Stephanie Zacharek, Salon film critic
On this broadcast of "the most international of Oscars," Penélope Cruz was mistaken for Mexican, the Hong Kong film "Infernal Affairs" was cited as being Japanese, and George "Turkey Neck" Lucas called Stephen Frears "Stephen Fears." Film: It really is the international language, but some of these names are damn hard to pronounce.
While it was lovely to see pictures like "Pan's Labyrinth" -- made by one of our most interesting young directors, Mexico's Guillermo del Toro -- honored with various awards, this year's Academy Awards didn't feel so much international as interminable. The interpretive silhouettes of novelty dance troupe Pilobolus were mercifully brief, but the evening still felt endless. And I can't imagine what was going through Ennio Morricone's mind as Celine Dion took the stage to warble the love theme from "Once Upon a Time in America" (a melody that, last time I checked, didn't have words). He and Mrs. Morricone looked understandably dumbfounded as Dion took an astonishingly beautiful piece of music and -- nearly -- mashed it into Top 40 dreck.
At least the speech Morricone made (in Italian), as he accepted his special award, restored some dignity to the occasion, infusing it with true feeling. And screenwriter William Monahan and director Martin Scorsese, accepting their respective awards for "The Departed," both acknowledged "Infernal Affairs" as their movie's source -- maybe too little too late for most Hong Kong film fans, but at least the earlier picture didn't go unrecognized. Still, much of the rest of the night was simply show business as usual. And while Forest Whitaker's performance in "The Last King of Scotland" is a fine one, the last thing I wanted to see Sunday night was the face of the obviously disappointed Peter O'Toole. It's probably the one memory of this eminently forgettable evening I'll never be able to shake.
Mo Rocca is a contributor to "CBS Sunday With Charles Osgood" and a panelist on NPR's "Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me." He also has a new blog.
Most suspenseful question of the night: Would Anna Nicole Smith be included in the Dead People Montage? She was in at least two movies ("Naked Gun 33 1/3" and "Hudsucker Proxy"). Or would Hollywood's "classiest" event snub the woman whose story has turned out to be a lot more gripping than most of the nominated films? Alas she didn't make the cut -- not that there wasn't room. (This year's lineup was pretty thin, with Robert Altman's big finish in the montage undercut by his big tribute last year. I was happy, though, that the awesome Jack Wild got a hearty round of applause.) Does Anna Nicole's exclusion from the necrology offer a clue to the choice Hollywood will make when O.J. kicks it? (We know it'll have to include Robert Blake, though he'll probably just get one clip, rather than the two he deserves.)
Best pre-show moment: Was there any doubt that Simon Cowell is a genius? During the E! pre-show, Ryan Seacrest interviewed Jennifer Hudson, a meeting I was surprised even happened. Conventional wisdom is that Hudson was "wronged" by "American Idol," that an Oscar would be a delicious rebuke to the show (even though it got her noticed) and Simon (even though it was the viewers who booted her off). Take that, "Idol"!
Jennifer was ... civil. When Ryan said he had a message from an "old friend," Jennifer feigned confusion. (The old Kelly Clarkson distance-yourself-from-"Idol" act.) Cut to a full-screen Simon earnestly congratulating her on her "extraordinary" achievement. He said he loved her and remembered mentioning "the word 'Oscar'" when they first met. (Uh, sure. It's not like anyone's going to check the tape on that.) He played proud parent and once again came out, as Randy Jackson might say, top dawg.
To Jennifer's credit she hit all her marks last night: She got teary (which is always better than blubbering) and she thanked Jennifer Holliday (though she thanked God one too many times). And in an otherwise "relaxed" telecast she showed good old-fashioned Hollywood teeth-bared ambition by besting (and breasting) Beyoncé in the "Dreamgirls" medley.
Three things I learned Sunday night: Melissa Etheridge really does look like Hillary Clinton. Al Gore is too fat to run for office right now. And Robert Downey Jr. has an amazing profile.
