It was a night of firsts. The first time the Oscars stage had looked like Waterloo Station gone celestial. (Loved the sparkly arch, less sure about the stairways designed to cause commuter collisions.) The first time since the second world war that a man had received a commendation for military performance in a non-Austrian state ruled by an Austrian. That was Christoph Waltz getting Best Supporting Actor for Inglourious Basterds. And the first time former Best Actor Forest Whitaker had been let out of padded accommodation to make another flowery Oscars night speech, this one to introduce Best Actress Sandra Bullock. “The tangible, magical breath you can never miss … ” The speech is available on didwereallyhearthat.com. Bullock herself, accepting, was all sass, composure and succinctness.
Mainly and historically, though, it was the first time a woman had won the Best Director prize. Kathryn Bigelow, looking almost literally 10 feet tall in heels and an elegant, battle-grey sheath dress, said: “This is the moment of a lifetime.” She thanked not just the usual crowd – cast, crew, family tree – but “the people of Jordan”, where The Hurt Locker was filmed. And she saved her last, best, warmest words for the soldiers who, dramatised by embedded ex-reporter Mark Boal (Best Original Screenplay), gave her the story for her film. “They’re there for us and we’re here for them.” What a slogan. Why didn’t Obama come up with that?
It was history in the viewing. Bigelow also won Best Picture, although Tom Hanks – to later criticism – opened the envelope brusquely and without fanfare, like a man finding an overlooked bill on his doormat. “Oh, and the estimated damage to Avatar” – he seemed to be saying – “is another top gong to The Hurt Locker.” Steve Martin said it more wittily. “Avatar is now set in the past.”
Some of us, at 4am by long-distance audiovisual link-up, alias television, were all but screaming with delight. We knew that James Cameron’s mega-budget space fantasy and Bigelow’s beggar-budget war film were as far apart as Jupiter and Earth; or as a bloated gas giant is from something living, human and interesting. When Earth won, a TV commentator said that it proves “the Academy won’t be told by box-office takings who to vote for”. No, they’ll save that for next year. Right now, even the Motion Picture Arts and Sciences gang can see the hoopla in the victory of a woman’s little movie over an ex-husband’s big one. For the record The Hurt Locker has taken to date, 100 times less money than Avatar.
But this was a paradigmatic prizefight from the first. Never mind David and Goliath. The contrast between the two films speaks for a yin and yang as old as cinema. Truth versus magic; reportage versus make-believe; Lumière versus Méliès. Next year it is quite possible a good fantasy epic will beat a not-so-good reality drama. There is nothing intrinsically worthier in either genre. It is simply that The Hurt Locker is the better film.
I like to think that I imagined the rest of Oscar night. That Jeff Bridges didn’t really look like the ghost of Wild Bill Hickok, a bearded actor-frontiersman waving high his Best Actor Oscar for Crazy Heart and thanking everyone in the west, the east, the solar system. The Academy band’s music – now regularly used as a guillotine – cut him off before he moved on to cousins and agents in Alpha Centauri.
I like to think I merely fantasised the dance numbers, which each year extend the dictionary life of the word “kitsch”. But I know I couldn’t have dreamed up the sight of Ben Stiller in Avatar drag, complete with blue makeup and ponytail, speaking the language of the distant planet. This, thank goodness, was meant to be funny. And was.
The clothes and fashions I leave to sounder minds, although I liked Carey Mulligan’s Spanish moss earrings. I have always favoured air-breathing plants as design accessories. And Bigelow’s grey-sheath dress not only made her look tall, its Amazon grace could surely earn her a role – remember where you read it first – in Avatar 2.
The Oscars continue to be the show everyone tries to stop watching but few people I know succeed. If world audiences are declining, the answer is not to have 10 Best Picture nominations, although we were reminded that this happened once before (1943, year of Casablanca). Five nominations we can remember; five we can chew on. Ten is just a number.
Nor does the answer lie in the increasing use of former winners – sometimes standing in rows as if trucked in from Madame Tussauds – to deliver a citation each for a major-category nominee. The cameras kept cutting to the poor eulogee, trying to think up fresh feints to look flattered and overcome. Meryl Streep wins this prize by a mile. She moue’d, simpered, tut-tutted, while making us believe that if there had been a blackout she would have gone up and strangled eulogist Stanley Tucci. As Julia Child (in her nominated film Julie and Julia) Streep knows all about overegged puddings.
Finally, let us consider the meaning vouchsafed by two other victories. Up won Best Animated Feature Oscar and The Cove won Best Documentary. This means that the world is obsessed by stories of experience-weathered veterans flying off to remote spots on the globe to unmask life’s elemental beauty and cruelty.
One man does it with a balloon-powered house to fight an airship tyrant in a once-longed-for South American honeymoon spot. The other does it with a flown-in documentary crew to save dolphins in an idyllic-looking Japanese cove. Watch out, world. This is a coded message from America. It says: “We may be broke. We may be led by a sliding-popularity president. But be on notice, we’re gonna keep saving you all. Get out your welcome mats or your weapons, depending on preference.”