Portrait of the Oscar as an Old Man

Tradition triumphs with wins by Plummer, Streep and ‘The Artist’

<p>Michel Hazanavicius holds his Oscar trophy at the Weinstein Company Post-Oscar Party on Sunday, Feb. 26, 2012, in West Hollywood, Calif.  (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)</p>

Michel Hazanavicius holds his Oscar trophy at the Weinstein Company Post-Oscar Party on Sunday, Feb. 26, 2012, in West Hollywood, Calif. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)

Oscar, that 84-year-old naked guy with a wandering eye, has always had a soft spot for an Old World accent. And at last night’s Academy Awards, it looked like the French are the new Brits. The silent, black-and-white marvel of The Artist—finally a French film without subtitles—won five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor for Jean Dujardin. Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, which paid homage to the silent era with a 3D adventure in a Paris train station, also won five Oscars, including cinematography, but all were in the so-called technical categories.

Canada’s Christopher Plummer, 82, made history by becoming the oldest actor ever to win an Oscar, accepting the award for Best Supporting Actor prize for his role as gay father who comes out of the closet while dying of cancer. Even on the red carpet, he already seemed to be warming up for his acceptance speech.  “It’s about time I suppose,” he said, looking dapper in a black velvet tuxedo. “There’s not much left of me.” Later, as he clutched the Oscar, he delivered a graceful, witty script: “You’re only two years older than me, darling. Where have you been all my life? I have a confession to make: when I first emerged from my mother’s womb I was already rehearsing my Academy acceptance speech.” He ended by thanking “my long-suffering wife, Elaine, who deserves the Nobel Peace Prize.”

It was an evening of few surprises, aside from Meryl Streep overtaking odds-on favourite Viola Davis of The Help to win Best Actress for her role as The Iron Lady‘s Margaret Thatcher. Breaking her 29-year losing streak, Streep, 62, seemed as surprised as anyone, and virtually apologized for her victory with a giddy inversion of the Sally Field “You really like me” response. “When I heard my name,” she said, “I had this feeling I could hear half of American go ‘Oh, no. Not her again!’ ” This is Streep’s third Oscar, and she reassured the audience that she would not be back for a fourth. Her speech was warm and joyous, without affectation. She didn’t try to sandwich in a cast-and-crew list of names. And best of all, she didn’t thank Harvey Weinstein—who had plenty of reason to gloat after triumphs by Streep, The Artist, and even the winning documentary, Undefeated. As expected, Octavia Spencer won Best Supporting Actress for The Help, and accepted the trophy in a gush of tears.

In the polished vaudevillian hands of Billy Crystal, hosting again after an eight-year hiatus, the tightly-produced show unfolded more smoothly than any in recent memory. There were none of those horrible saggy stretches. Crystal opened with his trademark montage, inserting himself into mock-up movie sequences, which included a Midnight in Paris scene between him and Justin Bieber, who promised to deliver the 18-24 demographic. Crystal followed the montage with his usual song-and-dance mash-up honouring the Best Picture nominees, but did not indulge in the traditional full-bore monologue. Throughout the show, his zingers repeatedly picked up the geriatric theme. Well before Plummer accepted his Oscar, Crystal said, “He may be walking up onstage tonight . . . because he occasionally wanders off.” Then he added, “If there’s any doubt about the demographic, we’re going to slam the 78 to 84 group.”

Cirque du Soleil, however, injected a blast of youthful energy into the proceedings with a spectacular display of aerial acts and acrobatics synched with projections of vintage movie sequences. As the players flew out into the audience, there were flashes of magic when it seemed like the Cirque was bridging the distance between 3D and silent film—as if the idea behind Hugo had come vividly to life with all the debonair swing of The Artist.

Kristen Wiig had fun with a penis joke while presenting a short film prize: “I’d rather have a short film with some heft that’s nice to me rather than a long film that just lies there and makes you do all the work” But the show was almost sadly free of bad taste—aside from Angelina Jolie, who, in a Madonna-like moment of vulgar narcissism, presented her skinny right leg as if it were the Lamb of God. Immediately someone opened a Twitter account called @AngiesRightLeg, and within minutes it had draw over 2,000 followers. By morning, it had almost 11,000 followers.

For the record, I successfully predicted 17 of the 24 winners, although I made the wrong coin-toss for both Best Actor and Best Actress.  For the complete list of winners, go to: http://oscar.go.com/nominees

Follow Brian D. Johnson on Twitter: @briandjohnson