The 84th annual Academy Awards kept to the script last night, with one unbelievable exception. Comedian Sacha Baron Cohen's publicity stunt for his new movie was one of the few unexpected moments of the show, which doled out awards to the favourites in almost every major category and saw host Billy Crystal cracking the same type of jokes he was making when he last hosted nearly a decade ago.
It was just Crystal harking back to the past, however, with the Academy lavishing awards on Hugo and The Artist, two films not only set in a bygone era but, tellingly, both about that other great Academy obsession, the magic of the movies.
Even if the night's many montages convinced you the movies truly are magical, the show itself proved that the Academy Awards have run out of sparkle.
Oscar bashing may be the only topic more popular than who wore what on the red carpet, though there are other things people will be talking about come Monday morning.
The dictator walks the red carpet
Sacha Baron Cohen – he of Borat fame and a master of self-promotion – stoked controversy in the days leading up to the Academy Awards when rumours surfaced he was planning on walking the red carpet as General Aladeen, the fictional despot he plays in his upcoming comedy, The Dictator. The Academy frowns heavily on promotional stunts, but their concerns were not enough to deter the British comedian. He walked the red carpet in full military dress and fake beard, carrying an urn with an image of North Korea's Kim Jong-il on it. During an interview with the E! network's Ryan Seacrest, Cohen, in character, accidentally-on-purpose spilled the urn's ashes down the front of Seacrest's tuxedo. He was quickly escorted away by burly security guards. It was the evening's one act of unscripted irreverence, and surely the one people will be talking about most come Monday morning.
Billy Crystal is not the Oscar's savior
The Academy knew what it was getting when it asked Crystal to host. This was his ninth time, after all. And after the fiasco of last year's failed experiment to appeal to a younger audience with James Franco and Anne Hathaway as co-hosts, it may have seemed like Crystal was a solid choice to revive Oscar's glory days. Unfortunately, the old routine had lost its magic, with Crystal slinging the kind of zingers that would make Mort Sahl groan. At one point Crystal joked that 82-year-old Christopher Plummer might be seen walking up on stage – because at his age he wanders a lot. One Twitter user got it right when they said Billy Crystal making fun of someone for being old was like Billy Crystal making fun of someone for not being funny.
With the exception of J. Lo's possible wardrobe malfunction ("Nipple or shadow?" asked Gawker.com), none of the celebrities who presented awards offered an moments of humour – none that didn't come off as embarrassingly forced, that is. Emma Stone was slightly charming playing up her awe of presenting an award for the first time, but Robert Downey Jr.'s faux documentary crew following him around for a movie called The Presenter and his subsequent banter with Gwyneth Paltrow, who pretended to be annoyed by the whole affair, and J. Lo and Cameron Diaz doing some Charlie's Angels improv were all grating. Those who didn't try to be funny, such as Colin Firth, who introduced the award for best actress, were passable enough, but hardly memorable. Also, what a waste to have the stars of Bridesmaids reduced to making penis jokes when presenting the best short film – short, get it? Is that really the best they could do?
Just how fearsome was the Academy when they told nominees to keep their speeches short if they won? Most winners seemed to be overly intent on keeping it short and … short. Octavia Spencer's win for best supporting actress early in the show was certainly sweet as she began to cry, but it seemed to be over before it even began. Please, take a minute and talk to us. Plummer nailed it, and Meryl Streep gave a fine speech at near the evening's end – "When they called my name, I had this feeling I could hear half of America going, 'Oh, no! Oh come on, why her? Again!" – but otherwise there were few if any memorable speeches from the night's big winners.
The Academy Awards ceremony has never been shy about throwing another montage on to the heap. But the 84th annual show seemed to set some kind of new record, with montage after montage. Near the end of the more than three-hour-long show it seemed likely there was going to be a montage salute to the evening's best montages. On top of that, multiple interviews with actors discussing their love of movies were interspersed throughout the show, giving the whole thing a self-congratulatory tone that only highlighted how dull the proceedings were. Yes, great films are inspiring, awe-inducing things, adjectives that certainly didn't apply to the telecast.
Christopher Plummer, class act at 82
Christopher Plummer picked up his first ever Academy Award, winning the best supporting actor Oscar for his role in Beginners. It was no great surprise to see him win – he won the Golden Globe and BAFTA for the performance as well – but his acceptance speech proved to be the evening's one true shining moment. He joked that he had been rehearsing his acceptance speech since the moment he was born, graciously thanked his fellow nominees and his wife. It was an acceptance speech par excellence.
A predictable evening
With very few exceptions, everything went as predicted at the awards show. The (mostly) silent film The Artist, the darling of the awards season leading up to the Oscars, won for best picture and nabbed Michel Hazanavicious the award for best directed, as expected. Jean Dujardin's win was a slight surprise, but only a slight one, denying viewers the chance to see either George Clooney or Brad Pitt show their handsome mugs making acceptance speeches. Meryl Streep's victory over Viola Davis certainly shocked Streep, who hasn't won an Oscar since 1983 despite being the most nominated actor in Academy history. But for the most part everything hummed along like a machine that did what it was always going to do without shock or surprise.