The 2013 Oscars: Ang Lee Triumphant

The nicest thing about this year’s Oscars is that the ceremony is finally, mercifully over. 

It always feels like the Oscars take forever (because they do), but this year’s ceremony was particularly stagnant, a bizarre Frankenstein of a show that lassoed together a host in over his head*, a disjointed series of musical numbers and montages, horrid banter (my god, THE BANTER) and, of course, almost no surprises or interesting speeches.

For the most part, things went exactly as expected. Best Picture went to “Argo,” less by virtue of it being the best film of the year than because it was the non-controversial (well, barely controversial), Hollywood-glorifying movie with the most Academy-friendly real-world storyline (Oscar winner Ben Affleck becomes a movie star, falls from grace, rises again as an Auteur — only to be snubbed from the Best Director race, helping his movie complete its shift from early frontrunner and fading contender to Cause). Best Actor went to Daniel Day-Lewis, who accepted his award from Meryl Streep, and for that brief moment when they hugged I felt like all of existence suddenly made sense, even if both of their recent Oscars came from “Great Actor Does Great Impression of Famous Person” movies.

The biggest surprise came in the Best Director category, when Ang Lee surprisingly overtook Steven Spielberg to win his second such trophy. And it was a big, big surprise. I recognize that some people thought beforehand that Lee could win the category, and so they are acting like it wasn’t a big shock, but Spielberg was clearly the frontrunner (even if no one seemed to love his movie). It seemed to be the category where the Academy could reward “Lincoln” as a whole without having to give it Best Picture.

Instead, it turned out to be a similar story for Lee, who was recognized for pulling off the unlikely feat of adapting “Life of Pi” for the big screen and making the movie work. (“Pi” had 12 nominations to “Lincoln’s” 11, making them the two leading nominees going into the evening.)

Lee’s coronation was an unexpected but welcome jolt to the proceedings, coming so late it was easy to overlook what a nice moment it was. At this point, Lee now has two Best Director Oscars, as many as Spielberg, David Lean, Elia Kazan, Oliver Stone, Clint Eastwood and Billy Wilder. (John Ford leads all directors with four, while William Wyler and Frank Capra each have three.) Spielberg has been nominated seven times (he won for “Schindler’s List” and “Saving Private Ryan”), but he has now lost twice in a row to Lee (the first time was when Lee’s “Brokeback Mountain” work bested his “Munich” work after 2005).

It’s worth remembering that while Ben Affleck’s rise, fall and resurrection over the last decade have gotten more press, both Affleck and Lee had a bad tiem a decade ago. In 2003, Affleck had “Gigli,” which was obviously a monstrous disaster on every level, but Lee had “Hulk.” Affleck had a flop movie and was a tabloid joke, but Lee — a respected filmmaker, the man behind “Eat Drink Man Woman,” “Sense and Sensibility” and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” — had taken the reins of a big-budget Hollywood blockbuster at the dawn of the new superhero movie era and basically failed (turning out a movie that audiences and critics didn’t enjoy).

Lee turned it around quickly. His next film was “Brokeback Mountain,” a deeply personal, humane and humanistic film that became enmeshed in cultural politics because we as a society just can’t have nice things, and while it didn’t win Best Picture (I don’t even need to go into the “Crash” debacle here), he did win Best Director. So it comes as something of a surprise to see him pick another one up a mere seven years later, even if it’s a welcome one.

“Life of Pi” won a total of four Oscars, which, bizarrely, gave it the most wins for the night. Rather than being one of those years where something sweeps many or most categories, these Oscars were all about rationing awards and spreading the love among most of the big contenders. “Argo” took three Oscars, as did “Les Miserables,” while “Lincoln,” “Django Unchained” and “Skyfall” all took two trophies. “Silver Linings Playbook,” “Zero Dark Thirty” and “Amour” all won a single Oscar apiece, while “Beasts of the Southern Wild” and “The Master” went home empty-handed. 

“Silver Linings” had a brief moment in the sun as a potential dark horse, but it wound up winning the most interesting category (even if Lawrence. Jennifer Lawrence’s Best Actress trophy comes as a seeming coronation of this young talent, marking a steady rise that began with “Winter’s Bone” in 2010 (earning her a Best Actress nomination), escalated with popcorn success (“X-Men: First Class”) and indie supporting roles (“Like Crazy”) before exploding last year with a legitimate franchise to her name (“The Hunger Games”) and, finally, an Oscar contender she effectively owned.

Lawrence is perhaps the Internet’s favorite actor right now (supplanting Ryan Gosling), owing to her pitch-perfect reactions, jokes, self-awareness and sheer, overwhelming normalcy. And that could continue! She could remain a seemingly normal human in an abnormal profession and world, a la Tom Hanks. But she is a 22-year-old superstar with one franchise (two, if you count the “X-Men” prequels, where she plays a supporting role) and, now, an Oscar. That’s a lot for such a young person. So I cannot help but worry a slight bit, because if Hollywood success calcifies and ruins our precious Jennifer Lawrence, it will hurt all of us.

