The most painful moment of the 2009 Academy Awards came just after 'Slumdog Millionaire' was awarded the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar. The award may have been deserved--it probably was the best screenplay nominated--but it was followed by presenters Steve Martin and Tina Fey walking off the stage with the winner. And then, again, it dawned on the viewer: Steve Martin and Tina Fey were not hosting the show...but Hugh Jackman was. Prior to Jackman's big opening number, a friend made the point that it would be hard to "imagine an Academy Awards host whom i'd have more difficulty summoning any opinion about." Clever as this seemed at the time, it was no longer true ten minutes in. After a painful musical number, Jackman tried to ingratiate himself with the audience by racing through some jokes that were either unfunny or so badly bungled that most viewers probably found themselves looking as clueless as front-row guest Brad Pitt. Jackman, who told pre-show interviewer Barbara Walters that the telecast needed "more show and less biz" probably tipped his hand with that remark; his "performance" was still worse than anyone could have expected.
One new feature of the evening was the less-than-imposing stage. The idea appeared to be that with a recession going on, the show should be less grand. The downside to this decision was that you had the sense you were watching the MTV Movie Awards. This impression was cemented by the lack of big name stars in the first few rows. The Lakers are on the road tonight, so Jack Nichiolson's absence is curious. George Clooney is in Darfur with Nick Kristof, but what about Juia Roberts and Denzel and Tom Hanks and Clint Eastwood? There's Josh Brolin! Doesn't have quite the same ring. You could feel the lack of star power throughout the show, which was probably why things seemed to get a lot more exciting when a ridiculous number of big stars came out to present the top acting awards. (And who knew that the normally shy and withdrawn Robert DeNiro would have the best lines of the night?) The problems with this gimmick, however, were reflected in the pompous and much-too-serious speeches (not to mention the reverent applause for Cuba Gooding Jr.).
There were some other bright moments. James Franco and Seth Rogen had a funny skit about the year's comedies, and Dustin Lance Black gave a heartfelt speech after winning for his overrated 'Milk' script. This was all buried under boring banter and more painful musical numbers from Jackman. (In one of many strange moments, he tried to rouse the audience by excitedly informing everyone that 'Mamma Mia!' has outgrossed 'Titanic' in Britain. I presume that at this moment I was not the only wincing Anglophile).
The surprises came infrequently. Heath Ledger of course won. Penelope Cruz deservedly emerged victorious (sorry, Nate!). 'Wall-E' won. The screenplay awards played out as expected. Kate Winslet won. Sean Penn was not the favorite, but his win was not all that surprising. And 'Slumdog' pretty much won everything else. So, how about making some good middlebrow movies next year, Hollywood? And allowing some combination of Steve Martin, Tina Fey, and Alec Baldwin to host? That would be a start, at least.
Update: Cohn is right about Paul Newman.