Music Features

Oscar Journal 2003

Stupid Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. There I was, all set to write an entertainingly bitchy column, detailing the gaffes and errors in judgment that plagued the 75th Academy Awards... and they had to go and put on a show that was (mostly) tasteful, (mostly) entertaining, and distributed awards to (mostly) the right people. Jerks. Now I have to just resort to that hackneyed post-Oscar cliché, the minute-by-minute summary/analysis. And when I say "minute-by-minute," I mean it, as you'll see.

Frankly, though, it's something of a shocker that the show went off as well as it did, considering the United States' wartime hysteria, and the deeply divided opinions over this objectively ridiculous conflict in Iraq. With the Academy announcing that there would be a scaled-back red-carpet ceremony before the show, promising to put the kibosh on political statements from the stage, and (unfounded, as it turns out) rumors of a "blacklist" that would prohibit opinionated stars such as Dustin Hoffman, Meryl Streep, and Salma Hayek from speaking, there was every reason to anticipate that the shallow, look-at-the-pretty-people thrills would be sucked from the Oscar ceremony like the talent from Kevin Spacey after American Beauty.

Thank goodness, then, for the singularly strong field of nominees this year that made the competition more compellingly fierce than it's been in years. Thank goodness for a behind-the-scenes decision to keep the show moving along, with a minimum of unnecessary tributes and time-fillers (the seven montages notwithstanding). And above all, thank goodness for Steve Martin, whose hilariously caustic skewering of the attendees - and Hollywood in general - was both a defiant refusal to defang the show in wartime and a tacit acknowledgement that the Awards are ultimately unimportant in the scheme of things. And having acknowledged that fact myself, despite the fact that I've been talking about little else besides the ceremony for the past two months, I now present to you a minutiae-laden summary of what went down at the Shrine Auditorium on March 23:

8:00 (EST): The red-carpet ceremony begins without a red carpet, in recognition of the fact that such ostentatious displays would be somewhat tacky considering the fact that there are people dying in combat. Or at least, commentator Chris Connelly says it's not a red carpet, though he's evidently splitting hairs between "red" and "slightly purplish red," which is what the carpet appears to be.

8:01: Another nail apparently appears for the "classiness" coffin, in the form of Alias's Jennifer Garner. In recognition of the fact that this is an evening for somber contemplation as much as celebration, her slutty white dress makes her look as though she is dressing up as "surface tension" for Halloween.

8:19: A non-sequitur montage of film clips appears, entitled The Spirit of America. Included in the hilariously random selection are one-second snippets from Fargo, High Noon, Pretty Woman, and Big Daddy.

8:22: I don't know what commercials are being aired in the rest of the world, but USA viewers are treated to a creepy spot confirming that America Online's little yellow cartoon mascot does indeed have a penis.

8:25: There's Christopher Walken, and he seems to be wearing his fright wig from Sleepy Hollow. He rules.

8:32: The ceremony proper begins. Steve Martin appears onstage, pauses to look around the lavishly decorated auditorium, and dryly comments, "Well, I'm glad they've cut back on all the glitz!" Ha! From here on out, it's clear that, world tension or no world tension, the show is mostly going to be about the show.

8:41: Bizarre moment: a cell phone falls - or is tossed - from an upper balcony onto the stage as Martin continues his monologue. The joke in progress bombs, and Martin remarks, "Okay, I now understand that having someone throw a phone in the middle of a joke is a bad idea. Sorry - that was my decision."

8:45: Cameron Diaz, who looks as though she's been pounding Jell-O shots since about 10 A.M., awards the Best Animated Feature trophy to Spirited Away. I really need to see that.

8:49: Keanu Reeves presents the award for Best Visual Effects. Watching the clips from the nominated films on my new high-definition TV, the Spider-Man CGI looks extra fakey. Luckily, Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers wins. I didn't see it -nor shall I - but that Golem thing looks really cool.

8:53: Jennifer Connelly appears to present the award for Best Supporting Actor, but not before a montage of previous Best Supporting Actors appears. Luckily, my new TV also sports a freeze-frame feature, so I can just sit and look at Jennifer Connelly while this is going on. Ahhh...

