Within hours of The Artist becoming the first French film to win the Best Picture Oscar, at the end of a glittering night for the silent, black and white film, the streets around the Hollywood & Highland Center, known as the Kodak Theatre until the photographic company went bankrupt last month, have reopened after a week.
But the awards season has been going on far longer than that; The Artist became a hot favourite as far back as mid December, when the Golden Globe nominations were announced; it went on to collect 2 of the main awards – Best Comedy and Best Actor in a Comedy.
The Globes are a notoriously clumsy indicator of success in their main categories, as they divide the films and lead-acting into Drama and Comedy-or-Musical, meaning that two films come out as winners, in effect, doubling their chances of “getting it right.” And even so, in the past ten years, out of the 20 Best Picture Golden Globe winners across the two categories, only four have picked up the Academy Award. More reliable indicators of Oscar success are usually the Guilds representing the different areas of the business, such as the Directors Guild of America, the Writers Guild of America and the Screen Actors Guild.
But this year, while the DGA and the WGA correctly predicted their winners, SAG seemed to dash the hopes of Meryl Streep, whose Golden Globe for The Iron Lady set her up as the early awards season favourite, when it gave its Best Actress award to The Help’s Viola Davis. Clearly, enough of the non-acting members of the Academy thought differently and managed to swing the pendulum back towards Streep.
Streep’s win was one of two surprises of the night. The other was Woody Allen’s return to favour as he took the Best Original Screenplay for Midnight in Paris, an award that had been expected to go to The Artist. Allen had won the Writers Guild Award, but that was thought to have been only because The Artist’s writer, Michel Hazanavicius, didn’t qualify for the WGA Awards, as he’s not a member of the guild. In the event, Hazanavicius had to be content with a Best Director Oscar, while Allen ended awards season as he began it at the Globes – the only winner not to turn up to collect his little gold man in person.
The most nominated film, Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, ended the night with the same number of Academy Awards as The Artist, five, but all in the technical categories, including cinematography, sound editing and visual effects.
As the momentum of Awards Season nears its climax, after a series of ceremonies across the world, voted for by critics, journalists, the public and – of course – the peers of the film-makers, the Academy tries to drum up interest across the whole spectrum of its many categories.
In a barbed attack on some other ceremonies, whose awards are limited to the big names, the Incredibles and Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol director Brad Bird told an audience at an event to honour the short film nominees that the Oscars were a celebration of cinema, not a TV show. “Every key part of the process should be celebrated,” he insisted. The Live Action short category gave Britain its only significant Oscar of the night as veteran film-maker Terry George collect his first Academy Award for directing The Shore, about the reconciliation between two men from George’s home city of Belfast, who haven’t seen each other for twenty five years. At an after party hosted by the Irish Film Board, asked why someone who’s already had two Oscar nominations for writing feature films had returned to making shorts, George told UKscreen that he didn’t see it that way. “It’s not going back to making shorts. This is a story I wanted to tell and I didn’t want to pad it out to be a feature and we couldn’t afford to do that anyway. It worked best as a short.” The Shore was produced by his daughter, Oorlagh George – her first time in the role. Hours after collecting her Oscar, she was still buzzing, describing how she’d gone up to the official Academy after-party, The Governors’ Ball, with the cast of the Bridesmaids, before being entertained by Harvey Weinstein. Look out for his name on her first feature.
The Academy lays on similar events to drum up public interest in other categories that don’t share the limelight of the major prizes; Feature Animation, Documentaries, Make-Up and the Foreign Language event. At a press photo-call for the directors of the nominated Foreign Language films, only four of the five turned up. The Israeli nominee, Joseph Cedar, who made Footnote, was asked whether it would be good for Middle East diplomacy that both Israel and Iran shared nominations in the competition. “In theory yes,” he began. “But in practice, only one of us is here.” But Asghar Farhadi did turn up for the big night, when his film, A Separation, repeated the success it’s had across the board, from the Golden Globes to the BAFTAs and the Independent Spirits Awards. He told the audience including celebrities, Academy members and nominated film-makers that the honour would help his country celebrate a “rich and ancient culture that has been hidden under the heavy dust of politics.”