Choire Sicha is the managing editor of Gawker.com
They need to wake up in Hollywood this morning, climb into some pickup trucks and drive around to take away a bunch of people's Oscars so that they may properly be redistributed to all five of the best-actress nominees. That girl gang represented the majority of people displaying any talent at all Sunday night. There's no way one could have won without the others being robbed.
Also, the continuing willingness to ignore "Children of Men" -- which began with its studio dumping of a release -- sits really ill with me. What gives? Though if anything was going to beat it in one category, at least "The Departed" was really stunningly edited. In the age of the artistically ignorant producer and the manager-director, film editors are all that stands between the filmgoer and total chaos. In fact, the four of the five films in the editing category that I saw -- no amount of money could have made me see "Blood Diamond" -- were extraordinarily well edited. Anything that could deliver the absurd and reality-distorting script that was "Babel" into general film shape deserves some sort of award. So let's hear it for ladies and for editors, and especially for lady editors. They're playing in their own better field.
There are two grave oversights that occurred at nominations; after the events of Sunday night, they seem even more tragic. It was a crime that Clint Mansell wasn't nominated for his score for "The Fountain" -- absolutely one of the best scores of the year. You'll be pleased to know it's available on iTunes. Also, Robin Weigert went absolutely unrecognized for her totally fantastic turn as the limping blond friend of Cate Blanchett in "The Good German." It was a real, meaty, brilliant supporting performance made out of a thin role, and that's exactly the sort of work for which Hollywood should be giving thanks to its lucky stars.
Heather Havrilesky, Salon TV critic
Last night's Academy Awards should have been a disaster. The broadcast went over by more than 30 minutes, most of the winners were predicted three months ago, and Ellen DeGeneres kicked things off by dancing around on the stage with a tambourine like she was on set at her talk show, basking in the glow of love from her devoted fans.
The strange thing is, it worked. The relaxed, slightly rambling mood served the Oscars very well. DeGeneres' lines didn't feel manic or self-conscious or rushed the way other Oscar presenters' jokes have in the past. ("If there weren't blacks, Jews and gays, there would be no Oscars ..." DeGeneres quipped. "Or anyone named Oscar, when you think about that.") The acceptance speeches weren't riddled with those endless lists of agents and stylists and fifth cousins that usually put viewers at home to sleep. And the little extras used to demonstrate each award were both illustrative and beautifully designed, from the snippets of screenplay read aloud for each original-screenplay nominee to the demonstration of how editors piece together shots for each best-editing nominee.
Yes, the dancers from Pilobolus forming the shadow of a V.W. bus with their bodies to bring to life "Little Miss Sunshine" was pretty silly, but the producers' hearts were in the right place. Each element of the show seemed to fit together exceptionally well this year, from the trivia read aloud for each winner ("In order to write 'Little Miss Sunshine,' Michael Arndt had to quit his job as assistant to Matthew Broderick," a voice told us as the winner of best original screenplay took the stage) to the postmodern split screen of the nominees' faces onstage, so that everyone in the theater could watch their reactions when the winner was announced. DeGeneres was fun and likable, the performances by the stars of "Dreamgirls" were fantastic, Al Gore was magnetic and charming. Has the world turned upside-down? Hell, even Celine Dion's song didn't bore me last night. Were they pumping some special happy gas into the theater, and how did they manage to get some of it into my living room?
Strangest of all, the best director (Martin Scorsese) won the best-director award, and the best picture ("The Departed") took the prize for best picture. How did that happen? After so many years of disappointing choices adding insult to the injury of lackluster broadcasts, Oscar may have finally redeemed himself ... at least until next year.