Okay, on with the first award I really care about. Chris Cooper wins for Adaptation. Fine. I would've given it to John C. Reilly for Chicago, but Cooper brought a certain wounded humanity to a character that, as written by Charlie Kaufman, would otherwise have been difficult to invest any interest in. His choked-up acceptance speech is endearingly down-to-earth besides, and he makes the first tentative anti-war statement of the evening by uttering, "I wish us all peace!"

8:57: J.Lo (whose introductory speech I imagine was spelled out phonetically on her Tele-Prompter) presents the Chicago team with the award for Best Art Direction.

9:01: John Travolta's face is looking more and more like one of the cube-heads from that old Dire Straits video every time I see him. He's here to introduce Catherine Zeta-Jones and Queen Latifah performing their unremarkable nominated song "I Move On" from Chicago. They're surrounded by a bunch of busy dancers so we don't notice that neither of them is dancing at all. Zeta-Jones is pregnant again? Didn't she just have, like, three kids?

9:12: There's nothing I like better than seeing Jennifer Garner humiliated, and here she is, forced to share the stage with an unsettling CGI Mickey Mouse, as they both present the Oscar for Best Animated Short Film! This is the best Academy Awards show ever! The winner is the team behind The ChubbChubbs, which looks adorable, from its clip. A cut-away to the audience finds Kate Hudson looking utterly baffled by what she is seeing. Oh - and the award for Best Live-Action Short Film goes to the Welsh film This Charming Man.

9:17: Mira Sorvino, strangely resembling a Cheri Oteri impersonation of Mira Sorvino in both appearance and ditzy action, presents the Chicago folks with the Best Costume Design award.

9:25: Paul Simon performs his nominated song "Father and Daughter" from The Wild Thornberrys Movie. But for a few clever turns of phrase, this song is bland enough to have sprung from the pen of Sting or Phil Collins. No wonder it got a nomination then, I suppose.

9:30: Nia Vardalos from My Big Shrill Greek Headache jabbers about how the nominees for Best Makeup each had to "uglify" characters in their films. Something about the implication that Frida Kahlo is "ugly" strikes me as being a touch insensitive. I am comforted by the fact that Vardalos's fifteen minutes should be up anytime now. And by the fact that Frida's makeup team wins.

9:33: I guess last year's Best Supporting Actor, Jim Broadbent, was a no-show, because here's Sean Connery to give the Best Supporting Actress award to Zeta-Jones. She makes a thoroughly unremarkable acceptance speech, though I hope she doesn't sue me for saying so. Again, I'm not thrilled with this choice (I would rather have seen Julianne Moore take home the Oscar for her role in The Hours), but I'll accept this turn of events without complaining, as Zeta-Jones really was a blast in Chicago.

9:42: Matthew McConaughey shows up, looking as though he just burned one with Woody Harrelson. And I am so pleased with myself for coming up with that oh-so-clever jibe that I neglect to write down exactly why McConaughey is onstage.

9:44: In a bit of How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days synergy, Kate Hudson now presents film clips of the scientific and technical awards that were presented prior to the real ceremony.

9:46: Renee Zellweger squints and purses her lips through her presentation of the award for Best Original Score. I don't think anyone was expecting Elliot Goldenthal to win for Frida, but good for him! I'm doubly heartened to discover that the Academy had the sense to ignore John Williams's faceless work in Catch Me If You Can and Philip Glass's annoyingly strained bombast in The Hours.

9:56: Nowhere in Africa wins the award for Best Foreign Language Film, which Salma Hayek accepts on behalf of the absent filmmakers. I'm confused as to how Talk to Her and Y Tu Mama Tambien are absent in this category and yet both nominated for Best Original Screenplay (and, in the case of Talk to Her, Best Director).

9:57: I have no idea what the difference is between Best Sound and Best Sound Editing, despite Julianne Moore's giggly attempts to explain it, but Chicago wins the former and The Two Towers the latter. How sad is it that I'm this flummoxed by an award show?

