At the 100-minute mark of Sunday night's 200-minute Academy Awards telecast, Forest Whitaker strode onstage to announce the winner of Best Actress, and I found myself making the same silent plea over and over: Give it to Marion Cotillard ... give it to Marion Cotillard ... .
I'll admit that part of my rooting interest was purely self-serving. By the show's halfway point, I had predicted only three out of 12 victors correctly: Ratatouille for Animated Feature, No Country for Old Men for Adapted Screenplay, and that film's Javier Bardem for Supporting Actor. And everybody predicted those correctly. (With apologies to Hal Holbrook.)
But beyond wanting to look cool on a long-shot guess - and upping my Oscar accuracy to a whopping four out of 13 - I was aching for Cotillard to triumph because her win would no doubt add some electricity to the evening, and by the time Whitaker was opening the Best Actress envelope, it sure as hell needed some.
Host Jon Stewart, bless his heart, did his best to keep spirits high well before then. Looking and sounding more relaxed than he did in his emcee duties two years ago, Stewart hastily addressed the recently-ended Writers Guild strike in his opening monologue, and then insisted that it was time now to focus on happier fare: "this year's slate of Oscar-nominated psychopathic-killer movies."
As expected, the nominated films and performers received a gentle tweaking. (One even received a not-so-gentle one: Regarding Norbit, nominated for Best Make-Up, Stewart opined that "too often the Academy ignores movies that aren't good.") Also as expected - especially this year, with this host - national politicians were acknowledged, although the Republicans got off surprisingly easily, and Stewart's best lines were reserved for those seeking the Democrats' nomination. ("Normally, when you see a black man or a woman president, an asteroid is about to hit the Statue of Liberty.")
Yet while Stewart was in excellent, quick-witted form, it was hard not to notice the monologue's conciliatory, playing-it-nice tone - as if the ground under Hollywood's feet were still too shaky to mess with - and the show, both before and after Cotillard's eventual (and well-deserved) victory, often felt like an extension of the host's opening bit: solid, professional, and just a little bit dull.
There were random great moments early on (such as Bardem wrapping up his breathless speech by saluting his mother in Spanish), and a couple of truly unanticipated winners. (Elizabeth: The Golden Age for Best Costume Design? The Golden Compass for Best Visual Effects?) But from the start, safety and stodginess seemed to be the order of the day. The clips from past ceremonies felt dutiful and under-imagined - how many times must we see that "unexpected" streaker racing behind David Niven? - and a filmed look at the Academy Awards' nominating procedure was like a well-edited version of something that bored us silly in Oscar telecasts 25 years ago. (Afterwards, and to appreciative laughter, a grim-faced Stewart deadpanned, "Wow. That was amazing.")
Worst of all were the presentations of the Best Original Song nominees, one of which even managed the considerable (and I would have thought impossible) feat of making Kristin Chenoweth appear lifeless. Compared to the performance of the tunes on-screen, all of the nominated numbers - even the ballads - sounded distractingly under-tempo in the Kodak Theatre, and were so tastefully, timidly staged that you were just praying for Three 6 Mafia (or even Rob Lowe and Snow White) to show up and knock some life into them.
And was it me, or was the orchestra especially vicious this year? In keeping with the ceremony's businesslike, just-the-facts-ma'am presentation, most of the winners, particularly in the technical categories, gave heartfelt yet notably succinct speeches. It turns out they needed to, as conductor Bill Conti and his musicians seemed bound and determined not to let that 45-seconds-or-less rule slide for an instant. When numerous winners collected their awards in the Sound Editing and Mixing categories, the music blared as soon as the first speaker finished, leaving the second (and third and fourth) unable to get out so much as a speedy "thank you." And the night's most embarrassing moment came when Once's Marketa Irglova, standing alongside co-songwriter Glen Hansard, was denied a chance to talk after her collaborator did; clearly, if you didn't grab the mic first at this year's Oscars (and you weren't a Coen brother), you'd be lucky to grab it at all.
But then something wonderful happened. After the commercial break that followed Irglova's non-speech, Stewart brought the Oscar winner back to the podium for some uninterrupted thank-yous, and this simple gesture - much appreciated by the audience - turned out to be a highlight of the evening for being what so much of this year's telecast wasn't: surprising. (Of course, this from the guy who wound up guessing only 11 out of 24 correctly ... .)
Certainly, much justice was done. Four awards, including the big one, for No Country; three for the smartly constructed Bourne Ultimatum; Daniel Day-Lewis and Cinematography citations for There Will Be Blood; Original Screenplay for Juno. But the telecast itself - competent, but lacking in vitality - was never more involving than when the Oscars' recipients seemed to be utterly floored, as when Cynthia Wade and Vanessa Roth tearfully accepted the Documentary Short statuette for Freeheld. Or when the madly gifted Cotillard defied significant competition to win for La Vie en rose.
Or when, in my favorite moment of the night, Tilda Swinton won for Michael Clayton. Clearly astonished by her victory (her first words at the podium were "Oh no ... "), this eccentric indie performer received a wild ovation with a hilarious, good-natured jab at her co-star, praising his dedication in wearing "that rubber Batsuit from Batman & Robin, the one with the nipples," under his Clayton costumes. Who woulda thunk it? Tilda Swinton out-Clooneying George Clooney. In the words of a character whom Swinton's lawyer beat for the Supporting Actress prize, "The times they are a-changin'."