Safety first: putting a lid on the 2011 Oscars

Posted by · 12:15 pm · February 27th, 2012

Having had a few hours to quite literally sleep on last night’s Academy Awards after blearily turning in at 5.30 in the morning, I’ve woken up with a post-Oscar feeling that is unfamiliar to me, or at least has been for several years: sincere, sober, slightly stricken disappointment.

That is, I admit, a selfish and somewhat irrational response to an evening in which one of the most singularly delightful films of the year — and comfortably my favorite of the nominees — won Best Picture; in which, for the first time in far too long, the routinely dismaying Best Foreign Language Film award somehow found its way to a work of genuine consequence and artistry; in which “Academy Award winner Bret McKenzie” became a legit combination of words for future use and enjoyment; in which, after two straight years of getting it mortifyingly wrong, the Academy managed to stage a swift, entertaining if not especially imaginative show.

On balance, I’m happier with the results than I was last year, when a film I actively dislike claimed the top prizes. So why is my heart a little heavier than it was on post-Oscar morning last February? Two words, and I think you can guess what they are: Viola. Davis.  

I’m leading with last night’s Best Actress award not only because it was the night’s one outcome to truly rattle me personally. However you slice it, and whatever your own allegiance, it was the moment of the night: the biggest upset in a lead acting race since, oh, Adrien Brody’s 2002 Best Actor win, the one that resulted in the most clipreel-ready acceptance speech of the ceremony, the one in which the Academy passed up one landmark victor of sorts for another. Most of all, it was the one that, however accidentally, encapsulated the meme for this year’s entire awards race: the lure of the known.

There was little reason to bet against Viola Davis this year. The stage-reared, 46-year-old character actress has accrued nothing but goodwill (and a handful of prizes) since giving the performance of her career in “The Help,” a notably problematic but encouragingly popular late-summer sleeper that itself stole enough hearts in Hollywood to crack the Best Picture category. The roaring standing O that greeted her Screen Actors’ Guild victory said everything, or seemed to: hampered by the industry’s deeply ingrained demographic biases, a marvelous actress had waited far too long for the opportunity to carry a film, had done a selflessly beautiful job when it eventually came, and was now reaping her due reward.

Even without the added attraction of doubling the number of non-white Best Actress champs in a single move, Davis’s nomination offered the Academy the chance to reward the right actress for the right role at the right time, potentially elevating a career in the process. For her part, Davis played the campaign game with a mixture of good-humored grace and provocative intelligence, somehow pointedly reminding voters of what they stood to gain from rewarding an actress like her without ever sounding entitled to their votes in the process. How could they resist?

By voting for Meryl Streep, as it turns out.

On the face of it, how does one begrudge America’s Greatest Living Actress™ a third Academy Award? Few would deny that Streep deserves as many statuettes on her mantel as Jack Nicholson or Ingrid Bergman. Streep has been no less engaged, generous and professional a presence than Davis on the campaign circuit; more to the point, she has maintained this behavior for 13 consecutive nominations over 29 years that, until last night, had all ended in cheerily smiling defeat.

Lest you think this was a capitulating award for good sportsmanship, it wasn’t: critics can argue in circles about whether it was a feat of inspired artistry or heartless technical precision, but there’s no denying that Streep’s performance in Margaret Thatcher in “The Iron Lady” is one that wowed many on its own terms, one that could as easily have won the actress an Oscar at her first nomination or her seventeenth. 

So, two popular, talented actresses, both giving commanding performances in films somewhat less than deserving of their efforts. What difference does it make which one of them wins, right? Flip a coin, call a tie, horses for courses, no correct answer, right? Why, then — besides the fact that I found Davis’s work more moving and persuasive, and that we came this close to a refreshingly biopic-free slate of acting winners for the first time in 14 years — am I left with the feeling that the Academy made a grave error last night?

