Academy Awards proves to be more than spectacle

The events leading up to the 84th Academy Awards rivaled the drama of the films The Academy typically recognizes.

For instance, Brett Ratner resigned as producer and Eddie Murphy backed out as host in November; the Kodak Company went bankrupt, so the Kodak Theatre has now become the “your name here” theater; and there’s General Aladeen, “The Dictator” — Sasha Baron Cohen’s latest provocative character who spilled the “ashes” of former North Korean Dictator Kim Jong-Il all over Ryan Seacrest.

Streep Shocker · Meryl Streep’s best actress win for her portrayal of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady surprised many critics who predicted Viola Davis to claim the prize for her role in The Help. Streep has been nominated 17 times and this is her third Oscar win. - Photo courtesy of Bryan Crowe

Nothing could compare to last year’s stale hosts Anne Hathaway and James Franco — a blatant attempt to attract a younger demographic.   Ratner’s replacements Brian Grazer and Don Mischer, however, still needed to reclaim the Oscars’ former glory — cue nine-time host Billy Crystal whose good humor, entertaining musical numbers and experience speaks for itself.

Though the host, glamorous fashion and an extensive telecast go hand in hand with the Academy Awards, the show is ultimately about celebrating film.

Accordingly, rather than producing an elaborate program, The Academy focused on awarding the best of the best: Woody Allen won best original screenplay, Christopher Plummer prevailed as best supporting actor, making him the oldest Oscar recipient at age 82, Octavia Spencer claimed best supporting actress and The Artist took home best picture — no surprises here.

But with these crowd pleasers come the inevitable upsets, and the Academy delivered.

Most notably, many critics predicted Viola Davis to be the frontrunner for best actress because of her wins at the Screen Actors Guild Awards and the Critics Choice Awards for her role as Aibileen Clark in The Help, yet Meryl Streep claimed the prize for her portrayal of Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady.

The actress herself believes her 17 nominations and three Oscar wins will lead to “Streep fatigue,” but can we ever really get sick of her? She is Meryl Streep after all, and her impeccable talent and humble words remind audiences why they fell in love with her in the first place.

“It was just thrilling. It was like I was a kid again,” Streep said, clutching her Oscar in the press interview room. “I mean, it was, I was a kid when I won this, like, 30 years ago.  Two of the nominees were not even conceived.  So, you know, it was great.”

Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall’s best film editing win for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo served as another surprise as it broke traditional Oscar expectations.

“Movies have momentum behind them. There are a few films this year that have that momentum,” Baxter said. “Our movie wasn’t nominated for best picture so it was surprising for us.”

Whether expected or not, the winners and nominees alike have the potential to promote social change and global awareness. This held particularly true with best documentary short winner Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy — the first Pakistani director to take home an Oscar — whose film Saving Face draws attention to the abuse of women.

“I went to college here [in the United States] and worked here, and I chose to go back because people like myself need to go back to create change in Pakistan,” Obaid-Chinoy said.

In contrast, Ashgar Farhadi’s best foreign film A Separation was not made to be a political statement, but instead to tell a human interest story that everyone could relate to. But in effect, the film engenders an unprecedented global discussion that redefines perceptions of Iran.

“[Iranians] are happy, not just because of an important award or a film or a filmmaker, but because at the time their country, Iran, is spoken here through the glorious culture, a rich and ancient culture that has been hidden under the heavy dust of politics,” Farhadi said in his acceptance speech.

Not all of the nominated films, however, strive to create social change, yet they still resonate with audiences through their honest, emotive storytelling.

Alexander Payne, Jim Rash and Nat Faxon did just that when they adapted Kaui Hart Hemmings’ novel The Descendants.  They molded a pre-existing work into one of their own to tell the story of an ordinary dad coping with unimaginable circumstances. The result: a highly esteemed, modern American classic.

“It was more to sort of be able to put that [original novel] away for a second and expand on it and let the scenes and the emotions there carry us through it, and brighten that story,” Rash said.

Like The Descendants, Hugo and The Artist also connect with viewers, but rather than serving as contemporary classics, the two charm audiences as they reminisce on cinema’s past: Hugo tells the tale of the great filmmaker George Melies and The Artist captures the style and wonder of the silent film era.

Hugo’s 11 nominations and five wins, most of which were awarded for behind-the-scenes work such as art direction and cinematography, exemplify the ever-growing popularity of 3-D.

The Artist also took home five awards, including major categories such as best actor and best director.  Though The Artist is not a 3-D film, it shares the common theme of cinematic nostalgia with Hugo, and it is this common thread that leads The Artist producer Thomas Langmann to believe there can be a place for both the old and new.

“As Michel Hazanavicius, the director, said, [silence] is a way of telling the story,” Langmann said.  “It’s an experience and it’s maybe as big as a 3-D experience, even if it’s different.”

Nostalgic or modern, political or social, unexpected or easily predicted, the 84th Academy Awards’ nominees and winners challenged each other, creating a binary that sparked conversation and made this year’s tribute to cinema all the more interesting.

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