Oscar 2011: Nostalgic, Old-Fashioned, Conventional

Oscar telecast on Sunday night had a real international flavour, with the two top winners paying homage to a bygone age of moviemaking.

The Best Picture winner, “The Artist” is a silent, black-and-white comedy, the first non-talkie to win the top prize since “Wings,” back in 1927 (which co-starred the very young Gary Cooper), in a ceremony that took place in 1929.

“Hugo,” the other big winner, with five awards (all in the technical categories, is Scorsese’s tribute to the French pioneering filmmaker, Melies.  The film is set in Paris in the early 1930s.

“The Artist” won several other key awards, including best director for Michael Hazanavicius, best actor for Jean Dujardin, costume design and score.

“Hugo,” which led the pack in overall nominations with 11, followed by “The Artist’s” 10, with 5 Oscars.

Though Hollywood loves movies about movies, “The Artist” was actually the first such film to win Oscar’s top honor. It was also the first French winner (only the second to be nominated).

Harvey Weinstein was arguably the night’s most decorated individual: 8 trophies went to films that TWC had relesed. It was another command performance after last year, when “The King’s Speech” took best picture, actor, director and original screenplay.

Oscar as International Prize

“The Artist” created by a group of Parisians, and several winners came from foreign countries, most notably foreign-language Oscar “A Separation” writer Asghar Farhadi, who dedicated his award to the people of Iran and to “the people who respect all cultures and civilizations, despise hostility and resentment.”

Adapted screenplay winner Alexander Payne threw out a quick line of Greek, while dedicating his Oscar to his mother, his date for the night.

Documentary short winner Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, who produced “Saving Face,” dedicated her award to women in Pakistan working for change.

Art director Dante Ferretti (“Hugo”) name-dropped Italy.

Sandra Bullock introduced the foreign-language film in German, while recognizing how many viewers in China were watching.

Best Actor Dujardin said: “I love your country!” and concluded with the French words, “Formidable. “Merci beaucoup!.

Meryl Streep’s third win also had foreign influence, as the most-nominated actress (17 nominations!) was honored for her portrayal of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in “The Iron Lady.”

“Oh, come on!” Streep said in sincere disbelief as she took the stage, pausing for a moment to shake hands with fellow nominee Viola Davis (“The Help”). “When they called my name I had this feeling I was going to hear half of America going, ‘Oh, no, not her, again.'”

Producers Brian Grazer and Don Mischer, along with host Billy Crystal, played it safe, innocuous, and conventional.

With a nod to “The Artist,” Crystal’s opener began with a send-up of a silent, black-and-white thriller in which the nine-time emcee was being shocked into submitting to hosting duties by sinister villains.

But the jokes, set-pieces, presenter dynamics and look of the stage echoed past shows.  One new element was video of movie stars talking wistfully about their first movie-going experiences and what makes a great film.

There were other tributes to bygone Hollywood, from the black-and-white interstitials with celebrities talking about their love of movies to a Christopher Guest short making fun of focus groups by depicting –in black and white –a hapless group reacting to “The Wizard of Oz” in the 1930s.

Even the notable Cirque du Soleil used monochromatic tones, period costumes and old movie clips in a acrobatic performance with a less-than-subtle pro-theater-going message.

“Hugo” built its strength on the technical awards (same number of wins as Scorsese’s “The Aviator” at the 2005 show, when Clint Eastwood’s “Million Dollar Baby” won top prizes for directing and best picture.

Cinematography honors went to Robert Richardson, and Dante Ferretti won for art direction, a third Oscar for each. The picture also won sound editing, sound mixing and visual effects.

At 82 years old, Christopher Plummer won his first Oscar for his supporting performance as a late gay bloomer in “Beginners,” becoming the oldest winner in an acting category in Academy history. The win couldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone in the theatre. His speech, with the grace and charm for which he’s become known this season, was a virtual repeat of the one he gave the day before at the Spirit Awards.

“Where have you been all my life?” Plummer said, regarding the trophy just handed to him. “When I first emerged from my mother’s womb, I was already rehearsing my Oscar acceptance speech. Mercifully for you, it was so long ago that I’ve already forgotten it.”

Octavia Spencer, who was widely expected to win for supporting actress, took honors for her role as a maid with in “The Help.”  Emotionally overwhelmed by the standing ovation, she followed the advice that Grazer and Mischer dispensed at the nominees luncheon: don’t prepare a speech.

Though she struggled to find words, she thanked the cast and crew of her film, quickly adding, “I share this with everybody: Steven Spielberg for changing my life, Stacey Snider for changing my life. ‘Please wrap up.’ I’m wrapping up. I’m sorry, I’m freaking out.”

Although “The Artist” earned several major precursor guild and critics awards and a Golden Globe for best comedy in January, other films like “The Descendants,” “Hugo” and “The Help” continued to maintain momentum throughout the season.

The guild awards, considered reliable bellwethers, helped the case for “The Artist” when the film won at the Directors Guild and Producers Guild ceremonies. But the SAG ensemble award went to “The Help,” leaving many wondering what that might mean for the Oscars, considering the largest contingent of voters in the Academy is actors.

After the January 15 Golden Globes, when “The Artist” and “The Descendants” earned comedy and drama kudos, it still wasn’t entirely clear which films the Academy would nominate for best picture.

“The Tree of Life,” “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” and “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” had been ignored. All three earned nominations, most likely because campaigners continued their strong push until ballots were due.

By nominations time, in late January, the verdict was made: Best picture Oscar was certain for the black-and-white silent movie.

The season ended as soon as the nominations were announced, but savvy campaigners like Harvey Weinstein continued to push his movies to the very end.

The 84th annual Academy Awards were presented at the Hollywood and Highland Center. The TV show was telecast live on ABC in more than 225 countries.