'Slumdog Millionaire' sweeps the Oscars

The biggest surprise of the night, however, is that the show was great. Now that's a miracle.

'Slumdog Millionaire' sweeps the Oscars

Liveblogging is print journalism’s extreme sport. A few cautionary notes….I will be liveblogging the Oscars from Helga Stephenson’s annual Oscar party (this year called Slumdog Futures). Alcohol will be involved. I’ll try to spend more typing than tippling, but I apologize in advance for typos, wildly unfounded assertions, slanders, and any outright fiction that may creep into my posts. For those who want to check up on my predictions, or crib suggestions for their own late-breaking Oscar ballot, go to BDJ’s Oscar Picks. But be warned: I have never won an Oscar pool. This year, apparently, the Oscars will salute all movies, not just the nominees. And in that spirit, you should check out the Toronto Film Critic’s Association’s Oscar-like montage of its own nominees and winners at TFCA Awards Video.

The red carpet nonsense has already started on E-Talk. Ben Mulroney’s tan (or is it makeup?) looks alarming in HD. Is he trying to become Canada’s first Obamatone prime minister? Whatever it is, the consensus in Helga’s Living Room is that it’s kinda creepy.

* * *

8:05 p.m. I’m in a room full of people commenting on fashion. Much talk about all the bridal-like white and silver gowns. Jeers at Sarah Jessica Parker’s boob-popping dress, which one of our crowd described, more metaphorically than accurately, as “a Whole Foods bag.” Kate Winslet looks like a female Oscar, a human sculpture sheathed in a steely grey gown by St. Laurent with her hair carved into a living helmet. The interviewer on the red carpet shows a picture of her on the cover of Time with the headline “Best Actress.” She looks flustered when asked her reaction, then talks about how her kids advised her to handle her acceptance speech. One told her to go crazy. Don’t think she’s repeat that Golden Globes faux pas. And she won’t be declaring her undying love to Leonardo Di Caprio this time. Her other kid offered more level-headed advice:”Why don’t you say thank you to all the people for helping you.”

* * *

Robert Downey Jr. is asked who his “date” is. Looking over at his wife, he turns to the interviewer, concealing his contempt, and says, “She’s my date for the rest of this incarnation.”

8:28 p.m. Gathered in Helga’s Living Room is a crowd that includes three Canadian film producers (Simone Urdl, Jennifer Weiss, Bill House), a Hollywood producer who’s actually an Academy member (Joe Medjuck), a production designer (Sandra Kybartas), a director (Harvey Crossland), Soulpepper Theatre artistic director/star Albert Schultz—and fashion guru Jeannie Becker, who’s scribbling notes while I type. I ask Jeannie’s opinion of the red carpet fashion, since she’s the only one not heckling. “Taste is such a bore on the red carpet,” sighs Becker, who is fresh back from New York Fashion Week. “You don’t see very much personality in terms of the way they’re dressed. You don’t see any personal style. I want to bring back Cher. Or Bjork. “

Best Actor nominee Richard Jenkins is asked about his sudden surge of celebrity, and what it’s like being on the Carpet. He says, “I hear people yelling “Richard,” then I hear people yelling “Dick.”

* * *

8:45 pm. Well, I take it all back, at least for now. After it was announced that Hugh Jackman would host the Academy Awards, I wrote a snarky piece for the magazine arguing that the Academy, hungry for ratings, figured it could no longer afford a sense of humour and had hired a male escort as host. Silly me. With his opening routine, Jackman knocked it out of the park. The set, framed by an anti-recession arch of glitter, is gorgeous, and exceptionally intimate. Cabaret chic. The nominated stars are ringed around Jackman like guests in a Vegas nightclub. The host had claimed he was no comedian, but he could have fooled me. The first few jokes crackle. Saluting Downey Jr. as an American who played an Australian who played an African-American in Tropic Thunder, he says, “I’m an Australian who played an Australian in a movie called Australia.” He’s not a comedian, but he knows his way around a joke: “Everything is being downsized because of the recession,” he says. “Next year I’ll be starring in a movie called New Zealand.

Jackman then launches into a terrific, mock-downscale song-and-dance number, swooping Anne Hathaway out of the front row, and casting her as Nixon is a hilarious Frost-Nixon duet. She can sing; so can Jackman. He whips through every best picture nominee with panache rivaling Billy Crystal’s. He ends up in Frank Langella’s lap. He gets a standing ovation. Hugh, my apologies for doubting you had the right stuff. You’ve got my vote, even if you do insist on being the sexiest man alive.

