Baby’s First Oscars: Report From The Academy Awards

by | February 23, 2009 at 9:02 AM | 81st Academy Awards

The Big Dance, the Show of Shows, the “Biggest Movie Event of the Year,” as they said all the time. The 81st Annual Academy Awards, and I was there to cover it for the first time. What was the reaction in the press room to the various hits and misses of the Oscar ceremony? Here’s how it all went down.

Unfortunately, I forgot to program my TiVo to record the show, so at best I’ve only got a distracted sense of what the program was actually like. They parade winners into the press room while the show is still going on, so if you want to listen to them, you have to ignore the telecast. So I missed the Pineapple Express riff, most of the Hugh Jackman/Beyonce song and dance thing, Jerry Lewis, the romance montage and a few other chunks. What I did see didn’t seem too awful bad – the high points being Steve Martin’s Scientology dig and the Best Animated Short winner Kunio Kato signing off with “Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto,” which might be my new favorite Oscar moment of all time.

What didn’t work for me about the telecast was the whole new presenter schtick where five people come out and butter up the nominees before announcing the winner. Award shows already seem like massive exercises in self-congratulation – do we really need to quintuple that sensibility? We get it! They’re all great! That’s why they’re nominated! Still, I can see its value in reminding people about past Oscar winners who could really use a good script or two coming across their desks again. What I can’t get behind is what was done with the In Memoriam montage. Queen Latifah singing is great, but you don’t take this somber moment of reflection and riddle it with jump cuts. You just don’t. Not everything needs to be spruced up with jazz hands, guys. And by the way, I know you were likely afraid of having the ratings suffer with two Indian song performances by A.R. Rahman, but no more Best Song medleys. Let us hear them all. Don’t cater to the no-attention-span society.

Despite the flaws, the press room didn’t seem to have the same intense distaste for the show that the blogosphere did, but that could be due to the fact that our attention was divided. The folks around me where shrugging in that “not bad” way, although everyone was lamenting the lack of surprise in most of the big categories. I went 5 for 6 in my spitballing predictions – I fell for the Mickey Rourke hype. Opinion was mixed at Penelope Cruz’s win, as some argued that Vicky Cristina Barcelona was a summer fluff piece and not a real Oscar film, and the whole room gasped when Jennifer Aniston came out to present right next to Brangelina – and again when they cut to Jolie in the middle of said presentation. Tacky, but this town tends to love that kind of gossipy malarkey. Check out some other reactions to the ceremony, including Nikki Finke of Deadline Hollywood Daily, Chris Bird of Mightygodking.com, Jeffrey Wells from Hollywood Elsewhere, and Mary McNamara of The Envelope. Apparently, people really weren’t fond of Bill Condon and Laurence Mark’s production, and Jackman as host, although I suspect that he was more a performer doing a job than he was a creative force behind the show. I’ll still go see Wolverine. And as Danny Boyle said (and Variety concurs), for those people that were actually in the Kodak Theater, it was a stunning, vivacious and beautiful show.

Kate Winslet was an absolute vision, as always, and we in the press room got to watch as it finally begain to sink in on her that she was now an Academy Award winner. She held herself up well, but there was the sense that one wrong question could lead her right back towards tears the whole time. She even ran off stage at one point to embrace a reporter in the room that had been covering her career since she was 17, and she enthusiastically greeted Sean Penn when he walked into the room for his turn at the mic. Penn’s time was mostly spent denouncing bigotry, while Cruz’s responses were mostly in Spanish. Heath Ledger’s family answered questions gracefully, and even let us know that his daughter Matilda has quite a bit of Heath readily apparent in her mannerisms. That’s a very nice thought. In a couple of decades, perhaps Matilda Ledger will be following in her father’s footsteps.

Danny Boyle and Christian Colson were quite gregarious after their Best Picture win, as one might expect. Boyle made sure to mention the choreographer he left out of the credits, and also stressed that he forgot to thank his agent in his acceptance speech, and begged everyone to report that to help make up for it. An impeccably gracious man is Mr. Boyle. Colson even commented on the stark changes America is going through in the last few months, with a new president and embracing a film as unique as Slumdog Millionaire and globalization in general, by saying that for the first time in his lifetime, “America is cool again.”

That’s certainly something to hang our hats upon.

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The Academy Awards are what they are: a titanic spectacle that shuts down Hollywood Boulevard and shows off fancy dresses. The red carpet access I had was decent, but in a section of “press bleachers,” and therefore there was no real ability to converse with the nominees or celebrities, but we got to watch Robin Roberts work her platform fairly closely. Little deflating moment on that red carpet for you – they have people walking around with applause signs to make it seem like everybody’s going just as nuts for Richard Jenkins as they do for Brad Pitt. The people in the bleachers only go nuts when they are told to go nuts. So yes, the red carpet is an even more superficial experience than you might’ve imagined by the fact that they bounce from host to host with the frequency of a cheap ham radio and often don’t let their interviewees say more than two sentences before throwing it back to Tim Gunn for a new round of ogling.

Oddly enough, my biggest worry on the carpet is when my eyes would drift skywards, toward the Good Year Blimp circling overhead, as well as about 40 helicopters that I could have sworn on multiple occasions were about to slam into the dirigible and give us “Oh, The Humanity Part II: West Coast Style.” Call me paranoid, but it was a concern. Not even Wolfgang Puck’s promise of Passion Fruit Cake could distract me. Yet I’m also a fan of noting where the glitzy glam rah-rah clashes with reality – i.e. watching people in super-fancy gowns wander past Quizno’s in the giant open air mall that surrounds the Kodak Theater, or guys in tuxedos having to empty their pockets for metal detectors. Simple little mundane things that completely undercut anyone’s attempt to be hoity and/or toity. It’s a glorious thing to see.

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The best part of the night, however, may well have been when I was leaving to head back to the shuttle to my car. Yojiro Takita, director of Best Foreign Film winner Departures, came dancing out of the gated area to walk the street with his Oscar, happily bellowing “Yaaaah! Yaaaaah!” with excited glee at his unexpected victory to a cheering crowd of onlookers. Sheer, unabashed happiness. That’s what the little golden idol can bring.