With the news from the war on Iraq growing grimmer over the weekend, the decision to go ahead with Sunday’s Oscars became riskier by the hour. How to find the right tone to celebrate a year in movies when casualties of war were on everyone’s mind? It was hard to know what to expect, and, inappropriate though it might seem, curiosity about how Hollywood’s glitterati would comport themselves under this kind of pressure probably increased interest in the awards show. For much of the evening it was business as usual, as producer Gil Cates had intended. To turn the movie industry’s glitziest and most widely watched event into a forum on the war would have been both presumptuous and distasteful, and the events of the outside world mostly impinged on the ceremony in the evening’s unscripted moments. The surreal nature of the night became most apparent when Peter Jennings brought updates during a couple of commercial breaks, ending reports of battles and casualties with the disconcerting words, “…and now back to the Oscars.”
Michael Moore’s questionable theatrics aside — he brought his fellow docu nominees onstage and derided President Bush — the best news was that there were no serious missteps or overwrought moments. Describing the bloody “Gangs of New York” as being about “what it means to be an American” was possibly not the happiest choice of words for this particular historical moment, but in general Hollywood managed to present a sane, sensible and, in its own fashion, caring face to a world probably happy to turn away from the news. And this year the show’s customary longueurs seemed excusable. After a weekend of disturbing reports from the Middle East, they were even something of a comfort.
Most of the winners and presenters who chose to make reference to the war did so with sincerity, brevity and eloquence. (It was nice to hear Peter O’Toole pay tribute to all that America has meant to him in his speech, too.) Adrien Brody’s heartfelt speech was perhaps the evening’s emotional highlight: He managed to bridge the personal and the political most eloquently.
Overall, there were a lot more choruses of “All That Jazz” heard than actual mentions of the W word. The gowns seemed to come in the usual array of colors. Maybe there was a bit more black than usual, and the jewelry certainly seemed a bit more subdued, but there were no presenters appearing in sackcloth and ashes, and the protest pins didn’t read too well on TV. The red carpet was rolled up, figuratively at least, and none of Hollywood’s leading ladies ditched the Harry Winston for a swatch of duct tape.
The fortuitous choice of Steve Martin, in only his second turn as Oscar host, was a lucky one. He’s a clown who naturally exudes intelligence, and his genial mock-sincerity seemed apt. The opening monologue was, as usual, overlong, and Martin initially seemed (understandably) a bit ill at ease. But the few references to the war — “Everyone has been supportive of my hosting again, except for France and Germany” — struck the right tone: funny enough to ease the tension but not tasteless. (The Mickey Rooney bit was odd — what was he doing way back there?) Martin’s material, uneven and a bit disjointed in the monologue, got better as the evening went on.
As always, there was good and bad. The musical numbers were nicely produced and of a higher quality than usual — perhaps because the nominated songs were stronger. The movie montage that opened the evening — with clips projected onto digital diamonds, a very Douglas Sirk touch — was briefer than is usually the case with these rousing but often numbing collections. And the tribute to song segments from prior shows was hilarious, with tantalizing clips of fabulously terrible production numbers reminding us how much fun a bad Oscar show once was.
But the Chuck Workman film — clips of past winners gushing over how nerve-wracking and yet thrilling it was to win — was spectacularly unnecessary, and the major centerpiece of the 75th anniversary celebration, the assemblage, and listing, of 59 acting Oscar winners, was simply exhausting, making a telecast that ended right on the money seem longer than it was.