* * *

After a stately memorial-like introduction of supporting actress nominees from a bevy of actresses, Penelope Cruz accepts the first Oscar. She gives a heartfelt acceptance speech. “Has anybody ever fainted here? I might be the first one. I always felt this ceremony was a moment of unity for the world, because art in this form has always been our universal language.” At the first commercial break, Helga’s Living Room is raving about the Oscar’s facelift It’s radical and refreshing. We love the thrust stage, the cabaret intimacy, and the reliance on human theatricality over and computer graphic gimmicks and overwrought sets. Even the production values have wit.

We enter comedy Valhalla as Steve Martin and Tina Fey present the screenplay awards. It just gets better. Great repartee is followed by clips with the script being typed over the images. Why hadn’t anyone thought of that before? I’m typing while I’m watching typing. This is strange. Original Screenplay goes to Dustin Lance Black for Milk. An earnest acceptance speech interrupts the fun and games. God and gay rights and marriage and his mum and dad are all mushed together by Black, who is on the verge of tears. Can’t really blame the guy. He looks like he’s 12 years old.

Back to comedy with Tina and Steve, who make a great deadpan couple. Martin interrupts his intro for adapted screenplay to shoot Fey a withering look: “Don’t fall in love with me.” Slumdog Millionaire begins its inevitable sweep with a win for adapted screenplay.

Jennifer Aniston and Jack Black present animated feature. First industry joke of the night, from Jack Black on his financial plan: “Each year I do one Dreamworks project then I take all the money to the Oscars and bet it on Pixar.” No suprise there: WALL-E wins.

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9:37 p.m. The presentation of the Oscar for art direction, oddly, is artless, not helped by a witless script delivered by Daniel Craig and Sarah Jessica Parker. Same deal with costume design. Ah, that old sinking feeling. We’re only 40 minutes into the show and it’s beginning to drag. It was too good to be true. The guy who wins for costume design acts like he has all the time in the world and thanks absolutely everyone, including the guy who got him the interview for the job. Costume Oscar predictably goes to the costume drama, The Duchess. Art direction and Make-up to the over-art-directed make-up movie, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. We get the first montage sequence, a thematic piece on Romance, making good on the promise to include non-nominated films. Ho hum. But it’s a pleasant interlude. The production designer in Helga’s Living Room launches a spirited polemic about how scandalous it is that they the Oscars brand her category as Art Direction, which lumps in the set decorator, who she says makes no autonomous decisions: “It’s like including the gaffer with the cinematographer.” Live and learn.

Introducing the cinematography award are Natalie Portman and Ben Stiller, who’s duded up like Joaquin Phoenix on Letterman wearing a huge beard and shades. He’s chewing gum, which he sticks on the podium. As the clips roll, he wanders around the stage like John McCain in a presidential debate.

“What’s going on with you?” asks Portman.

“Nothing, I just want to retire from being a funny guy.”

The Slumdog sweep continues. Jeannie Becker is amazed to see the winning Brit cinematographer is wearing white Crocs.

* * *

10:20 p.m. First taped comedy sketch scores big time. James Franco and Seth Rogen, playing their stoner characters from Pineapple Express, sit on a couch and watch a whole bunch of un-nominated movies, mistaking The Love Guru for Slumdog Millionaire. It gets funnier and funnier, especially when they start laughing uncontrollably at clips of The Reader. Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski busts in on them, clutching his two Oscars. “Can you make this into a pipe?” says Rogen as he fondles one of them. It’s a gut-busting sketch.

Hugh delivers his centrepiece production number as he heralds the success of Mamma Mia, and declares: “The musical is back!” Already he Beyonce’s scarlet showgirl costume draws a collective gasp, and the choreography sizzles, but the medley is a mish-mash, and during the commercial break in Helga’s Living Room, a fierce debate ensues about why everyone’s timing was off. The room concludes that Beyonce was lip-synching and Hugh wasn’t. Tough crowd. There are more than a dozen of us in Helga’s living room, which is the “quiet” room; rowdier guests are watching a TV in another rooms. Albert Shultz is the silence cop, which suits me fine, because I don’t want to be the party-pooping liveblogger. Among our group lin the living room, four were at last year’s Academy Awards—including Jeannie Becker, Bravo!FACT’s Judy Gladstone and Away From Her producers Simone Urdl and Jennifer Weiss. “We were up in the nosebleed section,” says Simone. ” So we actually spent the majority of the Oscars at the bar on the first level, watching it on TV.”

A phalanx of former Oscar winners arrive to set up supporting actor. Cuba Gooding Jr. asks Robert Downey Jr., “Are you out of your mind?. . . taking the parts from the black people??” Now comes the funeral moment, as a standing ovation greets Heath Ledger’s family. Close-ups on glistening eyes of stars in the audience. Hats off to the Joker—I can’t make any jokes about this one. The hallowed mood continues with Philip Glass’s solemn score running over the clips and interview for documentary feature. Philip Glass makes everything seem sad, even Werner Herzog, who is one of the funniest men in show-business.

