It used to be the revel without a cause. A glittering night of industry self-congratulation compèred by a flavour-of-the-year funny person. That was then. Last night’s 87th Oscars ceremony was now.
Causes were backed up bumper-to-bumper, honking to get attention. Engines boiled over with pent-up do-goodery. Big winners on the night dedicated their statuettes to sufferers of Alzheimer’s (Best Actress winner Julianne Moore) and ALS (Best Actor Eddie Redmayne), immigrant amnesty (Best Director Alejandro González Iñárritu, whose Birdman also won Best Picture), female equal rights (Best Supporting Actress Patricia Arquette) and even “Be kind to your parents”. Best Supporting Actor JK Simmons, winning for Whiplash, brandished his Oscar while exhorting, “Call your mom and dad!”
Moore and Redmayne had been hot and warm favourites, respectively, for Still Alice and The Theory of Everything. While doing traditional overcome-with-surprise routines, and thanking everyone in the universe, both urged good causes and good works. Mexico-born Iñárritu discovered lavish opportunities for stump speaking. His commuter pass to the podium allowed three trips: first for Best Original Screenplay, finally as one of the multiple Birdman producers after Sean Penn, opening the envelope, had produced the only joke of his Oscars career with a pseudo-indignant aside about Iñárritu: “Who gave this son of a bitch his green card?”
Gay equality went naked and unashamed as compère Neil Patrick Harris — the gender-balancing choice after last year’s Ellen DeGeneres — strode on stage stripped to white underpants. It was one of several popular tributes to Birdman’s Michael-Keaton-in-the-buff scene. In the evening’s other rabble-rousing moment the audience response to the playing of Selma’s “Glory”, Best Original Song Oscar winner, proved you didn’t need ceiling sprinklers during this year’s Academy Awards. Just turn on an audience ready to weep for truth, justice and virtue, led by a David Oyelowo (the film’s Martin Luther King) positively cataracting tears.
In Hollywood, liberalism never rains but it pours. For those previously convinced that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was a guild of grumpy old white folk frozen in time, the night of picking up jaws from floors climaxed with the Best Documentary Oscar. Citizenfour??? Isn’t that the film about a guy who was lambasted for going too far, liberty-wise, by a black liberal president? But if Edward Snowden had been here he would have been hugged to death. When Harris punned that Snowden couldn’t be here “for some treason”, the audience almost hissed. It wasn’t a night for being reactionary.
It does the heart good even while risking coronaries of astonishment. Maybe our movie business is in enlightened hands. Meanwhile there was enough standard kitsch to prove that history and certainty have not entirely disintegrated. The set was an Aladdin’s cave of gilded frou-frou, this year bombarded with digital transformation effects. “The Hills Are Alive” was sung in celebration of The Sound of Music’s 50th birthday, albeit by Lady Gaga (followed by a Julie Andrews personal appearance). And in keeping with custom, a favoured film passed over for big honours scooped all the small ones. This year Grand Budapest Hotel picked up the gongs for production design, costume design, make-up and score.
It was the best of evenings, it was the worst of evenings. Worst included thank-you lists that seemed longer than ever, often taking in entire families and threatening to go back up ancestral generations. Best included one of those rare Best Foreign Language Film Oscar years in which the statuette goes to the best foreign film, at least among those nominated.
Pawel Pawlikowski, winning for the austere yet radiant Ida, made a funny, likeable speech. A Pole who has mostly lived and worked in the UK, he also helps to prove that Britain has started sending other movie contingents to the US — including a Best Actor and the entire principal cast of Selma — than villains schooled in lip-curling and good diction; though Old Harrovian audience member Benedict Cumberbatch put in a quiet plea for them too, stage-evilly mouthing “Go away” to the camera when caught swigging from a hip flask.