10:04: During his introduction of the song "Burn It Blue" from Frida, Gael Garcia Bernal brazenly proclaims that if she were still alive, "Frida would be on our side, against war." Hayek applauds wildly, and the tension in the room is ratcheted up a couple notches. The song itself, which I haven't heard before, is utterly gorgeous, and I think it would be bitchin' to hear David Byrne and Moby collaborate on a cover of it.

10:14: Speaking of tension, Michael Moore (unquestionably deservedly) wins Best Documentary Feature for the stunning Bowling for Columbine. He is joined onstage by all the other nominees, and after some perfunctory thank-yous, launches into a tirade that is quickly swallowed by boos from the audience. He says something like, "My fellow nominees have joined me onstage in a show of solidarity. You see, we like non-fiction, and yet we're living in fictitious times, with fictitious election results that elect a fictitious president. ... We live with the fictition [sic] of duct tape, and the fictition of 'orange alerts'... We are against this war, Mr. Bush! When you've got both the Pope and the Dixie Chicks against you, your time is up!" And his mike is cut off at this point.

It's the evening's single most shocking moment, though it manages to irk nearly everyone. (A cut-away to the crowd, though, suggests that the boos weren't coming from the celebrities seated up front, so much as from the commoners in the balconies.) Though I applaud the sentiment, and commend Moore for having the courage to speak up, I can't help but wonder if this rant will be seen as counterproductive to the anti-war movement. After all, if the Awards' most vocal spokesman against the Iraqi conflict is seen on worldwide television using the non-word "fictition" over and over, and being met with vehement anger from a sizeable number of attendees, it sends a rather mixed message, I think.

10:19: Well, even if it's questionable whether his diatribe achieved its main goal, Moore can take comfort in the fact that he has obviously pissed off the next presenter, MPAA president Jack Valenti, who can never be pissed off too often, as far as I'm concerned. He gives the Best Documentary Short award to The Twin Towers, though the clip they show doesn't look nearly as impressive without the Golem thing. Oh, wait...

10:22: Julia Roberts posthumously grants the Best Cinematography award to Road to Perdition's Conrad L. Hall, who really did deserve it for the lush blackness of his work in that film. His son accepts the award and gives a sweet speech.

10:31: Colin Farrell natters about U2 for a little while, giving a muddled, presumably anti-war statement in the process, and then introduces Bono & Co. so they can perform "The Hands That Built America" from Gangs of New York. The song proves that All That You Can't Leave Behind wasn't a fluke; U2 really has become just that boring.

10:36: Geena Davis bestows the Best Editing Award upon the Chicago guy. I get the impression that many Academy voters don't really know what editing is. I can't begrudge Chicago any awards, because I love it to pieces, but it seems like the artful cross-cutting between three story arcs in The Hours should've been recognized, doesn't it?

10:39: Susan Sarandon pointedly flashes a peace sign (a gesture that, while noble, seems a tad wan after Moore's bluster) before introducing this year's Death Reel, in which the Academy honors those artists who have passed in the past year with tasteless applause whose amount varies wildly from person to person. This year's winner for Most Applause is Billy Wilder, while poor Daniel Taradesh gets only a few half-assed claps.

10:47: In the evening's biggest - and most delightful - surprise, Halle Berry announces that The Pianist's Adrien Brody has won the award for Best Actor, and is rewarded by him bounding up onto the stage and giving her a hysterically inappropriate and lengthy kiss. (I am laughing too hard to notice whether there is a shot of Berry's husband's reaction. I forget his name. You know who I mean: that Lenny Kravitz ornament she drags around everywhere.) It's one of those rare instances where, literally against all odds, the Academy gets it right and recognizes a deserving - yet largely unseen - performance! Though the consensus is that Daniel Day-Lewis singlehandedly saved Gangs of New York, and I am still in awe of Jack Nicholson's underplayed, moving work in About Schmidt, it's impossible to overstate the impressiveness of Brody's transformation from a somewhat passive Jewish musician into a heartbreakingly desperate, resourceful survivor in his film.

And what an acceptance speech! Gracious, witty, and humble, he salutes his friend who is stationed in Iraq, while also emphasizing that his experience making The Pianist ingrained upon him the dehumanization that is inherent in war, and entreats everyone, "whether you believe in God or Allah, pray for a peaceful and swift resolution," which earns him a standing ovation. As much respect as I have for Michael Moore, I fervently hope this is the speech that is remembered.

