Before I thank anyone in New Zealand, I’d like to blame the 170 members of the Cinematography Branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for their egregious failure to nominate “Return of the King,” thereby preventing a new Oscar record from being set. Never before has there been a sweep this comprehensive: 11 Oscars from 11 nominations. Peter Jackson’s triumphant conclusion needed only one more win to edge past “Ben-Hur” and “Titanic” in the all-time standings. These 170 Cinematographers, who nominated horse race flick “Seabiscuit” over the Tolkien epic, must surely be seized with a sense of shame, if not actual paralyzing guilt, for their failure to provide the shot at the elusive — nay, legendary — 12th Oscar.
There was a strange coziness about this year’s Oscars, a sense of all-pervading happiness amid the clatter of wrongs being noisily righted. There were no rants, no raves, no snafus, no abiding moments of searing controversy. Unless, of course, you count the Best Documentary winner (for “Fog of War”), who compared the “rabbit hole” of Vietnam to the potential “rabbit hole” of Iraq; a fair point, but one that doesn’t really play just at the moment. This pronounced lack of suspense seemed to have infected host Billy Crystal, who was rather underpowered throughout the show. Apart from the pleasure of seeing Michael Moore squashed by a giant beastie, the opening montage of Crystal inserted into the year’s nominated films didn’t raise the bar beyond anything he’s done before. Even the best jokes were pale repeats of previous shows: Crystal’s “reading the mind” of his audience is funny, but it was funnier a few years back when he divined that Dame Judi Dench was thinking “this thong is killing me.” In fact, the funniest moment of the entire show was when Adrien Brody gave himself a shot of breath freshener prior to handing out the Best Actress award.
Still, it’s hard to begrudge “Lord of the Rings” any of its Oscars, as there was general recognition that the gongs were intended to salute the entire mammoth enterprise. The sense of inevitability began early with a Visual Effects Oscar honoring the metamorphosis of the New Zealand Army and gathered momentum when Peter Jackson, looking faintly like a hobbit who’d made a rapid visit to a thrift store, was unexpectedly rewarded with an Oscar for Adapted Screenplay. Nobody would argue that the films are a masterpiece of compression, but the dialogue occasionally seemed like an unwanted intrusion into the narrative. And it was difficult to avoid the conclusion that the two Oscars for “Master and Commander” were bones thrown to the runner-up rather than carefully considered decisions.
Unfortunately, I was spot-on when it came to Best Song. Alison Krauss sang the first nominated song from “Cold Mountain,” and then apparently sang exactly the same thing as the second nominated song from “Cold Mountain,” before Annie Lennox appeared and sang another ululating ballad, albeit one with a little more force and originality. These three then had the spots knocked off them by the other two nominees: “The Triplets of Belleville” and “A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow,” a dead-on parody of ’60s folk song performed with genius by Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara. And having said all that, the best song of the evening turned out to be Jack Black and Will Ferrell’s musical reminder to the winners that they should keep their speeches short.
Yet even the speeches were acceptable. There was nothing angry from Tim Robbins; instead, a thoughtful plea for victims of abuse to come forward. There was nothing angry from Sean Penn, only sweet and touching extemporization. Having had three unsuccessful nominations, Penn was overdue, and his comment that preparing a speech was “presumptuous” endeared him to the audience (although possibly not to Renee Zellweger, who visibly removed a note from her purse before accepting her Oscar).
Finally, it’s touching to know that somebody in the Academy reads scene. I adamantly requested personal tributes to Bob Hope, Katharine Hepburn and Gregory Peck, last week, although it might have been nice if Hope had been recognized for something other than simply presenting the Oscars. Hope gave us “Thanks For The Memory,” which could perhaps have been played over the distressingly long “In Memoriam” tribute — distressing because so many superb talents were lost to us over the past year, including Donald O’Connor, Elia Kazan, Alan Bates and the incomparable Wendy Hiller. Academy President Frank Pierson paid touching tribute to Peck, noting that Atticus Finch was voted America’s greatest movie hero, but the finest moment of the night belonged to the late, great Katharine Hepburn. As Julia Roberts eulogized, Hepburn was “an original. A classic. Never to be replaced. Always to be remembered.”
Thanks for the memory.
Nick Baldock installed a red carpet in his flat Sunday night just for kicks.