Predictably, it fell on Sacha Baren Cohen to add the only splash of unpredictability to an Academy Awards ceremony that, by and large, went exactly as it was supposed to. For a ceremony that has a long history of celebrating films that celebrate films, there was little surprise that the titles that walked away with the most gold statuettes were Scorsese’s 3D love letter to the cinema, Hugo, and the homage to 1920s silent movies, The Artist.
The latter, the black-and-white hit that had swept almost all before it in the seemingly never-ending Oscars build up, did what it was expected, winning the Best Picture, Best Actor for Jean Dujardin and Best Director for Michel Hanazavicius, plus Best Original Score and Best Costume Design. “I love this country,” exclaimed Dujardin, clearly overjoyed, despite the predictions. “If George Valentin could speak, he would say: ‘Merci! Formidable!’”
While Scorsese sadly never got to take the stage himself for Hugo, his name was a continual source of praise by all those who went up to collect Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing and Best Visual Effects for the film, and there seemed to be a camera permanently stationed on his cheery face waiting for a raise of those iconic eyebrows.
Octavia Spencer was an emotional recipient of the Best Supporting Actress gong for The Help, breaking down before and after her list of thanks. Co-star Viola Davis was arguably the favourite to take home Best Actress, but nobody seemed to mind when presenter Colin Firth handed it to Meryl Streep for The Iron Lady, her third win in 17 Academy nominations.
“I had the feeling when my name was called I could hear half of America going, ‘Her, again, no’,” Streep offered in her unmistakably measured tone, before getting on with the thanks, including a rousing tribute to long-time make-up artist, Roy Helland, who picked up his first Oscar for his work transforming her into Margaret Thatcher.
Christopher Plummer, as predicted, received the Best Supporting Actor for Beginners, becoming the oldest recipient in Oscar history under a hail of references to his 82 years. “You’re only two years older than me,” he said to his statuette. “Where have you been all my life?”
For all its initial Oscar hype, which had long since died down by the time the red carpet was rolled out, George Clooney’s moccasin jog around Hawaii in The Descendants only managed to pick up Best Adapted Screenplay for Alexander Payne and his co-writers.
Although it was expected, there was regional joy when Asghar Farhadi stepped up to take Best Foreign Language film for his tense family drama, A Separation. “I proudly offer this award to the people of my country, the people who respect all cultures and civilisations,” exclaimed the deserved director.
An interesting victory came in the Best Documentary Short, which went to Saving Face, a film looking at the efforts by a plastic surgeon in Pakistan to treat women injured by acid attacks. The speech by co-director Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy – the first Pakistani to win an Oscar – paid tribute to those working for change in the country.
And so to the pomp and ceremony of the event itself, specifically one nine-time presenter. While Billy Crystal and his ‘safe pair of hands’ were able to keep the show flowing without the painful awkwardness of last year’s eye-wincing debacle coutesy of James Franco and Anne Hathaway, he wasn’t quite the saviour that the organisers might have hoped.
His usual opening routine of inserting himself into scenes was a well-tried start, but a drawn-out singalong in which he named-checked various celebs scattered throughout the theatre was a misfire, and several jokes, such as one aimed at oldies Christopher Plummer and Max Von Sydow, and a jibe about Jonah Hill’s weight (“If you lose, I think you should know that there’s cupcakes after the show”) went down predictably badly. Saying all that, Crystal did give Dubai a minor shout out when his welcome montage saw him jump out of the Burj Khalifa in the same style as Tom Cruise.
There were relatively few slips up from the presenters. Angelina Jolie chose to strike a rather awkward pose (one bare leg jutting menacingly out of her black dress), while Gwyneth Paltrow and Robert Downey Jr’s double-act probably amused no one but themselves. But no major guffs, sadly. Carefully worded scripts were rehearsed and read as planned, and acceptance speeches never ventured into Paltrow territories of farce.
So it was left to Sacha Baron Cohen to stir things up in the name of a publicity stunt we all saw coming, but didn’t know in what form. The continuing debate about whether he would or wouldn’t be allowed on the red carpet dressed as his character from upcoming film, The Dictator, played into the comic’s hands and when the Academy – clearly realising the need for at least some drama on the night – eventually sent him his tickets, it was clear something would happen.
And it did. Cohen turned up as General Aladeen, the tyrannical ruler of a fictitious Middle Eastern state, complete with oversized beard, full white military uniform and flanked by two short-skirted women in army colours and berets. “Who are you wearing,” jokingly enquired Ryan Seacrest, soon wishing he hadn’t. “John Galliano,” quipped Cohen. “But the socks are from K-Mart! Saddam Hussein once said to me, ‘Sock are socks, don’t waste money’.”
Cohen then revealed that he had brought an urn, supposedly containing the ashes of his “dear friend and tennis partner, Kim Jong-il”, before appearing to stumble, pouring the contents all over Seacrest’s Burberry suit. “It’s OK. Now if somebody asks you who you are wearing, you can say Kim Jong-il!”
It was shameless, and it will clearly increase the ticket stubs when The Dictator – a film that is unlikely to receive any Oscar nods next year – is finally released in May. But at an awards ceremony where everything had been foretold long before, it was a pleasant, and much needed, surprise.