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Onstage, Laboring to Brighten a Dim Picture

By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 23, 2009

HOLLYWOOD, Feb. 22 -- Jai ho, you Oscar slumdogs, which we think translates loosely as: Shout hallelujah, c'mon get happy!

But how happy? After all, the movie that won Best Picture at the 81st annual Academy Awards here Sunday night is supposed to be the "upbeat" one, and it's the one where orphans get acid spooned into their adorable eyes. (But at the end, they dance! Jai ho!)

The film of the night would be "Slumdog Millionaire," the triumphant come-from-behind story of a game show within a love story within class warfare. It now proudly owns eight Oscars, including one for director Danny Boyle.

"You have been so generous to us this evening," Boyle thanked the academy, adding a compliment to the show's producers. "I don't know what it looks like on television, everybody, but in the room it's bloody wonderful." (We'll get to that.)

Sean Penn won his second Oscar in five years for his role as gay-rights pioneer Harvey Milk in "Milk."

"You commie, homo-loving sons of guns," Penn told the academy, and the rest of Hollywood, and other commie, homo-loving sons of guns. (Present!) He went on to praise the election of President Obama, salute his fellow nominee Mickey Rourke, and strike out at gay marriage bans: "I think it's a good time for those who voted for the ban against gay marriage to sit and reflect on their great shame."

Kate Winslet -- Best Actress after so much trying, for "The Reader," a movie that befuddles nearly all who see it, in which she played a disturbed, lonely German who has an affair with a teenage boy and goes to prison for Nazi war crimes. (Phew! Tired from just typing that, short of breath, and so was Winslet.) She said she used to practice giving an Oscar speech into a shampoo bottle, when she was a little girl. "I feel fortunate to have made it all the way from there to here," she panted.

Backstage, Winslet said it was only just starting to sink in. "Oh, God," she said. She was so happy she even hugged one of her favorite British reporters when she recognized his voice, lobbing her a softball question. (Lines were crossed. Alert the journalism ethics institute.)

The newfangled retro peppiness of this year's broadcast -- Busby Berkeley mash-ups and all -- ground to a brief halt for the moment everyone predicted more than a year ago: Best Supporting Actor was awarded to the late Heath Ledger for his mesmerizingly psychotic turn as the Joker in "The Dark Knight." People sat stone still. Ledger's mother, father and sister took the stage. Kim Ledger said it was the ultimate tribute to his son's "quiet determination to be truly accepted by you, his peers, within an industry he truly loved."

"I think he would be quietly pleased," his mother, Sally Ledger Bell, told reporters backstage.

"Great, everyone's crying and now I have to go on," said Bill Maher, introducing the award for Best Documentary.

(Oh, he's always a bit of a smacked ass, isn't he? That doc award went to "Man on Wire," a poetic look at French tightrope artist Philippe Petit's 1974 walk between the World Trade Center towers. To leaven things, the eternally weird Petit bounded to the stage with the film's makers, and balanced the statuette on his chin -- nice trick! Maybe he should direct next year's show?)

This year's production reverted to something like a Depression-era follies, unwittingly saddled with the task of distracting a nation's wallet woes with the fizz of guessing what will come next.

It was all supposed to unfold like a process story -- awarding first the writing, then production, then the mixing, then the editing. We knew that, and unfortunately still watched it all with the buzzed bemusement of Judd Apatow's endlessly inspiring couch stoners, back here in the cramped Wolfgang Puck-catered press room at the Kodak Theatre. We ask all the wrong questions (e.g., is Reese Witherspoon's dress on backward? Cuckoo!).

Host Hugh Jackman (hello, gorgeous), fun practically oozing out of his ears, was, of course, droolicious in his tuxedo, as everyone knew he'd be, with his eyes practically screaming "ta-daaaahhhh." He knelt and sang to Kate Winslet, David Cassidy-style. He also had some good lines:

"Now the academy loves to salute range. Robert Downey Jr. is [nominated] for playing an Australian playing an African American. Whereas me, I'm an Australian who played an Australian in a movie called 'Australia.' [And I'm] hosting," he said, greeting his captive audience at the theater, before launching into a frenetic and almost surreal song-and-dance routine.

After the musical number and some joshing around with a very close-to-the-stage A-list of nominees, the show went into the first of many format changes: actresses going on and on about the Best Supporting Actress nominees -- what happened to "and the nominees are?" All this blown smoke.