Now for a real change of mood. Bill Maher shatters the spell with, “Everyone’s crying and now I have to go on.” He’s the documentary star of Religulous, and has publicly bitched about not being nominated. But now he’s tributing those who were. Forgiveness flows like honey in Hollywood, even for an atheist iconoclast.

“Now it’s time to thank the Academy for believing in magic,” says Philippe Petit, the tightrope walker star of the best feature documentary, Man on Wire—as he makes a coin vanish and balances the Oscar on his face, upside down. Bravo! This is an amazing film, and strangely sad in its own right. See it.

* * *

11:19 p.m. Wow. An action montage mashes up the car chase cliche to a smoking punk metal song—a rock’n’roll octane we haven’t heard before on the Oscars. Meanwhile folks in the living room are wondering what the knotted white ribbons on some tuxedo lapels mean. So I’ve looked it up:

“The white ribbon will be tied in a knot, to show support for marriage equality. The white knot was created in response to the protests from Prop 8 that was passed banning gay marriage. It represents two symbols of marriage, white and “tying the knot”. It was created as a peaceful way to show your support that “everyone should have the right to tie the knot”.

* * *

An Indian man accepts an Oscar for sound mixing for Slumdog Millionaire, breathless from his sprint to the stage. He makes it seem like the most momentous award of the evening: “This is not just a sound award, this is history being handed over to me.” Jeez, what if he’s right?

* * *

11:49 p.m. Hugh Jackman doesn’t have to do very much between song and dance numbers, a fact that presenter Will Smith alludes to as he says, while shouldering a longish segment: “I believe Hugh is napping”

Nice to see Paul Wells is still awake, chipping into the discussion. I agree with him, this Oscar show is hot. Paul has called it “artisanal,” and got chatter flowing about his use of the word. Now that’s a blogger: he just has to poke his head into cyberspace and the fans crawl out of the wormholes.

But we agree, Paul. Though the show is slowish, it is unusually good. And as Albert Schultz noted, in our living room: “All the parts that are supposed to be funny are actually funny.”

Now Mr. Funnyman himself, Jerry Lewis, accepts the humanitarian award. Will he be funny? I mean, after all those years, what joke do you pull out for such an august occasion? ” No joke, as it turns out. Jerry delivers an admirably brief, heartfelt speech. Way shorter than most of the acceptance speeches for the technical awards.

* * *

11:25 p.m. The pace is really beginning to sag now. The orchestral medley of nominated scores is total snoozerama. Played at a Qualude tempo. . . . But hey, I just woke up. Now there’s a medley of best song nominees with Soweto singers and Bollywood dancers and kodo drummers. And Slumdog‘s Indian composer, A.R. Rahman, who just accepted the Oscar for best score is now singing. What a guy. Peter Gabriel had refused to perform a shrunken version of his song, so John Legend is doing it, boringly, and next thing you know he and Rahman are dueting. It’s a WALL-E/Bollywood love fest. And there’s Rahman is back up at the podium to accept Best Song for Jai Ho.

Liam Neeson, who’s in Toronto these days shooting Atom Egoyan’s new movie, Chloe, presents best foreign language film with Slumdog’s Freida Pinto. “That’s why we can’t get him onto the set,” remarks Simone Urdl, one of Chloe’s co-producers, who’s in seat next to me. Foreign film is the first major upset of the night. Japan’s Departures wins. None of us have seen it. The favorites were Waltz with Bashir and The Class.

* * *

11:52 p.m. We all love the In Memorium montage, which unfolds as Queen Laifah croons “I’ll Be Seeing You” on a voluptuous indigo set. Danny Boyle gives a sweet, lovely, humble speech as picks up Best Director for Slumdog. Thanks the choreographer of the final dance sequence, whom he left out of the credits, and all those folks in Mumbai, those in the movie and those not. And, smartly, he congratulates the Academy on the direction of the show we’re watching. The Brits have a way with an acceptance speech. There’s no “I’m the King of the World” stuff here.

Sophia Loren, Shirley MacLaine, Halle Berry, and Marion Cotillard, Nicole Kidman line up to present Best Lead Actress. Each addresses a nominee directly from a few feet away, delivering a tribute, and sounding un-teleprompted in this intimate ‘This is Your Life’ setting. It’s like an elegant reality show starring fabulous actresses, a medley of posied performances and emotional reaction shots. Shirley MacLaine bestowing an elder’s affectionate praise on Anne Hathaway. Sophia Loren, with hand on hip, looking imperious and lugubrious, fixing Meryl Streep in her gaze as she delivers a slowly congealing tribute, as if from another time zone. Nicole Kidman deigning to meet Angelina Jolie head on in a titanic glamour-off, and succeeding in paying tribute without showing emotion.

