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ISSUE 121 VOL 13 PUBLISHED 3/7/2008

Academy Awards play to favorites

By Everett Jones
Staff Writer

Friday, March 7, 2008

The Academy Awards did not offer much in the way of drama this year, certainly not compared to last year's suspense over whether Martin Scorsese would win his long-awaited and deserved Best Director award. The predicted favorites reigned supreme, particularly "There Will Be Blood" and "No Country for Old Men," while the Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor Oscars were practically preordained. The ceremony may have been lackluster as a result, but the predictability of results was nothing to be ashamed of; there haven't been this many great American movies since 1999, and far more of them made it to the Oscars this year.

In an informal interview with New York Times blogger David Carr, writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson of "There Will Be Blood" spoke warmly of three of his Best Picture rivals and then combatively asked, "You really think that movie was better than ours? C'mon, do you really believe that?" "That" movie went unnamed, but it was clearly the Coen Brothers' "No Country for Old Men, which seemed all set for a bruising confrontation with Anderson's film. Instead, the two movies effectively divided the night's spoils between them.

"No Country for Old Men" writer/director team Joel and Ethan Coen won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay. Javier Bardem took home the award for Best Supporting Actor for his portrayl of Anton Chigurh. Whatever one thinks of "No Country," already controversial for its intense violence, dark message and ambiguous climax, the Coens have been in the forefront of American filmmakers since their debut 24 years ago with "Blood Simple." They deserved the Academy's recognition.

As everyone expected, "There Will Be Blood" won Best Actor for its star, Daniel Day-Lewis. This is his second win, after "My Left Foot" (1989), and his fourth nomination, which is even more impressive considering how rarely he makes films: this is only his third role of the decade after acting for Martin Scorsese ("Gangs of New York") and his wife Rebecca Miller ("The Ballad of Jack and Rose").

As Daniel Plainview, an oil prospector in turn-of-the-century California, Day-Lewis gives the most intense, over-the-top and funny performance on film since Jack Nicholson made "The Shining." It's the kind of showy, grandiose acting which the Academy can hardly help itself from rewarding; fortunately, Day-Lewis fully deserves his award.

If there was a downside to the films this year, it was in the paucity of roles for women. Among the Best Actress nominees, only Ellen Page's break-out performance in "Juno" made a significant dent in the popular consciousness, and Page, who is only 20, still has to pay her dues.

The actual competition was between Julie Christie, for playing an Alzheimer's-afflicted woman in "Away for Her," and the younger French actress, Marion Cotillard, for playing singer Edith Piaf in "La Vie en Rose." Christie has great sentimental appeal for the Academy for the classic films she appeared in during the `60s and `70s. However, a tasteless joke she made at an earlier awards ceremony may have turned off Academy voters.

The Academy can rarely resist even mediocre showbiz biopics, as proved by "Ray," and so instead the prize went to Cotillard. The closest thing to a real upset was Tilda Swinton's Best Supporting Actress win for "Michael Clayton," in which she plays a corporate lawyer. She beat conventional wisdom, which prefered either Cate Blanchett for playing the "Don't Look Back"-era Dylan in "I'm Not There" or Ruby Dee for playing Denzel Washington's mother in "American Gangster."

Swinton seemed surprised as anyone at the announcement, and gave a charmingly off-the-cuff and tongue-in-cheek acceptance speech, pledging the statuette to her agent because its bald head "and, it must be said, the buttocks" reminded her of him. Oscar acceptance speeches are notorious for hammy sentimentality and interminable length; fortunately, this year the norm was closer to Swinton's performance. Among the winners, only Cotillard failed to rein herself in. Day-Lewis, speaking with all the polished eloquence of a man who knew very well he'd be giving a speech, referred to his Oscar alternately as "the handsomest bludgeon" in town and a "golden sapling" from the head of Paul Thomas Anderson.

Bardem memorably addressed part of his speech in Spanish, and Ethan Coen's speech consisted simply of a terse "Thank you very much." The generally graceful and articulate acceptance speeches went a good way to redeem a dispirited ceremony. Recent events including the writers' strike and Heath Ledger's death cast a pall over the proceedings, under which Jon Stewart seemed ill-prepared and ill-at-ease hosting. To his credit, he rose to the occasion after the evening's only notable gaffe, graciously ushering Marketa Irglova, co-winner for Best Original Song ("Falling Slowly" from the movie "Once") back on the stage after she had been abruptly cut off.

Irglova and her co-writer Glen Hansard's win for "Once," an independent Irish musical filmed on a tiny budget, epitomized the strength of this year's Oscars, which was to mark a year of some truly unexpected and distinguished filmmaking.

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