Oscars ’09: Who wants to be … a slumdog?

Slumdog Millionaire
REUTERS/Gary Hershorn
The cast and crew of “Slumdog Millionaire” celebrate after winning the Best Picture Academy Award.

Like Brad Pitt’s Benjamin Button, the Oscars seem to have aged backwards, at least judging from the ersatz Depression Era club set and Busby Berkeley-esque choreography in last night’s marathon Academy Awards broadcast from L.A.’s Kodak Theater, among other Hollywood-style reversals of fortune.

Who wants to be a slumdog? Certainly not the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (aka The Industry), which may have awarded numerous honors to the Mumbai-set “Slumdog Millionaire” but danced — often literally — around the issue of hard times, particularly as glimpsed in the night’s big winner.

Scarcely a “Slumdog” winner — not bouncy British director Danny Boyle, not screenwriter Simon Beaufoy — saw fit to acknowledge the garbage-picking slum kids of India whose real-life plight gives the feel-good movie its voyeuristic charge. Maybe, like the film’s supernaturally lucky young protagonist, the poor kids will all win big on a game show?

Not surprising or shocking
That this year’s Oscars would pretend to confront economic adversity and other Important Issues — as in the cut-rate school play sets (empty pizza boxes!) of a few early gags — only to show that we’ve got a lot of what it takes to get along, as Busby would say, isn’t the least bit surprising or shocking. Maybe it’s not even bad. It’s just what Hollywood does, what it has always done, what we love and apparently need it to do.

Indeed, way back when Ginger Rogers was shimmying atop a stack of coins in the high-grossing “Gold Diggers of 1933,” the Oscars were putting a happy face on hardship. Not even FDR’s bank holiday, much as it hurt credit-crunched studios, could stop the Academy from putting on the ritz for its annual party of self-promotion. According to the book “Inside Oscar,” the Hollywood Reporter hailed the 1934 ceremony as “one of the most brilliant affairs that the Academy has ever held,” even while noting that expenses were kept relatively low — not counting the pretty penny spent to secure Duke Ellington and his band.

Dustin Lance Black
REUTERS/Gary Hershorn
Dustin Lance Black accepts the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.

Mostly ’34 all over again
Seventy-five years later at the Oscars, it was ’34 all over again, except for “Milk” man Sean Penn’s shout-out to “you commie, homo-loving sons of guns” or “Milk” writer Dustin Lance Black’s genuinely forward-looking pep talk to gay and lesbian kids watching at home — easily the evening’s loveliest moment. (The acceptance of the late Heath Ledger’s supporting actor award by his Aussie family members came in second. And third? I’d nominate hard-luck Jennifer Aniston for her animated observation about CGI: “We [movie stars] are very quickly becoming obsolete.”)

Give or take the curious case of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s déclassé skullcap, celebrity dresswear hardly suffered an era-appropriate downsizing. As bubbly nominee Taraji P. Henson (“Benjamin Button”) put it in the red-carpet preshow, gushing to EW’s Jess Cagle (the only journalist advancing a career these days): “I’ve had dresses thrown at me! Diamonds thrown at me! It’s just amazing!” Playing a Nazi in “The Reader” (ugh) and an unhappy wife in “Revolutionary Road” (ugh), gold-winning Kate Winslet started the evening at 5:01 PST by flaunting her other double-feature — gown and footwear, both by Yves Saint Laurent.

Let’s hear it for free advertising! Academy corner-cutting this year could be seen mainly in the hosting of affordable “Australia” star Hugh Jackman (starring next year in the downsized “New Zealand,” he joked), the ensemble casting of acting award presenters (why have one unpaid star on the stage when you can have five?), and in the end-credit montage of coming attractions for 2009, tickets available soon. Can’t say Hollywood failed this year to fill all available billboard space in depressing times. That’s entertainment.

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 02/23/2009 - 03:33 pm.

    Hugh Jackman may have been “affordable,” but he never just stood there reading mildly funny inanities off a monitor. A man of many highly-developed talents, he sings, he dances, he engages other actors in humorous vignettes. I hope he comes back next year.

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