Digging deep for the Oscars’ most memorable moments

Genuine fun was hard to find on a night of old Billy Crystal jokes, but Chris Rock and Sacha Baron Cohen delivered

Topics: Oscars, Movie Awards Season,

Digging deep for the Oscars' most memorable momentsMembers of Cirque du Soleils "Iris" perform onstage during the 84th Academy Awards. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill) (Credit: AP)

The only thing that Hollywood loves more than itself is its past. And that slavish attention to nostalgia could not have been more evident Sunday, when perennial Oscar host Billy Crystal was trotted out after an eight-year hiatus, and the theme of the evening was, oh, I don’t know, something about the magic of the movies. That whole James Franco and Anne Hathaway “youth” thing of last year a distant memory and those five minutes we thought Eddie Murphy would host a somewhat less distant one, this year’s Oscars were awash in a self-congratulatory past. Unsurprising, maybe, given how many of the evening’s big winners were movies set in the dreamy past of the Depression and the pre-civil rights era South. Magical! And though we say it every year, my God, this was truly one of the dullest, blandest evenings of millionaires slapping each other on the back ever. A show bloated with Reese Witherspoon’s praise for “Overboard” couldn’t spare three minutes to let Bret McKenzie perform his winning “Man or Muppet”? Is nothing sacred? But there were still a few surprises and oddities and genuine moments of joy to be had. We endured the whole three-hour broadcast to whittle down our 10 standout moments.

Sacha Baron Cohen’s pre-show bit of pouring the ostensible ashes of Kim Jong Il on Ryan Seacrest was so daring! So rock ‘n’ roll! So hilariously calculated and self-promoting for his new movie “The Dictator”! And yet, the event Jezebel helpfully dubbed “the ashing” would prove the first surprise of the evening — and the moment of “Seacrest dumping” America’s waited a good 10 years for.

Billy Crystal, in the predictable opening mashup of nominated films, segued from appearing as a time-traveling, Hitler-killing “Midnight in Paris” blackfaced Sammy Davis Jr. straight into the poop pie scene from “The Help.” Perhaps we haven’t yet cured that whole racial sensitivity thing, America.

A tearful, visibly overcome Octavia Spencer, who got a standing ovation and thanked the entire state of Alabama, still had to end her emotional acceptance speech with “Please wrap up? I’m wrapping up. I’m sorry, I’m freaking out.” At least nobody tried to crowd her offstage to make way for Blur.

A pretaped bit imaging a 1939 focus group for “The Wizard of Oz” was a Christopher Guest alumni reunion, featuring Guest and his repertory veterans Catherine O’Hara, Eugene Levy, Fred Willard, Bob Balaban and Jennifer Coolidge. A powerful reminder that it’s been way too long since the guys who sent up the Oscars in “For Your Consideration” made a movie together – and that everybody loves flying monkeys.

In one of the night’s few political moments, “A Separation” writer and director Asghar Farhad accepted his win for best foreign film by saying, “At a time of talk of war, intimidation and aggression is exchanged between politicians, the name of their county, Iran, is spoken here through her glorious culture, a rich and ancient culture that has been hidden under the heavy dust of politics. I proudly offer this award to the people of my country, the people who respect all cultures and civilizations and despise hostility and resentment.” The moment was only undercut a little by Steven Spielberg’s pinched O RLY? face.

Cirque du Soleil – which just happened to also advertise during the broadcast – paid homage to the golden age of movies in its uniquely limber, vaguely unsettling way. It was dramatic, for sure, with performers swaying over the audience in trapezes and cavorting about like human slingshots. But we’re not convinced that the best way to “We love cinema” is a lady who can touch the back of her head with her foot.

Former host Chris Rock, so scathing and so on the money, noted that in animation, “If you’re a white man you can play an Arabian prince. And if you’re a black man you can play a donkey or a zebra.” Rock, who made an excellent zebra in “Madagascar,” then went on to demonstrate how much “hard work” it takes to be a voice actor in Hollywood. “And then I go, ‘It’s time to go to the store!’ And then they give me a million dollars.” Line of the night.

Flashing a formidable portion of her endless leg, presenter Angelina Jolie – who just a few weeks ago won wows for her Golden Globe look, stumbled over her words and quickly lit up the Twitterverse with comments about how gaunt she appeared. Maybe the actress is looking a bit underfed these days, but all the remarks about how she needs to eat a sandwich seemed remarkably tone deaf in an evening when the show’s writers were dishing out a bevy of fat jokes. Body snarking – still gross when you do it to thin people! On the upside, however, the whole episode did spawn the instantly awesome Twitter account for Angelina Jolie’s Leg.

The cast of “Bridesmaids,” presenting for the short subjects and not so coyly turning it into an opportunity for jokes about how heft, length and size matter, provided a little much needed raunch in a deeply unsubversive evening. Even better than the penis jokes, however, was Melissa McCarthy and Rose Byrne whipping out their little airplane-size bottles to do shots at the utterance of the word “Scorsese.” Just like all of us at home.

Eternal nominee Meryl Streep admitted that she could hear half of America saying “Oh, no. Come on, why her… again?” when she pulled her upset over Viola Davis. But after adding a sassy, “But whatever,” she tearfully acknowledged her friends and her “inexplicably wonderful career” and confessed, “I really understand I’ll never be up here again.” It was a graceful moment of gratitude, one that almost made the evening worth staying up for. The movies, like Meryl, remain inexplicably wonderful. So why is celebrating them still such a crap shoot?

Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and the author of "Gimme Shelter: My Three Years Searching for the American Dream." Follow her on Twitter: @embeedub.

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