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Astounding scenes were witnessed at the 79th annual Academy Awards ceremony. The Best Actress made a sensible speech. The best director won the Best Director prize. No one wore a weird dress. No white person commented that anyone was black (or vice versa). No one said they had been brought up in a trailer park. And Al Gore, winning the Best Documentary Oscar for An Inconvenient Truth, began to announce his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination, only for a twinkle to give him away as the music police, otherwise known as the Academy orchestra, took the liberty of drowning him out.

Most astoundingly, the evening’s stage set verged on the tasteful. Imagine an indented Venetian ceiling taken down, turned to sheet metal and split into giant front-drops. It looked like bubble-wrap gone monumental. Backward of these, giant Oscars stood in two rows of open-front presentation cases, with a more giant one in the middle. They were cleared for dance numbers, when a scrim allowed silhouetted bodies, seemingly nude, to group themselves into shapes resembling giant floral bouquets or giant guns. (I think we can take the word ‘giant’ as read in relation to Oscar décor).

Ellen DeGeneres, looking perky in a kind of haute couture builder-and-
plasterer’s outfit, showed aplomb and inventiveness when it was needed. It was needed quite early, when it became clear that there would be few surprises in the minor categories. These are reserved for the cinema of infantile regression, with Caribbean pirates and digitised penguins winning for special effects and animation, while Little Miss Sunshine – all right, so I’m the only person in the world who doesn’t like it – picked up Best Original Script and Best Supporting Actor (Alan Arkin).

The evening’s first and almost only trend-bucker was the Best Song Oscar. This was surely, we thought, going to Dreamgirls, which had about four nominations out of five. Instead it went to An Inconvenient Truth, to the visible startlement of audiences trying to remember what on earth that global-warming eco-doc’s song could have been. (“Warming has bro-ken, like the first war-ming”…?) Fittingly, in a moment of heady acclamation for political correctness, the winner Melissa Etheridge thanked her “wife”, seen beaming from the front stalls. With that moment and the night’s leading role played by Miss DeGeneres, the 2007 Oscars did for a bigotry-oppressed sexual constituency what the 2002 awards famously did for a disadvantaged racial community.

By 4am British time – the time we Oscar-watchers are propping open our eyelids with cocktail sticks – the ceremony was becoming a bit too well-behaved and respectful. Like good citizens, almost everyone observed the 45-second limit on speeches, to which the only exception was Ennio Morricone, who was allowed 45 hours. Or maybe it seemed that way as the composer receiving a career Oscar expatiated at length in Italian, while Clint Eastwood stood at his side, replacing himself during comfort breaks with a convincing waxwork, translated into American.

Ellen DeGeneres had warned the night’s winners not to do speeches about having being brought up in the Bronx eating lumps of frozen poison. But that nearly didn’t stop Jennifer Hudson. The Best Supporting Actress for Dreamgirls looked as if a rags-to-riches marathon was teetering on her lips. Instead she made a tearful, simple speech, while doing something obscure and fiddly with her hands, possibly sticking pins into a Simon Cowell doll.

The evening’s one humdinger speech came from Forest Whitaker, named Best Actor for his Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland. After murmuring “Just a second” for the fending off of audible-visible grief, Whitaker went on to say a great deal, some of it comprehensible, about the interaction of dreams, beliefs, lights, connections, art, faith, religion and destiny. At the end he thanked the people of Uganda, his ancestors and God. A shot from the wings showed there was an unusual number of people in white coats waiting for him to finish.

The 2007 Best Actress award confirmed that “HM the Queen” now stands for Helen Mirren the Queen. Dame Helen wore a gold lamé Jessica Rabbit-style dress with full cups and a flowing hip-shape. The Americans adored her, especially when she said, raising high her Oscar, “I give you the Queen”. Since America has no idea what this toasting locution means, they thought we were offering to loan the monarch to a country grateful for any cut-glass classiness it can get.

Frozen in time, numbed by the act of keeping smiles on our faces, we were in no condition to register surprise at the evening’s concluding bouleversement. But it was wonderful that Martin Scorsese finally got the Best Picture and Best Director double, while so very Oscarish that he got it for a film representing a B-plus on his report card.

The Departed is not Raging Bull, Taxi Driver or Goodfellas. But it is good enough. And it saved us from the horror of seeing Babel win, in another vote that would have shown, like last year’s honouring of Crash, that the Motion Pictures Academy has no idea what the difference is between self-importance and importance. But maybe Hollywood’s heedlessness of fine distinctions is one of the reasons we love it.

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