Rich Heldenfels

The Artist, a mostly silent, black-and-white re-creation of old-time filmmaking, won five Academy Awards on Sunday night, including best picture, best director (Michel Hazanavicius) and best actor (Jean Dujardin). It was the first silent movie to win best picture since Wings, the first winner in 1929.


Hugo, another tribute to classic film but one made with the latest 3-D effects, also won five Oscars but most were in relatively minor technical categories.


The win by The Artist had been widely expected (although I preferred The Descendants), as were the prizes for Dujardin, Hazanavicius and supporting-acting winners Octavia Spencer of The Help and Christopher Plummer of Beginners.


The biggest shock of the night was the win by Meryl Streep as lead actress for The Iron Lady, in which she played former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.


Viola Davis appeared to be the favorite for her performance in The Help. But Streep is a longtime Oscar darling, with two previous wins, the most nominations of any performer (17), a willingness to mix prestige films and commercial efforts, and a long dry spell — 29 years since her last win, for Sophie’s Choice. The announcement of her award received a thunderous ovation, and she accepted it with down-to-earth joy.


Still, Davis should have won. And she may have been hurt not only by sentimental voters latching onto Streep but by controversies surrounding The Help’s portrayal of domestics and its filtering of some of its story through a white character. Its only win was Spencer’s for best supporting actress.


Plummer, 82, is now the oldest winner of a competitive Oscar (an honor previously held by Jessica Tandy). He received his supporting-actor prize by playing a gay man who came out late in life and then faced terminal illness. (It’s lovely, and on home video. See it.)


In his acceptance speech, he noted that he is only two years younger than the Oscars themselves, asking, “Where have you been all my life?” He then graciously thanked his fellow nominees, the makers of Beginners and his family.


Other films receiving prizes included The Descendants (adapted screenplay), The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (film editing), the Iranian A Separation (foreign-language film), Rango (animated feature), Midnight in Paris (original screenplay) and Undefeated (documentary feature).


Beyond the awards, there was the usual mix of Oscar boredom and delight. Billy Crystal hosted for the ninth time (second only to Cleveland’s Bob Hope in times hosting) and the first since 2004, and he pulled out his reliable bits, including a musical medley and a montage of scenes from the year’s movies with himself inserted. But neither bit seemed especially fresh, regardless of Crystal’s admitted calculated inclusion of Justin Bieber.


Still, he seemed to improve as the telecast went on. And while there were lame attempts at humor — an ill-advised collaboration between Robert Downey Jr. and Gwyneth Paltrow, for example — there were also little gems: the cast of Bridesmaids treating any mention of Scorsese as a drinking game, for one. And even better was a prerecorded bit of a focus group gauging The Wizard of Oz, with the group played by members of Christopher Guest’s improv-savvy screen ensemble; Northeast Ohio’s own Fred Willard was especially funny.


Among presenters, Emma Stone was quite good in tandem with Ben Stiller, and Chris Rock delivered a funny, pointed monologue on what goes into acting in an animated movie.


There was one bleep, of a comment by one of the winners for Undefeated. But Melissa Leo, famous for dropping an F-bomb when accepting her supporting-actress Oscar a year ago, stuck very carefully to script as a presenter.


The ceremonies also underscored the global nature of the movie business, with overseas filmmakers offering thank-yous that had been either written out in English or memorized in advance. Indeed, Hazanavicius began his acceptance, then ruefully admitted he had forgotten his speech.


Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and in the HeldenFiles Online blog at http://heldenfels.ohio.com. He is also on Facebook and Twitter. He can be reached at 330-996-3582 or rheldenfels@thebeaconjournal.com.