Oscar turned 80 tonight, and his birthday party, aka the Academy Awards, had the tone and pace suitable to an octogenarian's temper. A few little surprises Marion Cotillard in La Vie en Rose for Best Actress, Tilda Swinton in Michael Clayton for Supporting Actress but no big ones that might have sent a murmur through the golden olden dude's nervous system. No Country for Old Men took its four expected awards: Picture, Director (for Joel and Ethan Coen), Adapted Screenplay (the brothers Coen again) and Sepulchral Menace (Javier Bardem). Daniel Day-Lewis, of There Will Be Blood, was a cinch for for Best Throbbing Forehead Blood Vessel. Nor was it a shock that Diablo Cody's Juno got the Original Screenplay prize, or that Ratatouille took Best Animated Feature. And with your host Jon Stewart delivering reliable quips as the host of this retirement-home party, the event had the sweet, familiar flavors of vanilla cake and Mogen David Concord Grape.
The party favors were equitably distributed: each of the five films nominated for Best Picture received at least one Oscar. Flanking No Country, Michael Clayton and Juno, the period drama Atonement nabbed a prize for music and There Will Be Blood took the Cinematography award. The big prize went, as expected, to No Country Oscar choosing a steely chase film over warmer, more comforting fare though for most of the ceremony there was some suspense as to whether it would come from behind at the end to win the most Oscars over the early leader: The Bourne Ultimatum, which had taken three early statuettes for Sound, Editing and Sound Editing. ("Three Academy Awards!" That'll look good on the next edition of the movie's DVD.)
In the early part of the evening or daytime, as they call it on the West Coast, where the glamorati have to put on their Gaultier gowns and Armani tuxes right after lunch it seemed as if Oscar might be following the Super Bowl, the Grammys and the Democratic presidential primaries in providing a slate of improbable winners. Cotillard, who poured her 5ft. 6in. frame into the shivering, shimmering 4ft. 8in. personality of chanteuse Edith Piaf, was only the second Best Actress winner from a foreign-language film. (Sophia Loren won in 1962 for Two Women.) Swinton, a Brit much admired for her fearless choice of indie roles, was an even longer shot as the scheming executive in Michael Clayton. But that wasn't a surprise to George Clooney or his TIME-reading fans. In this week's magazine, the star correctly predicted the winners in the major categories and said, "If [Michael Clayton] has a shot at anything, it's best supporting actress with Tilda Swinton." Does this guy get anything wrong?
Though foreign-language talent gets short shrift from American studios and movie theaters, they are often honored with Oscars. Italians won for Original Score (Dario Marianelli, Atonement) and Art Direction (Dante Ferretti and Francesca Lo Schiavo, Sweeney Todd); two Frenchmen won for Makeup (Didier Lavergne, La Vie en Rose) and Live Action Short (Philippe Pollet-Villard, the director, writer and star of The Mozart of Pickpockets.) But one reason the Academy often gives Oscars to foreigners is that they seem really to want one. "Thank you, life, thank you, love," Cotillard exclaimed, as effusive as Sally Field or Halle Berry, but with a saving touch of emotional elegance when she added, "And it is true, there's some angels in this city."
Sometimes Brits get Oscars because, as everyone knows, they give the best acceptance speeches. Swinton managed six witty, well-formed remarks in her minute or so on stage. Day-Lewis, upon ascending the stage, knelt before his presenter, Helen Mirren, who'd won last year for playing Elizabeth II in The Queen. "That’s the closest I'll ever come to getting a knighthood," he said, flashing something we never thought this magnificently intense actor was capable of: a broad, blinding smile.
There were mild upsets in the categories of Best Films You'll Never See. The Animated Short went to the lamest of the five nominees, an endless (27-minute) rendition of Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf; and The Mozart of Pickpockets, about two doofus criminals who adopt an immigrant waif, was outshone by a droll Dutch gem, Tanghi Argentini, and a Danish hospital weepie, At Night. In a year when the best foreign-language films weren't even nominated, the Oscar went to The Counterfeiters, an Austrian drama about (really?) the Holocaust. Points to it, though, for lacing its noble sentiment with the bleak cynicism of a forger who remains devoted to his craft under the worst circumstances. In Feature Documentary, a strong category this year, the Guantanamo exposé, Taxi to the Dark Side, beat out the better-known (and also excellent) No End in Sight and Michael Moore's Sicko.
So torture. Government malfeasance. Crappy health care. Not to mention one young star who shouldn't be dead, Heath Ledger, and one who might've been, Owen Wilson. (He showed up to read an intro.) Surrounded by these dour subjects, Stewart did his best to keep the tone light. He alluded to the town's relief over the end of the writers' strike by saying, "Welcome to the make-up sex." He confided to the viewing audience what the crowd at the Kodak Theatre does during commercial breaks: "Mostly we sit here making catty remarks about how you look at home." After making the mandatory joke about front-row perennial Jack Nicholson, he added, "The compulsories are over." I still prefer Stewart hitting the rage button on The Daily Show, but I can't dump on a monologue that ends a Barack Obama joke with the words "Gaydolf Titler."
In a nice impromptu moment, Stewart brought Czech actress-composer Marketa Irglova back to give the acceptance speech she didn't get to deliver for best song, from the weeny Irish film Once. It wasn't the best song indeed, none of the five finalists deserved to be nominated in a category that has honored "Lullaby of Broadway," "The Way You Look Tonight," "On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe," "Over the Rainbow," "Under the Sea," "Streets of Philadelphia" and "Theme from Shaft" but the gesture was cool.
That was one of the few verifiably "live" touches in an evening filled with starch and bromides. Others: a candid shot of Cate Blanchett, wincing at the fury of her performance in Elizabeth: The Golden Age; Colin Farrell and then John Travolta nearly slipping on a slick part of the floor just behind the podium; and Cody, the ex-stripper who misted up during her Juno acceptance, finishing with "And most of all I want to thank my family for loving me just that way I am." She got verklempt and, as she walked off, waved a blithe toodle-oo to the audience.
At that moment, mixing a laugh with a tear, Oscar might have felt young again. Why, the venerable gent could have passed for 73.