Debra J. Dickerson, author of "The End of Blackness" and "An American Story," is a columnist for Salon
Jennifer Hudson didn't win an Oscar last night. She won "American Idol," finally. I love everything about Sister-Girl -- her body, her down-home 'tude, her humility and, of course, that voice. I was so angry when she got voted off "Idol" that I briefly considered violence, but that doesn't make the girl a good actress. Cate Blanchett and Adriana Barraza were so amazing in their agonizing roles, I could barely watch, but I had to look away from "Dreamgirls" for a different reason; when Beyoncé and Jennifer were singing, they took me to another planet. When they were "acting," they sent me out for more popcorn. America loves to vindicate heroes cheated of their rightful prize, but this was a slap in the face to the craft of acting. Hudson deserves a Grammy, not this.
Still, she has been classy beyond belief through it all; Hudson's acceptance speech had all the grace that Halle Berry's embarrassing screech lacked five years ago (and the shout-out to Jennifer Holliday, who originated the role, ought to get Hudson into heaven). Here's hoping she spends the rest of her career earning Sunday night's award.
Andrew O'Hehir, Salon critic/columnist
It's unseemly for any movie fan to complain about an Oscar ceremony where the greatest living American filmmaker finally wins the best-picture and best-director awards. Even if those awards arrive 20 (if not 30) years after his best work. And even if said greatest living American filmmaker now resembles a garden gnome more than a human being.
But the borderline embarrassment of watching Martin Scorsese squint out at that crowd, like the baby owl who knew his mommy would come home -- squired by Francis Coppola, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, who in late middle age have become Chianti-swilling, tux-wearing Hollywood fat boys, visually indistinguishable from the studio big shots against whom they once, back in the Pleistocene epoch, rose in rebellion -- was par for the course at the 79th Oscars. It was a crisply managed telecast that ran flatulently long, an exercise in bogus modesty and sincere self-congratulation, a seamless celebration of celebrity in which the awards, Chris Connelly's irritating interstitial backstage chitter-chat and the commercials (loaded with stars and movie-joke references) flowed together in a viscous ooze of knowingness.
In fairness, the winners were an interesting and varied group of films and performers -- and from a certain perspective, that might seem to be the point. If the biggest prize went to a mainstream entertainment loaded with movie stars ("The Departed"), the principal acting awards went to interesting people, whether long-slogging vets like Helen Mirren, Forest Whitaker and Alan Arkin or a sassy, scene-wrecking newcomer like Jennifer Hudson, who may not be much of a thespian but made sure that God felt adequately thanked for all things wonderful. (Her eyelashes and her gown were not explicitly mentioned, but I would like to take a moment to acknowledge God for setting in motion the chemical processes that made those possible too.) So we tasted a robust, well-modulated Arabica blend of 2005-style indie cred and classic Tinseltown glamour, not quite fully middlebrow but not too arty either. Hollywood has become Starbucks. (So has everything else, but that's a more complicated argument.)
Ellen DeGeneres made the right host for these not-quite-middlebrow Oscars; she was capable, crisp and cheerful, if only occasionally funny. Her suits were OK in a hip-school-administrator mode, although the white shoes during the opening monologue were a mistake. In fact the fashions in general were pretty dowdy; few gowns stood out as either outrageously hot (Cate Blanchett, perhaps) or egregiously awful (Cameron Diaz). If a memo went around Bel Air and Brentwood and Beverly Hills before this ceremony, it basically said: A temporary truce has been called in the culture wars; let's make nice with America.
Right-wing commentators may be up in arms about the Al Gore lovefest and the climate-change preachiness. (They, and everybody else, should be angry about that execrable Melissa Etheridge song and the shockingly bad musical numbers in general.) But hating Bush and loving Gore, and feeling that, doggone it, we really have to do something about all that darned climate change, are safe middle-of-the-road positions circa winter 2007. Nobody mentioned Iraq the whole night (other than in the title of a nominated documentary). Nobody even thought about Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton, and praise Allah, or Al, or somebody for that. Ellen joshed briskly with Leo and Clint and Marty and vacuumed under Penélope Cruz's tent-size dress. Will Smith introduced a pointless montage whose message was: The movies love America! This was a nice, safe, friendly Oscars, and it held the anxiety and depression at bay, at least some of the time.