"Chicago" was the big winner, but Iraq cast a longer shadow at the 75th annual Academy Awards, televised live from Los Angeles last night on ABC. There had been suggestions that the show be postponed because of the war in the Mideast, but it went on as scheduled and just as well: It was one of the best, and certainly most stimulating, Oscar shows in years.
It had, appropriately, many of the qualities of a great movie: laughter, tears, passion, drama, suspense, spectacle and signs of the times -- and the last, of course, meant controversy. Though participants had been entreated not to use the Oscar stage as a platform for political speeches, self-promoting filmmaker Michael Moore, who won an Oscar for his documentary "Bowling for Columbine," ignored the rules and staged a tantrum against the war and the administration fighting it.
Moore said he brought the other nominees for Best Documentary Feature onstage with him "in solidarity" because "we like nonfiction and we live in fictitious times -- a time when we have fictitious election results that elect a fictitious president -- a time when a man is sending us to war for fictitious reasons." Moore had received a standing ovation when his Oscar was announced, but a booming wave of boos, plus music from the house band, attempted to drown him out.
All but screaming, Moore cried, "We are against this war, Mr. Bush! Shame on you, Mr. Bush!" He also made a reference to "the fictition of duct tape" and was ushered offstage shouting, "Anytime you've got the pope and the Dixie Chicks against you, your time is up!"
Some other participants made pro-peace remarks, and Susan Sarandon sanctimoniously flashed the peace sign when she walked onto the stage, but Moore's was the most outlandish and outrageous disruption of an Oscar program in many years. If the show contained one of the worst Oscar speeches, it also contained one of the best: an eloquent and gracious thank-you from actor Peter O'Toole, who after being nominated and losing seven times, received an honorary trophy.
"Chicago" won six Oscars, including Best Picture, plus prizes for its art direction, costumes, supporting actress (Catherine Zeta-Jones), sound and editing. But "The Pianist," a film in limited release about a Holocaust survivor, won three of the most important Oscars: Best Actor (Adrien Brody) and Adapted Screenplay -- and, in what seemed an upset, American exile Roman Polanski was named Best Director for making the film. He faces arrest if he enters the United States, so presenter Harrison Ford accepted the Oscar on his behalf.
Whatever its shortcomings, at least this Oscar show evoked passions and wasn't beset by the draining numbness of many Oscarcasts in recent years. Helping immeasurably to make it a great show was Steve Martin, who served as host for the second time and triumphed as a welcome sardonic voice amid all the usual piousness and self-adulation.
Noting at the outset that the "red carpet" arrival sequence had been jettisoned this year, Martin scoffed, "That'll send them a message!" He also looked at the huge art deco set constructed in the Kodak Theatre and said, "Well, I'm glad they cut back on all the glitz." He was referring to an alleged austerity imposed on the ceremony because of the ongoing war. Martin said that as a humanitarian gesture, proceeds from the show "will be divvied up among huge corporations."
Throughout the night, Martin offered priceless relief from, and commentary on, pomposity and Hollywood politics. Onstage a few minutes after Moore's obnoxious display, Martin joked that he'd just seen the portly filmmaker "being loaded into the trunk of his limousine by Teamsters."
Any good Oscar show has to express nostalgia for the past, and near the close of last night's program, this was accomplished with a historic gathering of past winners of acting Oscars all seated together on the stage. Veteran movie lovers had to be thrilled by appearances from such luminaries as Luise Rainer, who won two years in a row back in the 1930s; Margaret O'Brien, who won as a child star for "Meet Me in St. Louis"; Claude Jarman Jr., who accomplished a similar feat in "The Yearling"; plus such venerable names as Olivia de Havilland (who introduced the segment), Teresa Wright, Patricia Neal, Jennifer Jones, Shirley Jones, Celeste Holm and George Chakiris. Father-son acting team Kirk and Michael Douglas sat side by side, then returned later to present the Best Picture Oscar to "Chicago." The elder Douglas, who continues to recover from a stroke, gave a touching and funny performance.
Martin wasn't the only one to get laughs. Kathy Bates broke up the crowd when she began her remarks by saying, "Every time an Oscar is given out, an agent gets its wings," a takeoff on a famous bit of dialogue from "It's a Wonderful Life." Accepting his Oscar as Best Actor, Brody said: "There comes a time in life when everything seems to make sense. And this is not one of those times."
Unfortunately Brody would not leave well enough alone, and his speech continued on for several minutes, well beyond the prescribed limit, so that he, too, could make statements on behalf of world peace. He didn't lash out in anger, however, but said people should "pray for a peaceful and swift resolution" of the war with Iraq.
Barbra Streisand, looking fantastic in a black dress (black was by far the dominant color of the evening), seemed about to break into an antiwar speech herself but managed to refrain, though when talking about songwriting for films she said that it was an art for sharing "pain" and "protest." But where does that leave "Tea for Two" and "Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing"?
Gael Garcia Bernal, a young Mexican actor who starred in the semi-pornographic film "Y Tu Mama Tambien," also felt it necessary to slip an antiwar message into his remarks. There is nothing wrong with being against war, but when movie stars imagine they are terribly brave and noble for making such statements, the hubris can be hideous -- it's not what we pay them for.
The show was long but not as long as it has been some years. It would have been shorter if those who won Oscars for "Chicago" hadn't made a practice of shaking the hands and hugging all those who worked on the film as they made their way down the aisle toward the stage. This quickly became monotonous and irritating.
More than once, Martin sprang forward -- figuratively, of course -- to save the show and bring it back to life. And when it at last crawled to its conclusion, he told the crowd, "Well, we're finally at the halfway point." Maybe Oscar shows will never be as great as they were in Hollywood's golden age, but last night's got surprisingly close.