A mash of camp, film school does a number on Oscars

The Oscars went Tony with a vengeance this year: It was like a concept musical with a flaccid concept, saved only by a few game performers and emotion-packed awards badly in need of a Parisian riot or an exploding chandelier.

The idea was that the evening would tell the story of the making of a movie from the blank page to post-production. Some of the effects that idea yielded were elegant, especially when Tina Fey and Steve Martin read pages of the nominated screenplays as the words appeared over scenes from the film. But even that effect wasn't as funny or memorable as Martin's crack that a movie sometimes starts with nothing more than the idea for a poster, and Fey and Martin's genuine rapport - Martin got a laugh simply by telling Fey not to fall in love with him - had more entertainment value than all the blood, sweat and tears that went into the ceremony.


Not even the spitfire presence of Penelope Cruz, winner of best supporting actress for Vicky Cristina Barcelona, the emotional posthumous win of Heath Ledger for best supporting actor for The Dark Knight, and the escalating emotion of the multiple wins for Slumdog Millionaire, could bestir the 81st Academy Award ceremonies, which drowned in reverence and camp.

In a year when the most-nominated moviemakers tried to bring some theatrical zest to everything from docudrama to tenement blight, the Oscars, under the direction of Dreamgirls director Bill Condon, tried to do the same for the Oscar ceremonies. The big-winner movies, Slumdog Millionaire and The Curious Case of Benj amin Button, did theatricality a lot better. Slumdog Millionaire, which won eight awards including best picture, and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button , which won three, were inspired combinations of new technology and time-honored dramatic instincts.


The evening started genial and over the top, with veteran Tony host Hugh Jackman doing a Billy Crystal-like medley that peaked with the Mad Libbed effect of Anne Hathaway warbling Nixon to Jackman's Frost. But when an endless and arbitrary montage of previous best supporting actress winners trooped to the stage in a semicircle looking like the stars of a PBS Celtic song special, or maybe the Delphic oracles, the impact was so heavy and wearying that you feared the rest of the night would succumb to ritual solemnity.

By the time the supporting actor squad came out to present its award, whatever element of class that the show's director, Bill Condon, had in mind instead became an attenuating circumstance that provided too lengthy a buildup to one of the few touching moments of the evening: Ledger's parents and sister accepting his posthumous award.

Throughout, the show was a mishmash of camp and film school, the nadir being a tribute to musicals featuring Jackman, Beyonce Knowles and the youthful stars of High School Musical 3 and Mamma Mia, which shoved together West Side Story and Grease, Fred Astaire and Hairspray , and was so raggedly staged and choreographed it reminded me of why I hated Moulin Rouge! (Baz Luhrmann, who did Rouge, did this.)

These Oscars declared they were going to look forward, but instead they kept looking backward, often to 2008 (!), as a way of honoring not just the nominees and winners, but all the movies that weren't nominated. At one point, the making-of-a-movie conceit got so tired that Will Smith, after bringing us through several steps of post-production, announced, "Hey, I'm still here."

Although Hollywood in previous years moaned and groaned about digital flimflammery taking over real live actors, it was only the invention of the tiny and flexible digital camera that allowed Oscar-winning cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle to take us hurtling with him and his movie's characters though the streets of Mumbai, India, and it was only computer-graphic imagery that allowed Brad Pitt and the Oscar-winning makeup artists to create the aging-backward character who gave heart to the vast historical tapestry that won Oscars for art direction and production design.

And whether it was a compendium of clips from the year's animated features or an editing of the year's best romantic moments, it was the digitally created Wall-E who stole the hearts of the audiences at the Kodak Theatre and at home.

High points: Ben Stiller pulling a far-out Joaquin Phoenix imitation in full mountain-man beard and shades; a Judd Apatow film starring Seth Rogen and James Franco as stoners renting all the Oscar contenders and laughing uproariously through Doubt; and Jerry Lewis bringing a bucket of Old Hollywood sentimentality to his acceptance of the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. But this year, all the heart was in the celluloid - and the digital.