It was a night of firsts: Daniel Day-Lewis became the first ‘actor’ to win three Oscars for best lead performance (Katherine Hepburn still has four - and the “-tress” delineation - while Jack Nicholson’s trio are divided between major and ‘minor’ divsions); Ang Lee won a second award for directing Life of Pi, more or less confirming that anyone tackling (and successfully, mind you) an ‘unfilmable” project is bound to get a bucket full of accolades. Quentin Tarantino surprised everyone by besting Mark Boal and Zero Dark Thirty and Michael Haneke for Best Original Screenplay, proving that a provocative use of period appropriate epithets and homage-heavy cinematic copycatting is worthy of the night’s greatest prize, while Argo won the war of partially fictionalized history (read: Best Adapted Screenplay) over Lincoln.
Indeed, it was a night of pleasant upsets and surprising sameness as the Academy of Motion Picture Sciences tried Family Guy humor for a while, and turned their annual self-congratulatory pat on the back into a 50/50 farce of unfunny jokes and occasional jaw-dropping decisions. Yes, Amour didn’t walk away completely unhappy. Haneke’s heartbreaking story of a French couple facing the end of life walked home with the Best Foreign Film prize, while Pixar picked up its umpteenth Oscar for turning the traditional girl-oriented fairy tale into something Brave indeed. Elsewhere, predicted Best Supporting Actress winner Anne Hathaway continued her streak of confusing onscreen acceptance behavior while Jennifer Lawrence, Best Actress winner, stumbled on her way to a cute as a button breakdown.
With the First Lady of the United State upstaging an obviously aging Jack Nicholson to announce Argo as 2012’s top choice, the Oscars finished a fascinating deconstruction of audience expectations. Over and over again, just when viewers thought they knew what they were getting, the producers threw a contemplated curveball that sometimes worked (William Shatner during the uneven opening) and often failed (that aforementioned intro). That proposed Bond reunion? Didn’t happen. Instead, Dame Shirley Bassey tore down the house with a defiant reading of the ultimate 007 theme, “Goldfinger.” Barbra Streisand upped the diva factor by returning to the Academy stage to send off her friend and collaborator Marvin Hamlisch with an amazing take on “The Way We Were.” Even the cast of Les Miserables - yes, including that crooner Russell Crowe - hit the boards to bellow out an intriguing musical medley from their nominated epic.
Elsewhere, Adele was more or less drowned out by the wildly amplified orchestration accompanying her Oscar winning song, “Skyfall” while said film’s Roger Deakins was dissed yet again, losing for a Lucci-like tenth time in the cinematography category (the winner was Chilean born Claudio Miranda, for Life of Pi). Shots were taken at CGI while Pi proved that making fake animals as lifelike as possible still warrants Oscar gold. Elsewhere, Searching for Sugar Man continued its long form documentary dominance while technical achievements were divided among Lincoln (production design), Anna Karenina (costume design), Les Miz (sound mixing, make-up) and Skyfall/Zero Dark Thirty (who tied for sound editing). Best Picture winner Argo also took home the prize for Best Editing while the final major acknowledgement went to first time nominee Mychael Danna for his Life of Pi score.
All in all, the Ang Lee film led the winners with four Oscars, followed by Les Miz and Argo with three. Lincoln grabbed two, same as Django Unchained and Skyfall, while everyone else had to settle for a single nod. In fact, 2013 may go down in history as the most ‘democratic’ of all Academy Awards, with no one film dominating the overall take. Granted, it would have been hard for Affleck and company to do so without a single significant ‘upper level’ nomination. Argo became the first Best Picture winner without a single representative in the top acting slots (Alan Arkin was nominated for Supporting, but did not win) or in the directing category (remember, Ben earned the Golden Globe and DGA honor a few weeks back). Similarly, Lincoln, the presumptive favorite with 12 nominations failed to fulfill any of its promise, losing for given trophy takes by Tony Kushner (for his screenplay) and Spielberg.
Still, it was the surprises and slips that made the night. You could see the look of absolute shock on Tarantino’s face when his name was called, and his held-in hyper acceptance speech was a moment of genuine astonishment and pride - even within his gargantuan ego. Jennifer Lawrence did trip on her way to the podium, and for a moment, it looked like she might not get up. When she did, however, her composure and sincerity were stunning. Of course, we can’t ignore the constant preening of Beasts of the Southern Wild‘s Quvenzhané Wallis, a showcase of juvenile chutzpah that reduced the often hilarious online satire source The Onion into a catchy calamity of NSFW name-calling. In her defense, if we were sitting at the Academy Awards, up for one of its most important prizes, we’d act up a bit as well…and we aren’t in elementary school.
On the downside, Seth MacFarlane produced little of the provocative flare his hiring must have promised, while the constant fallback on musical montages and moments made the show feel more like the Tonys than the Oscars. Some of the presenter pairings were inspired (Dustin Hoffman and a statuesque Charlize Theron), while others (Mark Wahlberg and Ted, some of the Avengers) smacked of sell-through marketing. Then there was the returning winners tradition in the acting category which gave Artist actor Jean Dujardin another (and presumably, final) shot at taking the Academy stage, while offering up the oddball aesthetic/cultural situation where an African American actress who previously played a put-upon ‘60s house servant in the South gave a German actor a trophy for his turn taking on a bunch of salacious slave holders circa 1858. Weird.
Still, it was the humor of Day-Lewis chiding perennial Oscar queen Meryl Streep over a ‘role’ she didn’t get and Lee’s prayer to the movie gods that won the night. It was watching George Clooney, full bearded and looking marvelous, supporting a moved Affleck as he rambled on during his Best Picture acceptance speech. As critics and professional pundits continue the deconstruction of 2012 in preparation for another year of cinematic prognostication, many an Academy office pool pick sits crumpled in a corner cubicle waist basket. It was that kind of ceremony. It was definitely that kind of year at the movies.