Everybody's fine: closing thoughts on an Oscar season of multiple narratives
Many might be tempted, upon observing "Lincoln's" relatively paltry Oscar returns -- two awards from a mighty 12 nominations, the least accrued from that many or more since "Becket" in 1964 -- to forge a narrative along the lines of "The Academy turns against 'Lincoln.'" But that wouldn't be true, either. It was clear, from the auditorium-wide warmth that greeted Daniel Day-Lewis's history-making Best Actor win, from the unexpected singling-out of the film's intricate but understated production design, that this was a film the Academy wanted to see rewarded -- just as they wanted to see "Argo" rewarded, just as they wanted to see "Life of Pi" rewarded, and several others besides.
Yes, Ben Affleck would almost certainly have brought "Argo's" win total to four had he been nominated for Best Director, but that doesn't mean "Life of Pi" was simply a surrogate for their affections. (I'll leave it to Seth MacFarlane to bring a smutty Helen Hunt joke into this.) Had voters been so defensively devoted to "Argo" that they wanted to see it win at all costs, it could easily have taken an extra win for Alexandre Desplat's score, or muscled into that fragile tie for Best Sound Editing.
But it didn't. Voters liked a lot this year. Whether many individuals consciously vote this way or not, the collective vote arranged itself so as to honor as much of what they liked as possible. And three cheers for that. When the Academy expanded the Best Picture field from five nominees four years ago, the intended aim was to celebrate a broader spread of titles, and this year saw the highest percentage of Best Picture nominees walk away with a prize since the change's inception.
Eight out of nine films took at least one win, and if that seems a little hard on "Beasts of the Southern Wild," any cutaway during the telecast to an elated-looking Quvenzhane Wallis -- joyously brandishing her puppy-dog handbag and plainly having the time of a life destined for greater times still -- made it clear how welcome she and her scrappy little film felt in the Academy's embrace. (Off-color cracks by Seth MacFarlane notwithstanding.)
Is that the narrative? Everyone's a winner, even when they lose? It's corny, but we'll go with it. After all, it's a narrative Michelle Obama tried to convince us -- during a presenting gig that must count as the ceremony's most significant surprise -- that all the Best Picture nominees themselves are aiming to peddle. I, for one, am uncertain of what obstacles "Amour" teaches us we can overcome, but I'll avoid splitting hairs. And speaking of "Amour," I wanted to see Emmanuelle Riva become history's oldest Oscar winner as much as anyone, but I refuse not to be delighted for the klutzily radiant Jennifer Lawrence, excited for the brilliant career that lies ahead of her, or enduringly appreciative of her performance in "Silver Linings Playbook," the kind of spitting, sparking catherine-wheel of a comic turn that I'd like to see recognized more often.
I'd like to say that the show emerged as victorious as the films it rewarded, but even that resists a clear story angle. Neither as diabolical as the morning's more inflamed reviews insist it was, nor anything like as fresh and subversive as Seth MacFarlane's defenders will claim it was with increasing revisionist enthusiasm, it was a labored, out-of-time affair that I have little inclination to review in great detail -- partly because the ever-eloquent Alan Sepinwall has relayed my very thoughts in almost uncanny detail.
And yet its few moments of greatness -- Daniel Day-Lewis's humble, witty, perfectly pitched acceptance address, 76-year-old Shirley Bassey's ferocious rendition of a Bond classic that ought to have ushered in a similarly gold-plated medley, the delicious surprise and even more delicious fairness of that Best Sound Editing tie -- will last a lot longer in my memory than that shouty, narrowly conceived musicals tribute or MacFarlane's icky Clooney-Quvenzhane sex jokes and bizarrely unnecessary dismissal of incumbent Best Actor winner Jean Dujardin's career. (Hey Seth, call us when you have a Scorsese project in the pipeline.)
My single favorite moment of the telecast was an all-too-brief one: former exotic entertainer Channing Tatum and trained ballet dancer Charlize Theron taking to the floor for a swirling Rogers-Astaire tribute in which neither artist could have looked more beautiful, or more simultaneously in and out of their element. (Hey, casting directors: anyone wanna give those kids a musical?) It was a moment of two superstars in perfectly paired partnership, the kind of graceful collaborative spirit Hollywood often only pretends to be about, usually by way of florid acceptance speeches -- but it was an apt lead-in to a larger dance where the spread of films rewarded left us with far more perks than wallflowers.