The maturation of the membership of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was much in evidence on Sunday night, at the 81st Academy Awards in Hollywood, wrapped in a low-cost, lower-key package of a ceremony that somehow suited the times: flashy but somehow more austere and grounded this year, with dancer, singer, raconteur Hugh Jackman acting as the evening's multitasker in chief — a reflection of the extra hats of responsibility we all wear these days.
Oscar wasn't over the top for that long on Sunday. The event itself would have drama enough, the quieter validating drama of the emotional evolution of a famously risk-averse industry. The diversity of the nominees announced previously, and the award winners announced at the Kodak Theater, made it clear: at the age of 81, Oscar’s growing up, rediscovering both the world beyond our shores and that trickier terrain inside our own hearts.
For weeks now, the touts and handicappers had been predicting huge things for “Slumdog Millionaire,” the Mumbai rags-to-riches story that captured a staggering 10 Oscar nominations. “Slumdog” prevailed mightily on Sunday, fulfilling its own unlikely rise to mass acceptance with 10 Oscar wins, including best picture, best director (Danny Boyle), best adapted screenplay (Simon Beaufoy, from Vikas Swarup’s novel), cinematography, and for original score and original song.
The “Slumdog” victory was only part of the inspiring internationalist bent to this year’s Oscar derby. Penelope Cruz, the celebrated Spanish-born actress, won for best supporting actress, for her role as a woman navigating the waters of a ménage a trois in Woody Allen’s “Vicki Cristina Barcelona.”
“Has anybody ever fainted here? Because I might be the first one,” Cruz said. “Thank you, Woody, for trusting me with this beautiful character. Thank you for having written all these years some of the greatest characters for women.”
Cruz won out over Taraji P. Henson, whose performance as Brad Pitt’s mother in “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” made her an odds-on favorite; and Viola Davis, who also won high marks for her work in John Patrick Shanley’s “Doubt.” It was the first time that black and minority actresses were in direct competition against each other for an Oscar; that alone made this year’s Oscars a groundbreaking event for diversity demographics.
With the “Slumdog” juggernaut, though, Hollywood fully recognized the powerhouse of movies that is modern India. With its singular visual style and compelling storyline, “Slumdog Millionaire” may be a gentle warning to Hollywood to get beyond its shopworn formulas for success —one of those being that Hollywood’s way to tell a story is the only way to tell a story.
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Oscar’s awakening was obvious throughout the two-hour-plus event, in ways big and small. One of the more profound pivots from Oscar ceremonies past came during a splashy multiscreen tribute to romantic films made and released in 2008:
There, embedded in the images of the usual hetero Hollywood couples kissing, was a shot of Sean Penn and James Franco in their roles in “Milk,” the Gus Van Sant biopic of murdered gay San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk — Penn and Franco in a deep liplock right there with the other, iconic images of men and women doing the same thing.
Think we’d have seen that at the Oscars 50 years ago? 20 years ago, or even a decade back? The Vegas bookmakers would have loved to take your money.
“Milk” got even more love at the ceremony, when Dustin Lance Black, the film’s screenwriter, won the Oscar for best original screenplay and offered in his acceptance speech a truly moving cry of the heart.
“If Harvey had not been taken from us 30 years ago, I think he would want me to say to all the gay and lesbian kids out there tonight who have been told they are less than by the churches, by the government, by their families, that you are beautiful, wonderful creatures of value, and that no matter what anyone tells you, God does love you and that very soon, I promise you, you will have equal rights, federally, across this great nation of ours.”
Penn was no less passionate when he won the Oscar for best actor, his second, for his portrayal of Harvey Milk.
“You commie, homo-loving sons of guns!” Penn said as he mounted the stage. Then, reacting to the anti-gay protesters who demonstrated near the Kodak Theater, and to the passage last November of the unconscionable Proposition 8, which banned gay marriage in Califoirnia, Penn laid bare his heart:
“For those who saw the signs of hatred as our cars drove in tonight, I think it’s a good time for those who voted for the ban against gay marriage to sit and reflect on their great shame and their shame in their grandchildren’s eyes if they continue that support,” Penn said. “We’ve got to have equal rights for everyone.”
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There were other Oscar winners: Kate Winslet, knocking on Oscar’s door for years, finally got herself a Golden Dude for her portrayal of a former Nazi concentration camp matron in “The Reader.” And some thirteen months after his death by accidental overdose, Heath Ledger won the best supporting actor award for his riveting star turn as The Joker in “The Dark Knight” — a stunning portrayal that reinvented the role no one thought could be improved on after Jack Nicholson did it in 1989.
But the night’s biggest winner was Oscar and the film community he represents. This was America's soft power in evidence. The impact of our popular culture is already the envy of the world; now with a film representing the hopes and possibilities of 1 billion Indians acclaimed as Hollywood's best, the global reach of that culture is even wider, more envied and more beloved.
By honestly confronting the power of worlds and lives outside the comfort zone of tradition and custom; by paying tribute to those other views and experiences, Hollywood showed how change — more than a campaign slogan or a good idea — is nothing less than the inescapable constant of all our lives.
Image credits: Slumdog ensemble: Gary Hershorn/Reuters. Dustin Lance Black: Gabriel Bouys/AFP-Getty Images. Penelope Cruz: Mark Ralston/AFP-Getty Images. Oscar statuette: © 2009 Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.