This was supposed to be an apolitical Oscars, a three-and-a-half hour extravaganza of escapism and elegance.
Host Hugh Jackman would be free of satirical riffs, one-liners and even a monologue.
But in a year when "Milk," "Frost/Nixon" and "Slumdog Millionaire" are among the nominees, you just can't take politics out of the Oscars.
It's what makes the Oscars — the unexpected, the controversial, the stuff that leaves half of the audience moved and the other half angry. This year was an improvement over last, which was neither uplifting nor outrageous, but just boring.
"You commie, homo-loving sons of guns," Sean Penn said in accepting the actor award for "Milk," injecting an in-your-face political statement in a ceremony largely devoid of them. He went on to praise an "elegant" President Obama, chide anti-gay protesters outside the theater and call for same-sex marriage rights across the country.
Then he riffed on himself. "I did not expect this and…I know how hard I make it to appreciate me."
Folks in red states probably turned their sets off, their feelings about liberal Hollywood only confirmed.
Why let them down? More bizarre would have been if Penn had said nothing, and on this night he found just the right dose and the right tone.
"I think it is a good time for those who voted for the ban against gay marriage to sit and reflect and anticipate their great shame and the shame in their grandchildren's eyes if they continue that way," Penn said.
His words were echoed earlier in the evening, when Dustin Lance Black won the screenplay Oscar for "Milk" and called for equal rights for gays and lesbians at the federal level.
Producers Laurence Mark and Bill Condon signaled as much in planning the show, promising a return to the elegance of the past yet hoping for the unexpected. Of the former, they gave us uneven production numbers, and an inspired new way of presenting the acting categories; of the latter, they did receive a precious few moments. Philippe Petit, the real-life "Man on Wire," balanced a statuette on his nose after the film won the documentary feature prize; Kate Winslet's father gave her a whistle from the audience when she stood on stage accepting her award for "The Reader."
Mark and Condon said that they took some of their inspiration, particularly in the regency-style set design, from the 1968 Academy Awards. Then, as now, the ceremony was caught between the world of old and new Hollywood.
By the 1970s, not a year went by when some star made headlines for some kind of pronouncement, whether it be Jane Fonda or Vanessa Redgrave or Satcheen Littlefeather. Producers hated it, much of the public hated it, even fellow stars hated it. But a generation later, what do we remember? Certainly not the production numbers.
Penn and Black's backstage comments are here.