Buoyed by a nostalgic notion that a silent movie is totally where it’s at, Sunday night’s 84th annual Academy Awards telecast on ABC turned into a dull exercise in the ol’ Hollywood self-salute, a sentimental journey, as if the industry was performing CPR on a business model that is vanishing before everyone’s eyes.
Billy Crystal, hosting his ninth Oscar show (his first was in 1990, his most recent was in 2004), seemed to be overseeing a cruise ship dinner show designed to appeal to the over-50 travel club. Early on, it hit the rocks and started to list. Almost everyone drowned.
It seemed like a stretch to used the words “big win” this time around— has there ever been a year where you felt less inclined to make sure you’d seen every best picture nominee? — but just when everyone was packing to leave . . .
Hooray at last for Meryl Streep, who after eleventyseven winless nominations since her “Sophie’s Choice” Oscar in 1982, surprisingly won best actress for playing Margaret Thatcher in “The Iron Lady.” Streep’s award eclipsed the biggish awards that went, as completely expected, to “The Artist” — for best picture, actor (Jean Dujardin) and director (Michel Hazanavicius).
Oscars also went to a tearfully grateful Octavia Spencer for best supporting actress as a domestic worker in “The Help”; and, also expected, there was a best supporting actor nod for Christopher Plummer, who played an elderly gay man who comes out of the closet to his son in “Beginners.” (“You’re only two years older than me, darling, where have you been all my life?” Plummer playfully asked his Oscar statuette.) Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo” won a clutch of five technical Oscars. The Iranian divorce drama “A Separation” won best foreign language film.
The 63-year-old Crystal was full of perfectly palatable jokes during the show, the kind you smirk at more than actually laugh. “We’re here in the beautiful Chapter 11 Theater,” Crystal said, the first of many gags about Eastman Kodak’s bankruptcy proceedings, which led to the abrupt stripping of the branded name on the theater where the Oscar ceremony has been held for a decade.
Broke and desperate? How 99 percent. “Nothing can take the sting out of economic crisis like watching millionaires present each other with golden statues,” Crystal joked. He pulled out a lot of ba-da-dum gags that at least (the very least) had the appeal of seeming familiar as comfy slippers: There was the opening montage inserting the host into some of the year’s more memorable movie scenes (Justin Bieber and Crystal’s Sammy Davis Jr. in a 1920s “Midnight in Paris” bit, for example — “We’re going to go kill Hitler!” Sammy effused). Crystal followed that with one of those Gridiron-style musical medleys where the plots of current films are set to old show tunes and standards.
This nursing home feeling was all very apt, from the opening moment when actor Morgan Freeman came out and announced that show would “celebrate the present and look back on the [film industry’s] glorious past.”