The 81st Annual Academy Awards was a mixed bag of new ideas that frequently fumbled at the goal line. Hugh Jackman was enthusiastic, but I think the evening proved that, despite Jackman's general success, the host should always be a comedian.
Despite his non-comedian status, I give Hugh Jackman credit for scoring with his few scripted quips, like when he said he was contractually obligued to mention Brad Pitt & Anjelina Jolie five times during the show or saying that Meryl Streep’s fifteen nominations leave suspicions of steroid use. Laughed too when Jackman sat on Frank Langella’s lap and said something like, I know you do theater, but that’s a bit much… But the Baz Luhrmann musical number was torture (and done under the slim-as-slim guise that “the musicals are back” because Mamma Mia did well in the UK) and the opening number, despite a standing ovation, was the usual nonsense. Within it, the lyrics about not seeing The Reader were pretty funny and the Anne Hathaway bit worked pretty well, but I would have much preferred a funny monologue from Jon Stewart. And I miss coming back from comercial and having the host make a joke about something that just transpired.
In fact the whole show was low on humor. The two funniest moments were Steve Martin/Tina Fey presenting the screenplay Oscar and Robert DeNiro’s comment about Sean Penn only getting straight roles up to now. The presenters in general weren’t that funny. The Ben Stiller/Natalie Portman and Jack Black/Jennifer Aniston bits were just too obvious. Humor is a critical element on a three-and-a-half-hour show: it was gravely missing this year. Yet on the other hand, Stiller's continuation of the “humor” over the serious part of his presenting came off as rude—it's not SNL after all, this is that person’s big moment— you have to know when to get to business.
The set was very nice and made the show look special. I thought that having the orchestra onstage was a nice touch and what they played, gave an old Hollywood vibe. Unfortunately, the orchestra continuing to play while the presenters were talking was, to quote Christian Bale, distracting.
Liked the idea very much of having five previous winners give the award in the acting categories. This was easily the best and most successfully executed "new idea." Unfortunately it can’t be repeated every year and work as well. I wish there were more “old timers” – however, the oldest ones seemed to have some trouble with the teleprompter, so maybe it was for the best. But a Sidney Poitier or Jack Nicholson, or a Jane Fonda or Julie Andrews, would have bumped things up. One odd little moment occured when Michael Douglas addressed Frank Langella saying Langella's Nixon erased all other previous ones from memory-- and who is standing right next to Michael Douglas?-- Anthony Hopkins! I also liked the clips of the past winners— glad that Hattie McDaniel wasn’t the only b&w clip as it has seemed in years past.
The "2008 movie yearbook" was a really good idea but where was Chuck Workman when you needed him? The animation reel seemed light (where was Waltz with Bashir?); the documentary reel was smart with the clips of the documentarians—but what were the movies about?; the comedy reel/bit was amusing (Seth Rogan and James Franco), but not as brilliantly funny as it should have been; the action package was a mess-- there was no rhythm to it; the romance reel probably came off best, although I spent half of it wondering if they were gonna skip Milk (they got it in there). Queen Latifah's singing during the "In Memorium" was very nice, but again, another fumble, when the TV audience was subjected to canted looks at the screens displaying the clips onstage.
Memorable speeches? Sean Penn; the Milk screenwriter; the guy who said “Dōmo arigatō, Mr. Roboto”; and Man on Wire’s Philippe Petit’s antics. So, basically, not a lot. Did like the Woody Allen story in Penelope Cruz's speech and the Kate Winslet's father's "whistle," as well. However, I didn’t find Heath Ledger's family's speech to be as touching as I would have expected—and was Robert Downey, Jr. caught napping during it? The best thing about Jerry Lewis’s speech was it's brevity. Little controversy unless you want to count the Milk speeches or the cutting to Angelina Jolie during Jennifer Aniston's appearance onstage.
Best dressed— probably Penelope Cruz, with Natalie Portman as runner-up. No major fashion disasters, except for maybe Philip Seymour Hoffman’s ski cap, although, supposedly his hair is funky for a movie he's shooting. It seems that the suggestion to presenters to skip the red carpet (so their appearance onstage would be a surprise) was ignored by quite a few people: Ben Kingsley, Sophia Loren, Natalie Portman, Kevin Kline, to name a few.
The show seemed long as always, even when it clocked in at a lean 3 hours 29 minutes. Toward the end, when the orchestra played bits from the best scores, it practically lulled me to sleep. Note to the Academy: bump this segment up earlier in the show! Part of the length issue had to do with the fact that there were no surprises among the winners—unless you want to count Sound Mixing and Foreign Language Film.
The producers of this year’s show really tried their best, but it’s just impossible to escape the formula and give out all the awards at the same time. I think, for example, setting up the “craft” awards worked, but ultimately, it wasn’t much different then it is every year: “Art Direction is when….”
One of my favorite additions to the show was running sneak previews of several 2009 movies over the end credits-- I really, really hope this becomes a tradition. It would be a cool way to promote movies who are willing to “premiere” just a few tantalizing moments— I, for example, loved that they showed a few seconds from Woody Allen’s upcoming Whatever Works.
All in all a very good show, but never great and I think on the whole I'd give last year’s show with Jon Stewart a slightly better grade than this year, despite all the "newness" and changes. I liked Hugh Jackman and he clearly has an appeal to the considerable number of female viewers, but I hope he leaves this at a one-shot gig.