The Oscars: Black History Night

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Host Whoopi Goldberg gives her opening monologue

According to the huge headlines in the New York Post and Daily News, we saw "History!" made last night. Denzel Washington was named Best Actor (for "Training Day" and Halle Berry Best Actress (for "Monster's Ball") in an evening hosted by Whoopi Goldberg and featuring an Irving J. Thalberg honorary statue to Sidney Poitier. Well, maybe. How lovely to see talented folks of color get their long-overdue props, regardless (or even because) of their race. But the 74th annual awards presentation of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was still the familiar mixture of ribbing and piety, eloquence and fatuity, beautiful people looking fabulous (Jennifer Lopez, Sharon Stone, Reese Witherspoon, Kate Winslet — thanks, all) or sporting hair styles that seemed fashioned by machetes.

The evening was unique only in its duration. At 4hr. 21min., this was the longest awards ceremony ever, longer than any movie Hollywood has made; toward the end we feared we'd be inviting the guests at our house for a sleepover. It was also one of the most entertaining, or at least sit-throughable, Oscar shows in memory — in part because it spread the 24 competitive awards among 16 movies, in part because producer Laura Ziskin ("Spider-Man") gave real filmmakers the chance to provide clips for certain categories.

We have our own categories. Here are ten awards for this epic-length Oscar night:

Longest Stretch Between Awards for the Big Winner: three hours, from Jennifer Connelly's Best Supporting Actress citation for "A Beautiful Mind" to Akiva Goldsman's Screenplay prize. The interim gave fans of "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring" and "Moulin Rouge," which were cadging many a technical award, to think their films had a chance for Best Picture. Goldsman's prize, for a script that many in the press had accused of mortal sins of omission and worse, yanked the fantasts back to reality. It reminded us what the real business of the evening was: telling Opie that Oscar loved him, and wiping that smirk off Matt Drudge's face.

Shortest Opening Monologue: Whoopi Goldberg. At 3-1/2 min., Whoopi's gagspiel was just 1/80th of the show's running time — shorter than Woody Allen's intro to clips from New York movies (and didn't Woody look a fresh, chipper 66 as he acknowledged the applause with a "Thank you. That makes up for the strip search"?), shorter than the Cirque du Soleil acrobat spot, shorter by far than Berry's endless case of the weeps.

Even in the Ultra Slim-Fast version, Goldberg's spot wasn't no big Whoop. One sharp Botox joke ("Security here tonight is tighter than some of the faces") was encased in a tub of comic lard: three or seven references to Liza Minnelli's wedding, a flick at Anna Nicole Smith (you'd have to be nearly as old as her late husband to remember when that was funny), a mispronunciation of Ingmar Bergman's name as "Igmar" (his friends call him Iggy) and a cryptic "Hi, Anita, get well soon" (Anita Ekberg is ailing?). The routine was flabby and way too inside. Oscar hosts should stop working the room and start working the audience.

Sternest Test of Star-Spotting: the opening montage. Errol Morris' short film of notables and not-quites discussing the magic of movies featured glimpses, sometimes only microseconds long, of Jerry Brown, Susan Sontag, Todd Rundgren (looking older than Zeus), Donald Trump, Jessye Norman, Laura Bush (praising "Giant," a film about a rich, spoiled Texas family that becomes way too prominent), Fran Lebowitz, William Wegman and pooch, Jack Valenti, Lou Reed, Al Sharpton (his hair behaving itself for a change), Mikhail Gorbachev and translator (who pronounced "Gladiator" to rhyme with "Radiator"), Walter Cronkite, Drew Nieporent, dozens more.

The bit was an apt introduction to a slew of pretty-goof clips sequences by the likes of Nora Ephron (New York), Richard LaGravenese (the Robert Redford tribute) and Kasi Lemmons (the Sidney Poitier tribute). Still, they offered the cumulative impression that every film since "The Great Train Robbery" was excerpted last night. Will there be any left for Oscar's 75th birthday party next year?

Most Winners from Down Under: six. New Zealand's own "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring" copped three Oscars (cinematography, visual effects and makeup). Australia's Catherine Martin took home art direction and costume statuettes for her splashy daubing of husband Baz Luhrmann's "Moulin Rouge!" Add the usual Brit bloc (supporting actor Jim Broadbent, screenwriter Julian Fellowes of "Gosford Park" and some of the sound chappies on "Black Hawk Down"), the editing prize to Pietro Scalia for "Black Hawk Down" (at the end of his speech he shouted "Viva l'Italia!") and the Actor nods to Washington and Berry, and that leaves only eight of the 20 competitive feature fiction awards for white Americans. Conspiracy? Prejudice against people who have it all? You decide.

Most Inane Evocation of 9/11: too close to call. Was it Tom Cruise (for whom the ceremony was not quite solemn enough for him to shave) telling us it was okay to believe in movie magic again? Or Kevin Spacey asking the crowd to stand for a moment's silence? Or Whoopi ending the proceedings by giving some back to the NYPD and fire fighters? Whichever, the night was awash in the spectacle of frivolous people acting solemn. When Oscar exec Frank Pierson began a sentence, "As President of the Motion Picture Academy, I am...", we half-expected him to finish it: "...declaring war on terrorism."