Finally the first award of the night went to Penélope Cruz, for that scrumptious role in Woody Allen's "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" as a batty ex-flame. "Has anybody ever fainted here?" Cruz asked. "I might be the first one." (And backstage: muchas preguntas, no comprende! "I said I wanted to dedicate it to all the actors in my country," she explained about her acceptance speech, and that would be Spain. "English, please!" shouted one testy Brit.)

Producers promised that the audience here and the faithful watchers at home (that was you, you, and . . . you with your finger in the bean dip; Nielsen was busily counting impatient viewers down to the millisecond) would never quite know what would happen from award to award.

The academy's visionaries banged together a classier set -- a drape of crystals in a shimmer of blues, trying to reconnect with jazzier Cocoanut Grove days. They brought in closer seating for the sexy people. They unleashed nostalgia addict Baz Luhrmann on a big production number of Broadway and pop medleys, a-one-and-a-two-and-a . . . (Has the island time-jumped? Is it now June and are we now at the Tony awards? Or at a dinner theater?)

"Slumdog's" composer A.R. Rahman, who won for Original Score and Original Song (once more, "Jai Ho") told the audience of a lovely Indian saying: " 'I have nothing but I have a mother,' " and then he acknowledged her: "So mother's here."

Original screenplay went to Dustin Lance Black for "Milk." The boyish Black thanked his parents, his mother especially, and the spiritual father of the gay movement: "I think he would want me to say [to all young gay people], 'You are beautiful, wonderful creatures of value. Very soon, I tell you, you will have equal rights, federally, across this great land of ours.' "

Sullen movies, hard times and smiling celebs in loaner jewels -- ah, another Oscar night in America, with all its crossed messages, mixed metaphors, tantalizing cleavage, ritual, reliable excess, escape. Nixon agonistes, gay martyrdom, Nazi war crimes and Third World deprivation. And in the case of "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," with its 13 nominations, the heartbreaking certainty that one way or another, we all die. ("Button" won just three awards. Life goes on.)

Best Foreign Film? An upset, going to a Japanese film, "Departures." What's it about? A cellist who becomes a funeral director. There's a certain glumness -- a slumdoggishness -- everywhere you look now, isn't there? The world is a little meh, and so are the movies.

Minus the overglam factor, this is a night geared toward reveling in the difficult and disturbing, brought to you by Kleenex. Hollywood loves grimness, oppression, loss, genocide. Outside the Kodak, Holocaust deniers waved poster boards of inane futility.

Even as the movie business is enjoying a robust box office, they are cutting corners. (California! Broker than broke!) Film-related employment is expected to remain flat; movie bosses say the cost of skirt-hitching for an Oscar (countless millions are spent promoting awards-season hopefuls) is a pointless luxury. There's an endless list of ways to loathe Oscar, starting with the show itself.

The people say: Lose the ceremony's technical awards and trim an hour!

Whaaaat? You mean cease the only example on live television where everyday workers (albeit from the left coast) get praised for the fact that they work hard for their paychecks, performing a creative variation on tasks we can all relate to, such as clicking a mouse and showing a work-in-progress to an overanxious director/boss? (And spend said paychecks driving eco-friendly cars and paying down mortgages?) Are you suggesting we lose the only moment of glory for people who draw up plans and budgets and spreadsheets, revise drafts, design and sew clothes, and meeting impossible deadlines? Because that's what the technical awards are. You call it boring; we laborer-serfs at the Kodak Theatre call it a stimulus package. We say more technical awards. More nervous men in beards talking about their jobs.

To wit, Andrew Stanton accepting Best Animated Feature for the much-beloved "WALL E," talking so fast we can hardly keep up with him, but remembering to thank his high school drama teacher for casting him in a production of "Hello, Dolly!"

"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" won for art direction and makeup; "The Duchess" took the award for costume design. The real point of Oscar night is often overlooked in more glamorous times, when the focus is entirely on the gowns and the baubles and the ephemera of fame. More and more, there's this complaint in the air that what the academy chooses to reward is far out of touch with real people. But what about real paychecks? The real American export is make-believe. This year it feels like the Oscars are a very expensive way to the salute the idea that several hundred thousand people have jobs.

Staff reporter Ashley Surdin contributed to this report.

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