As well as boosting the profile of the less-understood categories, the Academy allows journalists to watch the preparations close-up, as the road outside the venue is closed, grandstand seating is erected, the red carpet is rolled down and giant Oscar statues are brought out to line the carpet. But much of the good nature generated by allowing reporters to observe the preparations and excitedly have their photographs taken on the red carpet in their finery, is tempered by a heavy security presence as guards limit what can be photographed, herd journalists off the red carpet like kindergarten pupils on a school-trip and confiscate the security passes many were hoping to keep as a souvenir.
But no amount of red carpet security was able to prevent what the Academy had feared from one of the more predictably controversial characters in the business. After days of wrangling, the Academy allowed Sacha Baron Cohen to appear on the red carpet in the garb of his new character – the dictator of a fictitious America-hating country, on the condition that he removed the outfit before the ceremony itself. Officials might be regretting their compromise, after the comic actor pretended to trip during an interview for the E! entertainment television network, spilling an urn he’d said contained the ashes of the late North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il over the presenter. “Now, if someone asks who you are wearing, you can say Kim Jong Il,” he joked as security led him away.
While some were offended by his behaviour, secretly, the Academy might be rejoicing that after last year’s failed attempt to attract younger viewers by using two younger actors to host, the “dictator’s” antics will at least put the Oscars back on the map for a new audience. Even the montage that opened the show – parodying the best of last year’s films – featured the young popster Justin Bieber telling the host Billy Crystal that he was there “to help the 18-24 demographic.” And Sacha Baron Cohen wasn’t the only one using the Oscars to promote his own projects. Crystal’s opening film joked that he’d agreed to return to host the show, only because he had a film out later in the year.
Crystal’s performance was largely pitched well – gently ribbing Hollywood stars and after some rather dry remarks from the Academy president Tom Sherak, the host joked “Thank you Tom for whipping the crowd into a frenzy.” Like Ricky Gervais at last year’s Golden Globes, he was unafraid to bite the hand that was feeding him, but he did it with more panache. Some of his gags have led to a degree of controversy, being seen variously as racist or ageist, but is there any joke that’s not about someone. Is it offensive to say that with Christopher Plummer becoming the oldest ever recipient of an Oscar at 82, the average age of the winners had jumped to 67? Was mocking a lengthy performance by Cirque du Soleil as “A pony away from a Bar-mitzvah?” anti-semitic? Is it racist to do an impression of someone of a different race? A problem with comedy is that some people don’t get the joke. Or don’t like the joke. Offence, often, is taken, not given.
The acceptance speeches were generally entertaining and heart-warming. Octavia Spencer shed tears and repeated the “wrap up” warning she was given as her time-limit approached. Meryl Streep fought back tears as she began by thanking her husband, remarking that most people leave that until last and it gets drowned out by the music. Jean Dujardin suggested what his character in The Artist might have said had he been able to talk; it involved excited shouting and included some schoolboy French; ‘Formidable.’
With the stars nursing hangovers from celebrating or commiserating at parties big and small across the city, the Oscars and Awards Season 2012 begin to retreat into history. Perhaps more than ever, we have a Best Picture winning Oscar that won’t go down in history as ground-breaking, trend-setting or influential. Enjoyable, entertaining and heart-warming as it was – and it was certainly well reviewed on UKscreen – is it likely to lead to a rash of silent, black-and-white films. Will it give Jean Dujardin a glittering Hollywood career as a heavily-accented leading man? And who, in twenty years time, will be impressed by a film that twenty years earlier had been made to look like one made eighty years before that? In twenty years time, it will be regarded as any other good silent film. Michel Hazanavicius was technically the best director of the year in recreating so perfectly a movie resembling classics from another era. A film-school professor who might have set the task of making a film in the style of the late 1920s would certainly give him an A-grade. That doesn’t make it a great film, but a great copy. Perhaps the same can be said of Meryl Streep’s Oscar-winning turn as Margaret Thatcher. The Artist is a film of its time. But whether it’s time was eighty years ago or Awards Season 2012, perhaps its time has gone.