The Academy Awards’ 74th annual ceremony originated from Oscar’s new home, but the Kodak moments were on film, not onstage. Producer Laura Ziskin took viewers on an emotional journey that connected L.A. with New York and America via film history. Film-appreciation docus made by Errol Morris, Penelope Spheeris, Nora Ephron and others gave the proceedings a personal sense of recollection, nicely sprucing up the moments between trophy presentations in the longest Oscar telecast on record (13 minutes longer than the 2000 telecast). They helped obscure the fact that Whoopi Goldberg wasn’t always dealing with sharp comic material and that there may be logistical limitations within the new Kodak Theater.
Presentation’s tenor was drawn from a post-Sept. 11, reflective mindset. At every turn, another legendary American celebrity was waxing philosophically about a favorite film. Who could blame American filmgoers if they started thinking that they sure don’t make ’em like they used to, especially after watching Ephron’s beautifully edited ode to New York City and the Sidney Poitier tribute reel.
Even the first music heard — a full two hours into the program — supported that sentiment: John Williams led the orchestra through a medley of (mostly) Oscar-winning scores.
The ceremony unfolded more than it pounced, its tone initially sober and then restrained as one winner after another spoke equally to art, business and family. Strongest change this year — and this made the films so much more personal — was the inclusion of comments from participants in the best film nominees. More than plot recitation, the reminiscences of the actors and directors enhanced viscerally the appeal of each picture.
Goldberg’s presence, while convivial, was surprisingly low-key, with little of her irreverence showing (save her arrival). It took Goldberg placing a scarf over Oscar’s privates (claiming it was in response to a complaint from Attorney General John Ashcroft) to give the show that little something extra — a moment that, scripted or not, felt off the cuff.
Later she would mock with kid gloves the use of only black actors to speak in the taped piece on Poitier and only whites in a Robert Redford segment; that same segregation was unfortunately extended to the telecast in which Will Smith and Denzel Washington were the only people shown laughing at Goldberg’s racially directed jokes.
Reminding the audience that she’d been on her best behavior so far, deep into the evening, she begged forgiveness for one off-color remark that had prompted by a scream high in the Kodak rafters.
No matter what direction Goldberg or Ziskin went, though, this will be remembered as Halle Berry’s night. An emotional lifesaver for this overlong telecast, Berry standing onstage crying with her Oscar in hand will be the 74th’s enduring moment — that she had the presence of mind to remember to address the historical importance of her win gave her speech a structure in line with the show’s theme of serious celebration.
Other delightful moments: Woody Allen, finally appearing at the kudocast, nervously joking about his involvement and eventually trying to hustle film business for New York; Sidney Poitier eloquently thanking the “visionary filmmakers” who aided him half a century ago; Robert Redford’s lengthy “thank you” that covered Sept. 11, artistic freedom and his personal history; and Randy Newman threatening unemployment to pit musicians after winning his first Oscar in 16 tries.
To open the kudofest, a nicely wrought Morris film followed Tom Cruise, who spoke with a forced conviction about movies that affected him as a youth. Morris keenly collected the comments of average folks and some recognizable faces — including the rockers Iggy Pop and Lou Reed, chef Rocco DiSpirito, Donald Trump, first lady Laura Bush and composer Philip Glass — in an energetic and compact piece. Each of the prepared films — some comical, some informative — gave the telecast a measured tone and spoke appropriately to the whole of the film world; Penelope Spheeris’ piece covered the range of documentaries, for example, rather than focusing solely on the Oscar winners.
Goldberg’s most outlandish moment came during her arrival, a re-enactment of a “Moulin Rouge” scene in which she descended into the audience on a swing, decked out in space-age brothelwear. It was one of the rare shots that put the hugeness of the Kodak on display — about the only other time TV viewers could get a sense of the enormity of the Kodak stage was when Cirque du Soleil acrobats did a live re-enactment of special effects scenes that were shown onscreen behind them. The two didn’t quite gel on TV, though the live action was still mesmerizing.
Ziskin continued last year’s installment of a personality backstage to introduce upcoming appearances. This year Donald Sutherland and Glenn Close handled the duties and it still felt odd, though Sutherland’s voiceovers, usually listing a winner’s Oscar history, were consistently classy.
Shots of Hollywood Boulevard were used here and there, underscoring the Hollywood & Highland mall’s Times Square-like appearance. If Hollywood is looking for a resilient tie with Gotham and its artistic community, it need look no further than one of Sunday’s presenters: Nathan Lane. A charismatic presence if ever there was one, his short appearance as a presenter was sharp and his material often biting. His delivery was so on the mark, one wonders what it would take to get him behind the host’s podium.