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Capping a night that was all about celebrating the past, The Artist was named best picture at the 84th Annual Academy Awards on Sunday. The first silent movie in 83 years to claim top honors, it pays tribute to old Hollywood, and Hollywood returned the compliment by handing it four other trophies, including those for best director to Michel Hazanavicius and best actor to Jean Dujardin.
The other newly Oscar-ed actors included Meryl Streep, whose 17th nomination, for The Iron Lady, turned into the third Academy Award of her career; Octavia Spencer, from The Help, who delivered an emotional acceptance speech; and Christopher Plummer, who at 82 became the oldest winner of an acting Oscar for his supporting performance in Beginners.
It was a night that certainly celebrated the sounds of silents as Martin Scorsese‘s Hugo, which recounts the career of French film pioneer Georges Melies, captured five prizes of the 11 for which it was nominated, tying with Artist for the year’s biggest haul.
It also was another good showing from The Weinstein Co., which released last year’s Oscar winner The King’s Speech and this year led other U.S. distributors by handling three films — Artist, Lady and the documentary Undefeated — that amassed eight Oscars. Paramount Pictures was next with six from Hugo and Rango.
There was a decidedly retro feel to the Oscar show itself: After a false start — Brett Ratner resigned in November as producer of the show after a series of sexist and homophobic comments — this year’s Academy Awards were entrusted to producers Brian Grazer and Don Mischer, who called upon reliable show business veterans to make it all comfortable and familiar rather than edgy. Billy Crystal, hosting his ninth Oscars and first since 2004, opened with one of his trademark song parodies of the year’s nominated movies. The acrobats and aerialists of Cirque du Soleil, who performed at the Oscars 10 years ago, staged a return engagement. And John Myhre, an Oscar winner for Chicago and Memoirs of a Geisha, provided the stage design that recalled great movie theaters of the past.
As if acknowledging Oscar’s advancing age, Crystal made a running joke about the demographically challenged Academy, noting at one point that with very senior nominees like Plummer and Max von Sydow, “we’re going to slam the 78-to-84 group.”
As the Artist crew — including their canine mascot Uggie — took the stage to celebrate their best picture win, producer Thomas Langmann paid tribute to his father, the late producer and director Claude Berri, who won an Oscar in 1966 for a short film Le Poulet and then went on to a distinguished career in France. Langmann said that though he often had wondered whether he’d ever work with celebrated directors like his father had, “Tonight, I know I do.” He then summoned Hazanavicius to say a few words, and after expressing thanks to his children and wife — the movie’s co-star Berenice Bejo (“You inspired the movie, and you are the soul of the movie!”) — the director effusively thanked the late, great writer-director Billy Wilder, the American filmmaker who won Oscars for The Apartment, Sunset Boulevard and The Lost Weekend.
Moments earlier, Dujardin, who beat out such all-Americans as George Clooney and Brad Pitt by playing a silent-era movie star whose career is challenged by the advent of the talkies, exclaimed, “I love your country.” In his case, though, he singled out a different personal inspiration in silent movie star Douglas Fairbanks.
On her way to the stage to accept the best actress award for portraying Margaret Thatcher in Iron Lady, Streep paused for a quick embrace of Viola Davis of The Help, whom handicappers had positioned as her main rival this awards season. Reversing the usual order of thank-yous, she first mentioned husband Don Gummer, saying, “Everything I value most in our lives you’ve given me.” She then had warm words for her makeup artist of 37 years, J. Roy Helland, who has been with her since her last Oscar for Sophie’s Choice and who won an Oscar of his own for Iron Lady. Saying that she didn’t expect to be onstage accepting an Oscar ever again — though that’s by no means a sure thing — Streep said to the audience, “I look out here and I see my life before my eyes.”
Spencer, who began awards season as a character actress accustomed to disappearing into bit roles, completed her transformation into a popular personality as she was hailed as best supporting actress for her turn as a rebellious maid in The Help. The fifth African-American actress to win in the category, she was greeted with the first standing ovation of the night as she made her way to the podium, where she was visibly overcome. Although she had a quip at the ready — she thanked the Academy “for putting me with the hottest guy in the room” (likely a reference to presenter Christian Bale) as she clutched her Oscar — she was quickly moved to tears as she spoke of her various families in Alabama, Los Angeles and among those who had fought to bring The Help to the screen.
