Oscar’s Beauty and Beasts

After most Academy Awards shows I feel exhausted and vaguely soiled, resentful of the winners and melancholy for the losers. This year, the pre-Oscar orgy was longer than usual and the hangover, I’m guessing, will be more protracted, too. In part that’s because the show itself seemed redundant. Everyone knew, going in, that American Beauty would take most of the big awards. Everyone knew everything. Forget the Wall Street Journal: Its “exit” poll was not why the evening seemed so barren of surprises. There was no context in which surprises could happen. The new producers, Richard and Lili Fini Zanuck, hail from movies and from fear, they overmanaged: Their horror of the liveness of live television was deadeningly palpable.

It was a night of montage mania. Sure, they need the opening Billy Crystal montage, which at its best (Linda Blair projectile vomiting into Crystal’s face after a rotten joke) is Borscht Belt surrealism. They needed montages of the honorees (Wajda, Beatty). But why the montage of kid actors? Why the montage of the history of life on Earth in chronological order? (It was fun, but historical movies are rarely interesting for what they say about the events they’re trying to portray, only about the culture and politics of the era in which they were made. In other words, this was the wrong chronology.) Presenters entered as montages of their previous wins played on a big screen in back of them. (If they do this again next year, we’ll see montages within montages.) Nominated films are no longer represented by a single, well-chosen scene but with trailers—more fancy cut-and-paste jobs. The cumulative effect of all this video flash was that real time—the thing you want most in a live show—seemed longer and more uncomfortable. They should hire a Dogma director to scrub off some layers of techno-whoosh.

The Zanucks pared the TelePrompTer banter down to one line per presenter—great! But the threat of the orchestral hook still hung over the winners’ heads, which guaranteed they’d all stammer and trip over their words and clutch at their speeches with palsied fingers. (A few of them appealed to the producers directly for more seconds and sounded like Oliver Twist asking for more gruel.) No one could get a rhythm going except Michael Caine, who stopped the show to salute his fellow nominees in one of the best Oscar speeches ever. Best because of Caine’s modesty? No. The key to the speech’s charm—to the charm of all of Caine’s performances, come to think of it—was how it fit the occasion. It was clear that Caine was worried about little Haley Joel Osment, who cried when he lost the last big award. But this category had more than its share of deserving performances, and when Caine reached out to the pale preteen, the hulking African-American newcomer, the sleek English pretty-boy, and the superstar with the rictus grin, he seemed to be reaching out to the audience, too. He was absolving them of the guilt that invariably follows a tough choice by saying, “We all know why I’m here and they aren’t, so let’s put the most human face imaginable on this.”

Human faces were otherwise in short supply. Anyone who read last week’s “Breakfast Table” by me and Lynda Obst knows how fervently I hoped that someone would put a muzzle on that megalomaniacal little phony Roberto Benigni. Crystal had a few jokes on the subject that weren’t bad. What was lacking was danger. He said he had a stun gun if Benigni got out of hand—cute—but then there was Benigni, rocking with laughter in close-up, his big mouth swallowing the camera lens: “Dat eesa so fonny! I am-a so happeee I wanna wag-a my tail!” See, I want someone to make Benigni stop laughing. I want to see the fear in his eyes.

This year we didn’t just get to see Benigni bobbing in his seat and jabbering on the stage. We got to see him backstage, too. I dug Peter Coyote as Oscar’s first veejay, but the rest made me feel as disappointed as I did when Steven Spielberg extended the climax of Close Encounters of the ThirdKind so that we finally saw inside the mother ship: It was impressive, but nowhere near as awesome as our fantasies. In years past, I’d watch the winners and presenters and dishy Oscar girls leave the stage and imagine—oh, lots of things: group gropes … splashing Dom Pérignon … projectile vomiting. Now I can see it’s just a bunch of people with name tags and the occasional awkward star waiting for a cue. By the way, I tried to access the “live, streaming” backstage video feed at Oscar.com, but all I ever got was a Warholesque shot of a giant Oscar statue with the occasional passing shadow.

There was, of course, some live, streaming stuff on my TV screen, too. Was there no one around to save Warren Beatty from himself? I started laughing when the Beatty montage began because I thought someone was doing a clever sendup of the “witness” segments in Reds. But it wasn’t a sendup. And the someone turns out to have been Beatty, who, according to Jack Nicholson’s introduction, produced his own tribute. Embarrassing as the “witnesses” were (Faye Dunaway’s face is so tight from plastic surgery that she must need someone to chew her food for her), the speech that followed was even more sad. The kind of coy self-consciousness that in a young seducer might seem charming in an old one seems doddering. Don Giovanni being dragged down to hell seems the more humane fate.

The climax of Don Giovanni is what I thought I was watching when Isaac Hayes got swallowed up by an overactive smoke machine, but at least that cock-up had the quality of genuine, live TV. So did Michael Clarke Duncan asking Crystal as they left the stage after a particularly lame routine, “What was that about?” So did the view of Fiona Apple comforting despondent loser Paul Thomas Anderson—an uncharacteristically malicious shot by the director, but a reassuring sign of authentic emotion nonetheless. There was a near-collision when The Cider HouseRules winner John Irving ended his speech by thanking Planned Parenthood and the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League right before Mel Gibson strode on to present the next award, his face clenched. Mel’s a religious guy and a bit of a right-winger, and he and his wife reportedly don’t even believe in birth control. Would he mouth off at Irving? No, Mel’s a pro. But the pressure showed. “Consider the writer,” he gritted. “Locked in a lonely room waiting for Lady Muse to alight gracefully and turn the stark blank empty void of a page into the stuff of masterpiece—ecchhh. Who wrote this stuff?” True, you don’t have to be a devout Catholic to think that’s bilge, but it’s not as if Mel hadn’t seen it before. Still fuming, the homophobic Gibson had to give the prize to Alan Ball, a gay man whose movie has the most powerful homosexual subtext of any Best Picture winner ever. Mel must be thinking it’s time to go back to Australia.

Is there anything to say about the winners themselves? Not really. American Beauty deserved its awards: After all, DreamWorks had paid for them. And it was affecting to hear New Age cynic Sam Mendes give tribute to Old World cynic Billy Wilder, and the edgy, self-involved Kevin Spacey laud sometime Wilder actor Jack Lemmon. Too bad Spacey went on to obliterate his own movie’s writer by saying it felt as if Mendes had written it. It was close: Spacey almost got through the speech without seeming like a conceited ass. He’s a great actor but he doesn’t know when to shut up. Hilary Swank did know when to shut up: Her PR coaches earned their fee.

’Twas a big night for cleavage, but the dresses were otherwise elegant. I loved Gwyneth Paltrow’s silky metallic little number—it looked like chain mail for angels—and in her form-fitting tangerine halter Charlize Theron gleamed all over. There were exceptions, of course. Outside the auditorium, Angelina Jolie told a breathless Tyra Banks that to play her role in Girl, Interrupted, “I went into a scary place and stayed there awhile”—evidently long enough to pick up her outfit.