An uneven night in Hollywood

The Baltimore Sun

No Country for Old Men, the most accomplished and exciting of the best picture nominees, deservedly took home the top prize for putting the moral maelstrom of 1980 America into tough, thrilling Western form.

But the 80th annual Academy Awards registered like a ceremony in transition.

It was a night when risk-taking auteurs, virtuoso craftsmanship and cultural confusion bumped together with erratic results.

Although Hollywood and critics have been proudly proclaiming the embrace of difficult movies, the crowd-pleasing The Bourne Ultimatum was the only film that won every prize for which it was nominated.

And the new Hollywood proved it could be as predictable as the old by awarding Daniel Day-Lewis' landscape-devouring portrayal of an oil magnate in There Will Be Blood. (At least Javier Bardem deserved the night's other Oscar "lock" as best supporting actor for the dry-ice killer in No Country.)

The winsome, no-budget romantic musical Once won best song, but the costume design award went to the plush, old-fashioned look of Elizabeth: The Golden Age. Robert Elswit won for his daring cinematography on Blood (by far the best thing about that movie), but so did the superb traditional makeup job that aged Marion Cotillard as Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose.

Scribe-of-the-month Diablo Cody won for best original screenplay for Juno, but the academy also followed its time-honored practice of honoring a prestigious Holocaust movie, this time for best foreign-language film: Austria's The Counterfeiters.

The last time Jon Stewart hosted, the movies pushed their social-political issues up front and the races were tight: Brokeback Mountain and Crash engendered a Clinton-Obama rivalry, and those of us who disliked both movies could root for Capote and Good Night, and Good Luck.

This time, the filmmakers behind No Country, Blood and Atonement went for more sweeping tragedies or cultural denunciations. It took Alex Gibney, director of the best documentary winner, Taxi to the Dark Side, to urge the country to move from the dark side toward the light.

When Cotillard beat out Away from Her's Julie Christie for best actress, and Tilda Swinton grabbed best supporting actress for Michael Clayton over I'm Not There's Cate Blanchett, the stage seemed set for a surprise or two.

It was badly in need of them, because last night's Oscar ceremony was downright cozy - maybe too cozy. Without much time to prepare (or overprepare), Stewart opened the show with an Academy Award-centered version of a late-night monologue. It was as if he knew the whole country had caught up to Hollywood's state of disillusionment and fracture. Nothing seemed too inside, not the gags about the writers' strike, nor the obligatory joke about Hollywood supporting the Democrat of its choice in the presidential race.

It was a night for all the seams to show, and Stewart threaded them deftly. Stewart may be a Comedy Central "niche" performer, but making Oscar-caliber movies has itself become a niche industry, and Hollywood is at odds with itself over new technology - reflected in the give-and-take between the content Stewart generated and the rest of the show.

An opening montage used digital wizardry to put emblematic movie images such as Peter O'Toole in his T.E. Lawrence robes on a contemporary road to the Kodak Theatre. Later, Stewart satirized the less-than-sublime experience of watching Lawrence of Arabia on an iPhone. And he mocked the retrospective montages that would have filled the show if the writers' strike continued - montages on subjects such as binoculars and bad dreams - only to be followed by an animated Jerry Seinfeld in his Bee Movie role introducing a comic montage on bees in films.

It wasn't a night when the movies themselves could vitalize a celebratory evening. Brilliant though it is, No Country, with its lament for the moral clarity of the Old West, couldn't be summed up easily in an acceptance speech. Stewart got off one of his best quips when he noted the downbeat or psychopathic shape of most best picture nominees, and, referring to Juno, said, "Thank God for teen pregnancy."

After a while, all the images of Oscar's glory days began to look like an attempt for the academy to attain glamour by association. It's commendable for the voters to throw their attention toward challenging and specialized fare. But making movies that electrify viewers from head to gut and unite us all - the Oscar dream that Jack Nicholson referred to when he introduced a list of all the best picture winners, or that honorary Oscar-winning production designer Robert Boyle exemplified with his work on North by Northwest and Fiddler on the Roof - should be the Holy Grail for American moviemakers. And this year's Oscar show suggested how much we miss when it eludes them.

michael.sragow@baltsun.com

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