(On the other hand, she still seemed like the same embodiment of human awesomeness last night, with the fall and the reaction shots and the graciousness in her speech, so who the hell knows?)

Christoph Waltz’s victory for “Django Unchained” was a nice treat, given how wonderful he was in that movie (it’s been said before, but the man seems like he was constructed for the sole purpose of making Quentin Tarantino movies). Anne Hathaway managed to win and give a speech and not really anger anyone that much, which is a win for her, I guess?

And “Argo” won Best Picture. Sure, fine, that’s…that’s just fine. Ultimately, it didn’t win because all of the “Argo” fanatics out there pushed it over the finish line. It won because “Zero Dark Thirty” (a superior movie, and probably the best movie of 2012, even if I don’t think trying to pick such things makes a goddamn lick of sense) became snarled in the torture debate, which overshadowed the fact that it was a spectacular movie. It won because “Lincoln” was a surprisingly popular movie, and a movie that avoided too many of Spielberg’s usual missteps, but it wasn’t a movie anyone seemed too moved to love (to say nothing of the Academy voters loving themselves a good storyline, and the story of Steven Spielberg making a good Lincoln biopic with Daniel Day-lewis is not such a gripping yarn). It won because “Silver Linings Playbook” was too slight and “Django” was too slight and too violent and too lacking in a real point, and it won because “Amour” was too depressing and “The Master” was too weird.

And it won because “Argo” was a perfectly fine movie with really no objectionable parts or aspects, and while no single thing about it was a home run, every aspect of the movie was a solid triple (baseball metaphors really make the Oscars discussions fun). “Argo” was a movie that reminded us that Hollywood played a role in saving lives that one time, and moviemaking can help people, and so that aspect was catnip to the voters who rewarded “The Artist” (look at how much we suffer for our art!), “Crash” (look how people in L.A. can confront and overcome bigotry!) and “Shakespeare in Love” (look at how love matters when you’re putting on a show!) (this one may have been a reach).

“Argo” also had Ben Affleck, an actor who turned out to be a good director, and — don’t forget this part, because this part matters every year — the actors make up the largest voting bloc (and they love rewarding their own, as Redford and Costner can attest). “Argo” had Affleck the Redeemed as its storyline, which took on an added element when the Academy neglected to give him the expected Best Director nomination. And so the movie went from an early frontrunner to a slight-but-forgotten movie late in the race to the expected, consensus, lack-of-a-better-option winner.

Some years from now, “Argo” won’t be the best Best Picture winner ever or the worst Best Picture winner ever. It will just be one of those movies that won in an off year, over some superior movies but no particularly amazing ones, and it will be a movie that doesn’t live up to the title of Best Picture but doesn’t belong in the column of “Best Picture winners that remind us that the Oscars are stupid.” It was perfectly fine, and on a night that honored Day-Lewis and Waltz and Lawrence and Lee — a night that honored things really worthy of being honored — well, that was good enough.

* * *

* A lot has been said and will continue to be said about Seth MacFarlane’s turn as the host, and using a blog post the day after the Oscars to spend a lot of time mocking him would add nothing to anyone’s life, to say nothing of the Oscar host’s performance being perhaps he least important thing about a night filled with unimportant things, so I’m going to tack this at the end. Short version: He was not very good. He was bad in basically the exact ways anyone expected him to be bad. We thought someone with basically no experience performing in front of a live audience would be bad, and that was true. We thought he would make dumb jokes that mocked women, Jews, gays, minorities and people born outside the U.S., and that was true. We thought he would comment extensively on how everyone thought he would suck, which would make for riveting comedy, and that was true. (Also: We thought he would sing rather well, and that, also, turned out to be true.)

I recognize that the job of an Oscar host may be the least important job in the world (it legitimately does not matter who emcees what is just an industry awards banquet with fancier clothes, pretty people and cameras), but it’s not complicated. We’ve seen hosts who can do the job well. Personally, I thought Chris Rock was the best host in recent memory, but I guess he mildly offended the powerful Jude Law lobby and so he’s out forever. I also thought Jon Stewart and Hugh Jackman were both fine. I also know that it does not matter who I thought did or didn’t do well, because even though every sentient being on the planet knew Seth MacFarlane would do exactly what he did, the Academy still picked him. And even if popular favorites Tina Fey and Amy Poehler host next year, that’ll be great — for that one year, before they revert to Billy Crystal in blackface or another desperate, heaving overreach for the Younger Demographic.

But I would also be perfectly happy if Daniel Day-Lewis decides to put his Method skills to good use and hosts the Oscars by pretending to be Fey, Poehler and Conan O’Brien for portions of the evening.

One comment

  1. A. M. Berman

    Wow– this was a stupendously interesting, clever but not snarky, great digression about the movies and the Oscars. To use one of the writer’s own metaphors: he hit a home run.

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