For all its talk about contemporary attitude and change, last night's Oscars were more about the past, not the future.
The Artist, a black and white silent movie enveloped in old Hollywood mythos, won Best Picture (the first to do so since Wings at the original Academy ceremony back in 1929). 17 time nominee Meryl Streep pulled the upset of the evening, walking away with the Best Actress statue that many believed was destined for Viola Davis. Christopher Plummer became the oldest man ever to win the coveted award (though there are arguments over the status of Charlie Chaplin and his honorary acknowledgement) and Woody Allen, who earned his first Oscar way back in 1978, took home another (his fourth) for Midnight in Paris. If it weren't for newcomers Octavia Spencer (Best Supporting), Michel Hazanavicius (Best Director) and Jean Dujardin (Best Actor), the 84th Annual Academy Awards would have played like a complete flashback to Tinseltown's past - even stalwart host Billy Crystal was there to guide it all.
There were other symbols that the movie industry isn't completely and utterly lost, however. Alexander Payne and his script collaborators Nat Faxon and Jim Rash were acknowledged for their work on The Descendants, while Gore Verbinski and his delightful cartoon satire on the spaghetti western, Rango, took home the Best Animated Feature award. Flight of the Concords' Bret McKenzie and the Muppets bested a tune from Rio to win Best Song, while Hugo's creative invention walked away a five time winner. Still, after the fiasco of the last few months, with original show producer Brett Ratner resigning over some homophobic comments (and taking his buddy and original host Eddie Murphy with him) and the questions over numbers and nods (Only two tunes were nominated? Only nine films???), Oscar needed a night like this. Sure, they still look out of touch, but at least tradition wasn't trumped...at least, not totally.
For those who fervently criticize these aging, antiquated self congratulatory slaps on the back, the winners represent everything that's wrong about the Academy. Sure, they usurped SAG, giving Ms. Davis' predetermined crown to someone who already has two, but when it comes to bowing to the backers, the Weinstein Company proved a champion once again. They managed wins for the otherwise gimmicky Artist, were there to push The Iron Lady and Ms. Streep, and even helped with Best Documentary winner Undefeated. All in all, madman Harvey pulled in eight gold wonders, while Paramount (who backed Scorsese and Hugo) managed six. It was also the second year in a row that Weinstein walked away with the top prizes, with last year's stunner The King's Speech winning four (including Picture, Actor, and Director).
Those hoping for change only had to look at the initial nominations back in January to see just how insular the Academy remains. Critical darlings like Drive, Shame, We Need to Talk About Kevin, The Adventures of Tintin, Martha Marcy, May, Marlene, David Fincher, Michael Fassbender, Tilda Swinton, and Elizabeth Olson were all but left out of the mix, even as they continued to rack up end of year and Guild rewards. Even in individual categories, it appeared that some in the voting membership were willing to throw a few true newcomers a bone (Demian Bichir in A Better Life), though there was never a chance they would actually walk away with a trophy (right, Rooney Mara???). For the casual movie buff who just wants a talking point for his next visit to the communal water cooler, none of this matters. They now have their conversation pieces, and all is again right with the arch artform.
Or is it? For many, the steamroller win for The Artist proves again that the Oscar is still more about campaigning, politicking, and proper PR placement than it is true artistic merit. The sunny French silent is a wonderful stunt - but it remains just that. As a matter of fact, two of the films it liberally cribs from - Singing in the Rain and A Star is Born - are far better and more inventive than anything this monochrome fluke has to offer (neither of those previously referenced classics have an Academy Award for Best Picture, by the way). Clooney may have put on his best bit of good humored hype promotion, but with the Weinstein juggernaut constantly rewriting the script, he was destined to fail. As with any given year, once the consensus is set, it's hard to reroute the course.
And then there is the issue of gender and race. Again, no women found their way into the Best Director pool (our choice for inclusion - Lynne Ramsay) and, except for Ms. Davis and Ms. Spencer, African Americans were underrepresented in the major acting categories. In fact, of the 20 nominations to be had, 16 went to performers of Caucasian ethnicity. Sure, they can celebrate all they want the "inclusiveness" of the others (Ms. Bichir is Mexican, while Best Supporting Actress Bérénice Bejo is of French/Argentinean decent), but when positioned against the rest of the work done in 2012, the closed knit nature of the celebrate remains intact - and just for the record, we acknowledge that our previous list of snubs are almost exclusively 'white' as well. That's the nature of the business beast.
It's also because, for all its international impact and global cross-pollination, the Academy Awards are still the same bought and sold symbols of a clique compliance. It's less about what is indeed the best and more about what everyone can eventually agree on. One comic put it perfectly when he said that the Oscars are like a group of friends eating out at a new restaurant. They sit around and wait to see what others in the establishment are having and then, slowly and somewhat strategically, they reach a mutual meeting of the minds and the same three or four things are ordered. There's no thinking "outside the box" or desire to shake things up. There's too much at stake - financially, reputation-wise, within the business' blistering power struggle, for future employment - to really upset the aesthetic apple cart. As with every year, we can complain about who the AMPAS decided to acknowledge. In 2012, everything old wasn't new again, however. It was just old.