10:57: Mecha-Streisand appears to present Best Original Song, and it suddenly hits me: Eminem wasn't on-hand to perform that song from 8 Mile! Can't say I'm entirely dismayed. Nevertheless, he wins the award in absentia, and Barbra looks like she wishes she were wearing rubber gloves as she passes it off to some guy in a Detroit Pistons jersey who accepts it on Mr. Mathers's behalf. I suppose it's not in the spirit of the ceremony, but I wish U2 would've won for their tedious number, just because I bet they would have had something interesting to say.

11:01: Meryl Streep gives this year's honorary Oscar to Peter O'Toole. Though his actual acceptance speech is charming and eloquent, all the dull chatter leading up to it prods me to note, "O'Toole = David Bowie in some shots. Wish I was listening to a Bowie disc right now."

11:15: Denzel Washington always strikes me as being pretty arrogant. When he proclaims that Nicole Kidman wins Best Actress "by a nose," however, he's not that far off. What did she really do in The Hours except glare at people and prance around looking un-Kidman-like? I do those very things every day of my life, and don't see what the big deal is. My friend and No Ripcord colleague Adrienne Newell will scorn me for saying this, but I would've given the award to Zellweger, for the first non-milquetoasty role of her career. (Though I admittedly didn't see Diane Lane in Unfaithful.) Kidman's speech offers no revelations except for the fact that she comes across as pretty dopey when she tries to speak extemporaneously.

11:42: The Pianist wins Best Adapted Screenplay, in a turn of events that I cannot fathom even as a champion of that film. Gorgeous as it is, the movie's power is concentrated almost solely in Roman Polanski's deliberate, lyrical direction and Brody's harrowing performance; what little dialogue exists is serviceable enough, but it's not what you'd call a highlight. I'm bummed that Charlie Kaufman (along with his fictional brother Donald) was overlooked for Adaptation, a screenplay that's truly perfect in its self-cannibalistic irony. Granted, the screenplay is so perfect in its scrutiny of itself that the act of making it into a film is irrelevant and considerably diminishes its cleverness, but this isn't the Best Picture category, is it?

11:45: An uncharacteristically sedate Ben Affleck presents the award for Best Original Screenplay to Pedro Almodovar, for Talk to Her. After apologizing for taking a moment to collect himself ("I know that to breathe is expensive tonight"), he apologetically says that he must do something that has been prohibited, and then dedicates his Oscar to "all the people raising voices in favor of peace, democracy, and international legality." His modest classiness here makes me want to see his film, despite the fact that all the trailers make it look interminable. I'm not even as depressed as I thought I'd be that Y Tu Mama Tambien lost. (Happy that Vardalos lost, though! And the overrated Far From Heaven, too.)

11:51: Looks like the Department of Justice's ploy to trick Roman Polanski into returning to the USA by using a Best Director award as bait didn't work. Harrison Ford grimly accepts it on the fugitive's behalf. My friend Kris and I agree that it would've been infinitely more entertaining if Polanski himself had delivered an acceptance speech via satellite from a European hot tub, surrounded by 13-year-old girls. I feel bad for Martin Scorsese, because I think he deserves something after all this time, but again, The Pianist was frickin' brilliant, so no complaints here.

11:53: Following some intolerably cutesy banter between Kirk and Michael Douglas, Chicago wins Best Picture, which I am all in favor of. Though it's really difficult to compare it with The Pianist, I think I'd be able to watch Chicago again and again without tiring of it; no small feat for any film, but especially for a musical! Amid all the celebratory hugging and kissing that the Chicago folks are doing after the announcement, I can't help but notice that John C. Reilly is just sort of hanging off to the side, being ignored by everyone else who worked on the film - just like he has been all night! They've been jogging right past him! "Mr. Cellophane" indeed. It makes me want to cry. Maybe I'll watch Magnolia again. It's not like I've been sitting in this chair for four hours already, watching another overlong bit of entertainment or anything...