Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Tinsel Clown

Masked Woman by Pants

When Hugh Jackman erupted into song, lap-dancing his merry way across Hollywood’s most mega A list, the Oscars seemed destined to sink indecorously lower than the elimination rounds of X-Factor. I know, I’m not even supposed to have a television. Blame Ann O’Dyne. I was perfectly content to believe that my stuffy English TV, gainfully employed playing DVDs, would never deign to transmit anything but the BBC. Ms O’Dyne does love a technical problem and within hours of her arrival at Seat of Pants, the LCD was persuaded to accept the local fare. So I settled down yesterday with a fresh brewed coffee and a plate of scones to have my well-honed preconceptions about Hollywood well and truly confirmed.

I don’t suppose you can expect the Oscars to be anything but self-congratulatory but the tone this year was even more Team America than usual in its zeal to bestow harmony upon a troubled world. Sean Penn, accepting the Best Actor award for his portrayal of murdered gay politician Harvey Milk, shared with us his disappointment at the recent electoral rejection of gay marriage but noted his pride in living in a country with the courage to vote in an ‘elegant man’ as president. Is ‘elegant’ the new black? Or perhaps black is the new God. Dustin Lance Black tearfully interpreted his Best Original Screenplay award for Milk as a vindication of his whole life which had been an intolerable hetero nightmare until he discovered the purity and authenticity of show biz. Perhaps he’d not had the chance to read On The Origin of Species when he informed us that not only did God create and love gay people but he would be arranging for ‘equal rights across this great nation of ours very soon’ – the minute he gets back from his KKK meeting presumably.

For a lavish celebration of all that is American, there were embarrassingly few American wins this year. Predictably, Slumdog Millionaire cleaned up the big awards for being ever so fashionably Asian. Heath Ledger was always going to get his Best Supporting Actor gonk for being ever so fashionably dead and Kate Winslet triumphed, well, for being ever so fashionably Kate Winslet. Momentarily overcome by a bad attack of the Halle Berrys, she blurted out her childhood fantasy of practising her acceptance speech with a shampoo bottle, something that should never have materialised into actual words, never mind for public consumption. Hyperventilating like an extra on ER, she was so anxious to share the great moment with her DNA donors, she screeched for her father to whistle and reveal their location. He did – forever scotching the reputation of the English as reserved.

Penelope Cruz (best supporting actress) also hovering in that peculiarly thespian intellectual netherworld where statements need bear no regard to actuality proclaimed, ‘this ceremony is a moment of unity for the world.’ Why do we need Hillary Clinton? Let’s just send Wall-E to the Middle East. But then again Cruz was wearing a wedding dress so it was hard to take her seriously even in this context. When Sarah Jessica Parker also fronted up dressed for the chapel, you wondered if a re-enactment of Bride Wars was in the offing. Not to be upstaged by the bride of Jack Skellington, her co-presenter Daniel Craig appeared absorbed in a dyslexic trance or perhaps he’d rashly chosen to debut a new pair of contact lenses.

There was something strange going on with presenters generally as if they had all been told they were auditioning for Waiting for Godot rather than giving someone a prize. Ben Stiller’s routine with Natalie Portman as foil was joyless and weird, although she came within a miraculous whisker of rescuing it. That woman has untapped comic potential. Steve Martin was ruthlessly funny in a way that suggested he hadn’t slept since he heard Hugh Jackman had clinched the hosting gig. It would have been even better had he trusted Tina Fey with an active line or two. Sophia Loren has looked 62 for thirty years. Michael Douglas has looked 52 for thirty years and Mickey Rourke looks like his wilderness decades were spent as a crash test dummy.

Bafflingly, every winner claimed to have been born as far away from Hollywood as it’s possible to get which I guess means they all hail from Mauritius. It can be quite painful to watch people who so obviously see a pair of the cat’s pyjamas when they look in the mirror trying to convey humility. The women always succumb to hysteria – aren’t they supposed to be trained not to do that? It’s difficult to get a statistically reliable sample as there are only ever two women accepting Oscars but they do seem to scream rather a lot. You don’t get much more diversity from the men even though at least four of them appear for every technical award. After they’ve methodically run through their name checks of everyone who could possibly be of use to them in the future, they hector their children to believe in themselves and their dreams and go to bed this instant. Perhaps it’s the only time they ever communicate with their offspring.

It’s said Hugh Jackman was chosen as host because of his song and dance credentials. I didn’t see The Boy from Oz or the London revival of Oklahoma!so I don’t know how well he sings in a decent setting. All I know is the opening song was an abomination and it plummeted from there. Jackman introduced the absurd production number that pointlessly dissected the event with the info-bite that Mamma Mia! had out-grossed Titanic and then lunged into a cannibalised medley of show and pop tunes with the improbable Beyoncé Knowles. How can I put this delicately? It was infinitely more cheddery than an American Idol ensemble piece and almost as curdling as Randy Jackson perennially howling ‘whaddup dawg’ at every male contestant like a dad demonstrating the Boogaloo to potential in-laws after one too many Captain Morgans.

‘The musical is back,’ thundered a delirious Jackman to tepid applause. I guess everyone else had made the obvious connection that there was not a single musical in contention for any award and neither had there been for a generation. Further, of the three tunes up for best song, two were forgettable dance numbers from Slumdog Millionaire and the other was an excruciating novelty from Wall-E. It was easily the paltriest collection of songs in the history of the Oscars. In any case Mamma Mia! is no more a musical than Titanic was but such trifling details were clearly superfluous. As a final flourish, Jackman pointed to a sheepish Baz Luhrmann and revealed that it was he who’d conceived this atrocity. At this stage, Baz had already lost in the two minor categories for which Australia had been nominated. Safe to say, it hadn’t been Luhrmann’s finest afternoon.

You had to feel for Baz though. I’ve seen both the universally trashed Australia and the universally acclaimed Slumdog Millionaire and if I was Baz Luhrmann I’d be feeling a bit hard done by right about now. Slumdog is brimming with both Hollywood and Bollywood clichés. Like Australia, it engages the magical through the vehicle of a child and you know that means someone’s going to wind up getting hitched under the stars. And the plot of Slumdog is far more preposterous than Australia’s. To enjoy the film, you have to accept the absolute howler of a device that enables its momentum. I loved both films because I am always willing to jump in that particular car and be taken for a ride. They both telegraph their intent from minute one and remain true to it throughout and that’s fine by me. The rejection of Baz’s vision and the embracing of Danny Boyle’s is irrational in critical terms and says a great deal about the whimsicality of movie world. Perhaps Baz’s musical smorgasbord was revenge rather than consolation. I like to think so. Looking forward to your remake of The Great Gatsby Baz. Please make it a musical, a proper one and please, please, please can you make all those lovely shirts dance?