Plummer, who has had plenty of time to perfect his acceptance-speech skills on this year’s awards circuit, became the best supporting actor victor for his performance as a widower who acknowledges his homosexuality late in life in Beginners. At 82, he is the oldest recipient of an acting Oscar, moving ahead of Jessica Tandy (Driving Miss Daisy) and George Burns (The Sunshine Boys). Plummer did have a new line prepared. Holding his Oscar aloft, he said: ““You’re only two years older than me, darling. Where have you been all my life?” After thanking his collaborators, he addressed his final words to “my long-suffering wife Elaine, who deserves the Nobel Peace Prize for coming to my rescue every day of my life.”
Welcomed into a pantheon of top directors, Artist‘s Hazanavicius initially appeared to be at a loss for words — either English or French — during his first visit to the podium. “I forgot my speech,” he admitted, but quickly rallied to say, “I am the happiest director in the world right now.”
The Descendants, a portrait of a family facing crises on several fronts, earned writer-director Alexander Payne his second Oscar, having won in the same category for 2004’s Sideways. He shared the award with the writing team of Nat Faxon & Jim Rash for their adaptation of Kaui Hart Hemmings‘ novel. Pointing out that his mother in the audience, Payne related that after watching Javier Bardem dedicate an Oscar to his mother, she had asked that her own son do the same, which he proceeded to do, adding, “Thanks for letting me skip nursery school so we could go to the movies.”
The original screenplay award was reserved for Woody Allen for his time-traveling romantic fantasy Midnight in Paris. Although the awards-show-phobic Allen wasn’t present to accept, the Oscar marked the prolific writer-director’s first since his original screenplay nod for 1986’s Hannah and Her Sisters.
A Separation, the account of a divorcing couple, became the first Iranian entry to win the Oscar for best foreign-language film. Its writer-director Ashgar Farhadi used the opportunity to salute his country, which he said “has become hidden under the heavy dust of politics,” and his countrymen, “a people who respect all cultures and civilizations and despise hostility and resentment.”
The award for best documentary went to Undefeated, directed by Dan Lindsay and TJ Martin, who shared the award with producer Richard Middlemas. The film follows a Memphis high school football team during the course of a winning season which it entered as decided underdogs only to emerge victorious after a series of character-building crises.
Live-action director Gore Verbinski, making his first foray into animation, won the award for best animated feature for Rango, an anthropomorphic spoof of Western movies. Recalling that he’d been asked while the movie was in production, whether it was a movie for kids, he said, “I don’t know, but it was certainly created by a bunch of grown-ups acting like children.”
Two wins for Hugo kicked off the evening. Scorsese’s 3D film earned the awards for cinematography, which went to Robert Richardson, and art direction, shared by production designer Dante Ferretti and set decorator Francesca Lo Schiavo.
Robertson won the same award for JFK and The Aviator and expressed his surprise and delight “that somebody put cinematography up first,” while Ferretti and Lo Schiavo have both earned Oscars for The Aviator and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. All three paid tribute to Scorsese, with Lo Schiavo also offering a shout-out “to Italy!”
And the Hugo bandwagon kept on rolling through the technical awards. It captured the statuettes for sound editing (Philip Stockton and Eugene Gearty) and sound mixing (Tom Fleischman and John Midgley).
The period movie, set in a Parisian train station where the sights include a runaway locomotive, also took the prize for best visual effects. Rob Legato, a previous winner for Titanic, shared that trophy with Joss Williams, Ben Grossmann and Alex Henning. “It’s awesome to win,” Legato observed. “It’s really under-rated.”
The Academy’s choice for best film editing came as something as a surprise since the award didn’t go to either Artist or Hugo but instead to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and its editing team of Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall. For them, it was a quick return trip to the winner’s circle, having collected the same award last year for The Social Network.
Picking up on the show’s running theme about first moviegoing experiences, Helland, who shared the trophy for best makeup with Mark Coulier for transforming Streep into an aging Margaret Thatcher in Iron Lady, recalled that he had been a kid who grew up watching Saturday afternoon double features. He then offered a special thanks to Streep “for keeping me employed for the last 37 years.”
The Artist‘s first win of the night came when Mark Bridges was awarded his first Oscar for the movie’s costume design. Describing the moment as “a dream come true,” he explained, “I was just a kid from Niagara Falls who dreamed, ate and slept movies.”
Next up for the film was composer Ludovic Bource, who was voted the prize for best score. Among his thank-yous, he included nine-time nominee and one-time winner Hans Zimmer, who chose to sit out this year’s awards campaigns, though he did serve as the show’s musical director along with Pharrell Williams.
With only two best song nominees, Bret McKenzie won the coin toss for his “Man or Muppet” from The Muppets. Having grown up in New Zealand watching the Muppets on TV, he confessed, “I was genuinely starstruck when I finally met Kermit the Frog.” He added, though, “like many stars here tonight, he’s a lot shorter in real life.”
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