ledger’s family humbly and emotionally accepting the Oscar on his behalf, Seth Rogan and James Franco’s laugh-inducing film flashback, Kate Winslet’s natty daddy whistling for her from across the room, and Sean Penn’s admission that, “I do know how hard I make it to appreciate me.” Lowlights included a major curtain gaff in the opening moments, Adrien Brody’s grody hair, the usual dull “highlights” reels (so that’s what an action movie looks like) and a miserable Best Song medley featuring three meager tunes.
Not bad, Oscar. Keep up the good work.