Let’s optimistically posit that, even with demographic trends firmly against her, Viola Davis didn’t need this win to secure more meaty roles and A-list projects in the future; that further Oscar nominations and potential wins await. But by allowing her to lose to her esteemed friend and former co-star last night, Academy voters arguably did themselves the greater disservice: prioritizing the familiar over the future, endeavor over initiative, closing ranks over opening doors. If we suggest for a minute that neither performance is better than the other, rewarding Streep’s Thatcher over Davis’s Aibileen, after a season of the industry all but instructing otherwise, was the Academy’s own Conservative vote. For better or worse, this is what the Academy knows, and they’re sticking to it.

I’ve spent rather too long on this one award, since it’s hardly alone among last night’s results in reflecting this dispiriting safety-first approach. Though I predicted it would happen, my heart still sank precipitously when the very first envelope of the evening was opened, and Robert Richardson won a third Oscar for his perfunctorily handsome lensing of “Hugo,” making a bridesmaid once more of the brilliant Emmanuel Lubezki, whose luminous, form-busting work in “The Tree of Life” was, if you’ll forgive me being this emphatic, the only artistically sentient choice in the category.

Putting aside for a moment my concerns of how many voters never saw Terrence Malick’s demanding opus in the first place, this was a case of Academy members embracing work they could comfortably get their arms around — as was the case with “Hugo”‘s second most egregiously undeserved technical win of the night, as its unremarkable-to-creaky visual effects bested those of “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” which only created exciting, uncharted new options for filmmakers and actors alike. 

Voters similarly had their eye on the rear view mirror in the screenplay categories, handing Alexander Payne a second Oscar, and Woody Allen a fourth, for snugly narrow creations that fall well short of the tonal and structural innovations of either writer-director’s best work, perhaps denying the Best Picture frontrunner because they’re not entirely certain how it was written at all. And their cautious streak even extended to the short film categories, usually the preserve of the up-and-coming: thanks to the presence of Terry George and Ciaran Hinds’s established names, the televisual, tepidly sentimental “The Shore” defeated the far sprightlier and more inventive “Tuba Atlantic,” at least ensuring that “The Iron Lady” (I beg your pardon, two-time Academy Award winner “The Iron Lady”) isn’t the worst film to win an Oscar this year.

Perhaps this surfeit of familiar, faintly fusty winners was the Academy’s way of bargaining with themselves for giving three of their top prizes to scrappy, seductively French-accented outsiders whose names would have meant little to most voters this time last year — though many will see these laurels for a retro exercise about Hollywood’s golden age as no less safe and regressive a decision. Maybe so, maybe no, but as I wrote in my pre-ceremony plea for “The Artist” on Saturday, rewarding a silent, black-and-white, French-made comedy was one of the most novel and adventurous options the Academy faced in their year of not living dangerously.

Meanwhile, like “The Artist,” the ceremony demonstrated that revisiting the past has its assets, too. The return of Billy Crystal proved, on balance, a welcome one. His schtick was well-worn, but warm and amusing with it: after a ropey introductory video skit in which his nerves and rustiness were all too evident, his timing picked up, his audience touch returned, his teeth even came out a little. A safe pair of hands, it seems, can still be a spry one.

That said, in a ceremony awash with old hands and old jokes, is it perhaps telling that the most memorable performance of all came from 23-year-old firework Emma Stone? Presenting Best Visual Effects with a comparatively defused Ben Stiller, the gifted young comedienne killed on her Oscarcast debut, riffing with acid zaniness on Hollywood’s expectations of ingenues like her and subtly skewering last year’s ill-fated host Anne Hathaway in the process. Fresh, funky, eccentric, with just a smidge of non-toxic daring, the night’s MVP was everything the Academy at large wasn’t this year: one hopes this is the first of many Academy Award appearances from Stone, and not just as a presenter.

First, however, they owe Viola Davis one. 

For more views on movies, awards season and other pursuits, follow @GuyLodge on Twitter. 

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