Inevitably, Kate Winslet wins Best Actress. Just as well. And after the debacle of her meltdown at the Golden Globes, she redeems herself with a winning speech that sounds prepared, spontaneous, gracious—brimming with emotion without losing control. “I’d be lying if I hadn’t made a version of this speech when I was 8 years old staring into the bathroom mirror—and this would have been a shampoo bottle,” she says, clutching the Oscar. “Well, it’s not a shampoo bottle now. I feel very fortunate to have made my way from there to here. Dad whistle or something, because I want to know where you are!” A whistle cuts through the crowd. Close-up of an overjoyed dad in a black fedora. “There was no division between the cast and crew on this film,” Winset goes on to say, threading her way through her thanks with ease, this time giving her hubby his due (rather than Leonardo Di Caprio), and looking heavenward as she pays homage to [the late] Anthony [Mingella] and Sydney [Pollack], and finally, recognizing the royalty she is joining: “I don’t think we can believe we were in a category with Meryl Streep.”

A phalanx of actors presents Best Lead Actor. We’re loving this device. It’s working. It actually allows actors to act during an awards show, with other actors. Simple but ingenious. Though some nominees get short shrift, such as Richard Jenkins who listened to Adrian Brody praise him for being busy—he suggests googling Jenkins to see his “vast repertoire”—or Michael Douglas calling Frank Langella’s Nixon “incomparable,” while sharing a stage with Anthony Hopkins, who also played Nixon.

Robert De Niro on Sean Penn: “How did he do it? How for so many years did Sean Penn get all those jobs playing straight men?”

Anthony Hopkins on Brad Pitt: “Brad Pitt shows up 2/3 the way through the Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Until then he is great character actor.”

Ben Kingsley: “Why do we care for a bleached blond shattered bruiser. . . Mickey Rourke. Only a fiercely honest actor could be so effective as a man who hasn’t had it easy. . . We’re better off having you in the ring. Welcome back.”

Then. . . Sean Penn wins! The crowd stands and cheers. Some consider it an upset, but the Screen Actors Guild, who compose the bulk of the Academy also awarded Penn.

“You commie homo-loving sons of guns,” says Penn. “I did not expect this, but I, and I want to be very clear that I know how hard I make it to appreciate me often, but, I am touched by the appreciation and I hoped for it enough that I did want to scribble down so I had the names, in case you were commie, homo-loving sons of guns.” Then he pulls out a miniscule piece of paper, rattles of a list of thanks, and concludes, “There are no finer hands to be in than Gus Van Sant’s.” Now for the passionate and necessary politics. “Those of you who saw the signs of hatred when our cars drove in tonight. I think that it is a good time for those who voted for the ban against gay marriage to sit and reflect and anticipate their great shame and the shame in their grandchildren’s eyes if they continue that way of support..we’ve got to have equal rights for everyone.” He goes on to say, ” And there are these last two things: I’m very very proud to live in a country that is willing to elect an elegant man President, and a country who, for all its toughness, creates courageous artists, and this is in great due respect to all the nominees, who despite a sensitivity that sometimes has brought enormous challenges – Mickey Rourke rises again, and he is my brother.”

Sean Penn wasn’t wearing a white knotted ribbon on  his lapel. He didn’t need to.

* * *

11:59 p.m Spielberg presents Best Picture. Kate’s coronation and Sean’s victory were the big moments. There’s little suspense to this last award. The stage fills up with Slumdog‘s teeming cast and crew. The Brit producer gives another lovely, heartfelt acceptance speech with his child star smiling into the camera and charming millions the world over. “As you can see, our film was collaboration between hundreds of people,” he says. “When we started out we had no stars, we had no power or muscle, we didn’t have enough money. But we had a script that inspired mad love for everyone who read it. We had a genius director. . . . most of all we had passion and belief.” It’s not yet midnight. The show is over. Helga’s Living Room empties instantly. Everyone is amazed that we’ve seen a good Oscar show, possibly a great one. How strange. Miracles can happen. Is this the Obama zeitgeist? Is everything getting better? Let’s hope so.

POSTSCRIPT: I did a morning-after post mortem with CBC radio host Jian Ghomeshi on ‘Q’. Very impressed by Jian’s Oscar rap/wrap. For details, go to: Jian Ghomeshi, host laureate of Oscar punditry.

And for those keeping track, of the 19 Oscar categories I predicted on BDJ’s Oscar Picks (omitting shorts), I correctly predicted 15, which wouldn’t win any Oscar pools. I guess it’s some solace that all four winners I failed to predict I did select as “should win.”