For whatever reason, I watched much of last night’s Oscar telecast. First time in several years. Probably because I actually liked a couple of the films up for awards. One, “The Descendants,” didn’t do well, winning only one award for Best Adapted Screenplay (which led to a mocking award acceptance presentation aimed at Angelina Jolie, see below). The other, “The Artist,” of course, cleaned up, winning Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Director, and two other statues. Great victory for the French cinema — in a film about old Hollywood.
As someone who spends a fair amount of time in Hawaii, especially Kauai, I wanted to like “The Descendants,” I really did. The soundtrack, featuring classic Island slack-key guitar musicians, almost brought me to tears (takes a lot to do that, or so my wife tells me). The scenes of a section of still pristine Kauai coastline also put a lump in my throat (the property is a private ranch, Kipukai, on the island’s southeast shore, about 10 miles south of Kauai’s airport at Lihue and adjacent to the Huleia National Wildlife Refuge. Follow this link for a story that will take you to all the Kauai locations from the film.).
George Clooney went against type and played Matt King, descendant of a wealthy white banker and a Hawaiian princess, who, with family members, inherited a large tract of property Kauai. King was also a wronged husband and soon-to-be widower trying to deal with kids who had been shaped more by the surrounding culture and theoretical parenting than actual in-the-trenches child rearing, but something still felt a little false to me. I just felt a too heavy hand of the scriptwriters adapting Hawaiian author Kaui Hart Hemmings’ book of the same name, and perhaps director Alexander Payne trying to lead the audience to places they seemed to feel we should go, in terms of feelings and reactions.
For instance, much as I admired Clooney’s acting, I always had the sense he was … really acting … in what often seemed more like a play with the playwright’s skills on display while the plot turns and characterizations were mannered to hammer home the point, see, this is how an American family deals with untidy death and wayward teens in our postmodern age. The first time I saw the film I came away thinking that Clooney’s character didn’t seem authentic, that he was almost Mitt Romney-like in his failings — overly scripted and even hollow. My wife didn’t like the character, thinking what father would involve his obviously wounded children in his own search for revenge and meaning? But second time around, we both realized, well, plenty of parents do just that.
For all that, “The Descendants” was still the second best film I saw all year, but “The Artist” was my favorite. The absolute brilliance of director Michel Hazanavicius and the two leading stars, Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo (married to the director), along with Uggi, the Jack Russell terrier who also made it onto the stage Sunday night, not only played homage to a long-gone era, but celebrated what can be great about the movies. Dujardin, for his winning part, absolutely owned the screen, and even though you were aware this was a mannered piece that didn’t pretend to move outside arifice, it never stopped surprising in the jarring ability to actually provide depth of feeling and motivation to the characters. And in the end, caring about the characters made you care about the silent movie era and what happens to people when their time on stage is up. Inevitable, perhaps — and who should know better than someone in the print media business in 2012?
As for the rest of the show, Billy Crystal was fine. Nothing outrageous, but often funny in a gentle and self deprecating way, chiding the celebrity culture while acknowledging that he’s part of it. As for Angelina Jolie’s appearance (which quickly led to a Twitter handle, @angiesrightleg), with her taunting bare leg and an overly emaciated look that is probably not a good image for young women fighting eating disorders, well, such is the stuff of what was otherwise a pretty tame Oscar night.
Below: Uggie and Jean Dujardin accept Best Actor award Sunday night. Getty Images.