Most Acceptance Speeches Read from Notes: a lot; the most ever. Maybe half of the winners, from Connelly to "Beautiful Mind" producer Brian Grazer, pulled out crib sheets and droned away. (And, as one unemployed Oscar watcher in our home said, "It's not even pretty paper!") Don't the nominees spend six weeks thinking of self-effacing boasts and the names of agents and gay schoolteachers to be acknowledged? All right, the little people who win the tech awards have to thank loads of even-littler people, so we'll give them a pass. But Connelly is an actress. Her job is to memorize speeches and read them as if she'd just thought them up. Perhaps she hadn't the strength to learn her lines; the once-voluptuous babe looked tragically anorectic. Somebody, quick, put Connelly on a carbo-fuel and Ensure diet, before her fans take her down from their mental pin-up wall.

Wittiest Introductory Remarks: Nathan Lane, for Best Animated Feature. "Good evening," Lane said as the applause died down. "I'm Greta Van Susteren. I've had a lot more work done." Synopsizing Hollywood as a place of "real diamonds and fake breasts," he read out the trio of nominees, then added, "Gosh. Up until now I thought ?Monsters Incorporated' was a documentary on the Weinsteins." A pause, for a shiver of oooohs as the crowd registered this joke at the expense of Bob and Harvey the Miramax moguls. Then a blithe: "Oh, we kid the rich and powerful because we love them."

Best Acceptance Speech: Ray McKinnon, for the short film "The Accountant." The actor-director (you might have spotted him playing Holly Hunter's suitor in "O Brother, Where Art Thou?") held up his statuette and said: "We'd like to thank the Academy for this wonderful honor in a category that stills allows for a person who's just burning to make a movie to load a camera in the back of his daddy's old truck, gather up some talented dreamers and do it. And if the stars align and the fates conspire, that person might find themselves standing right here at the good-god-almighty Academy Awards!" A pertinent, heartfelt thought; compound-complex sentences read with energy and feeling; and all in the Academy's allotted time slot of 45 secs. Let's see that movie!

Life Achievement Award: Randy Newman, for Best Song ("If I Didn't Have You" from "Monsters, Inc."). After 16 nominations, the crabby guy finally won an Oscar. All right, the song, with its familiar descending chords and an unnecessary double negative ("I wouldn't have nothing..."), wasn't among his best; the Academy should have feted him for his score to "Pleasantville." And he had stiff competition: two other pop legends (Paul McCartney, Sting) and the Good Witch from Eire (Enya). But it was nice to see Newman, who'll be 60 next year, crack a smile.

He responded to the applause by saying, "I don't want your pity" and thanking "the Music branch for giving me so many chances to be humiliated over the years." He managed a compliment-insult when he praised Pixar for making for four good films in a row, a feat he said was achieved previously only by director Peter Weir (would those four be "Mosquito Coast, "Dead Poets Society," "Green Card" and "Fearless"?). Finally, indicating presenter Jennifer Lopez, Newman allowed himself a brief effusion: "Walking out here and having someone this beautiful give me an award — I'll never get to heaven, but that's about as close as you get, I think." Newman seemed to become a tad farklempt at the end: "Thanks very much. I'm thrilled." Me too.

Most... Least... Worst... Well...: I'm as speechless rethinking the Halle Berry acceptance as she was voluble making it (5min.20sec. — a new, never-to-be-exceeded record?). Not that Berry's looks and pluck aren't laudable, or that she didn't do good work in "Monster's Ball," which deserves an Oscar, if not a Nobel, for Best Coupling With a Homely Guy. But can we see the big picture for a second? The 74-year history of the Academy Awards, let alone the scourged history of U.S. race relations, was not leading up to the moment when a former Miss Teen All-American with a white mom and a knack for finding the company of abusive black men was voted an acting prize from a bunch of industry alterkockers. A,p. The real black movie heroes and heroines are from an earlier, sorrier era. Paul Robeson, Fredi Washington, Nina Mae McKinney, James Edwards, Harry Belafonte, Dorothy Dandridge and, for sure, Sidney Poitier brought passion and power to their roles at a time when Hollywood wanted blacks to shuffle, smile and serve dinner. Thanks to them, and white producers willing to cast them, the picture for black actors has got much better, though not perfect. For all of Berry's endless sobs and heaves — she hardly stopped crying from the morning of the nomination, when she went teary for Bryant Gumbel 10 mins. after her name was read, to her Niagara-thon last night — she was the beneficiary, not the victim, of white members' votes.

Her display proved a strange contrast to the other two main speeches by black actors. Poitier embodied dignity so fully in his exemplary career that the word became a burden, a noose, a target for younger blacks who demanded acceptance for being less than ideal. That word was resurrected last night, and now that it seemed precious — a synonym for class under pressure. As for Washington, he'd managed to win the exhaustive campaigning that seemed endemic to the whole sad huckstering process this year. (His one piece of advice to voters: choose the one you thought did the best work. Guess they thought Washington did. Good for them, and him.) His acceptance speech was simultaneously poised and exultant acceptance speech allowed the audience in the Kodak Theatre and in homes around the world to share his pleasure — whereas, for Berry, one could feel only embarrassment.

Berry's Oscar may not even have been about race; it could have been a rehab prize for the hit-and-run perp who made a smart, little-film career move. As such, it indicates a game plan for another Hollywood fave who's had recent police trouble. Memo to Winona Ryder: Do some community service, and a nude scene in a weird indie. Next year, you could become the first full-blooded Jew to win a Best Actress Academy Award in 34 years (since Barbra Streisand for "Funny Girl"). Oscar rewards; Oscar also forgives. And when you win next year, Winona dear, hold the sniffles.