Are the Oscars recession-proof?

Kate Winslet and "Slumdog Millionaire" rule, while Hugh Jackman gives the awards an extreme makeover and -- miracle of miracles -- it works!

By Heather Havrilesky

Published February 24, 2009 12:16AM (EST)

Here we are on the red carpet, poised and ready to grapple with another seemingly endless Oscar night! If I sound wary and pessimistic, that's because I am. Hugh Jackman, aka Wolverine, hosting the festivities? An interminable lineup of snooze-worthy, Very Important Best Picture nominees? Only a catfight between Jen Aniston and Angelina Jolie can save this event from the Tedious, Self-Congratulatory Hall of Fame.

We begin our journey on the preshow over at E!, where Zac Efron is referring to Ryan Seacrest as "brother." Ryan Seacrest is the farthest thing from "brother" I can possibly imagine.

Now Efron's perky girlfriend, Vanessa Hudgens, is telling us that her dress makes her feel like "the young Audrey Hepburn." Oh sweet Jesus, no! Don't repeat the dumb things your stylist said to make you feel good while she spreads Vaseline across your teeth!

After this bit of youthful foot-in-mouth disease, we're treated to two commercials in rapid succession, both peddling moisturizer meant to handle "those lines on the sides of your nose and mouth." Not me! I still look like the young Audrey Hepburn, damn it!

Red carpet host bobbleheads are babbling about the fact that there are "a lot of big surprises" and "breaks from tradition" anticipated in the Oscar ceremony tonight. Relying on a man who's not remotely funny to entertain us for three-plus hours, for example? There's one big departure from the norm. What could be the other innovations? Will the whole broadcast be very, very quick and to the point? Are actors banned from thanking their publicists?

Over on the TV Guide channel, Lisa Rinna is mercilessly allowing 88-year-old actor Mickey Rooney to ramble on and on, either out of ineptitude or respect, it's hard to tell which. Then she asks him "the secret for having longevity," which is clearly something she's preoccupied with, based on her increasingly drum-tight face. "No, the secret for having longevity is keep breathing," Rooney quips. Maybe he's trying to hint, politely, that her enormous collagen-injected lips might suffocate her one day.

The camera cuts to "Bachelor" host Chris Harrison, who says, "Mickey Rourke: Hollywood, classic, legend. Phenomenal, and a gentleman, and he stands for all things that is Oscar." Mickey Rourke? Perhaps Harrison fell asleep during that interview, and who could blame him? We're only one hour or so away from the ceremony, where are the stars?

Back on E!, six or seven kids from "Slumdog Millionaire" are here, thankfully, and the youngest is screaming into the microphone, "We never thought that we would be in the red carpet of Oscars!" Aww. Now here's Ryan Seacrest, asking one of the little girls, "Who made your dress?" She just stares at him blankly instead of saying, "Bhavani Ismail, a friend of my mother's who sews out of her one-room shack in the Mumbai ghetto. She says it makes me look like the young Audrey Hepburn!"

The real Mickey Rourke, who "stands for all things that is Oscar," says he's never been to the Academy Awards before. He's wearing a picture of his chihuahua Loki around his neck. "Love of my life. She made it until six days ago; she left me at a time where, after 18 years, she knew I'd be all right." He says he'd rather have his dog for another two years than win an Oscar. Wow, an authentic human being. Who let him in here?

Now all the stars are arriving at once. Philip Seymour Hoffman, Natalie Portman, Daniel Craig, Penelope Cruz. They all look perfect. It's annoying. Remember when people would make great big fashion blunders at the Oscars? I miss those days. I miss Cher and the other, more minor fashion train wrecks of yesteryear. These days, everyone has gone through a Tailhook-level gauntlet of professional stylists. OK, here's Tilda Swinton wearing a beige blouse that matches her face. That breaks up the monotony just a little, at least.

Jay Manuel on Kate Winslet's hair: "People might think it's a little retro, but it's actually futuristic." Such meaningful words, coming from a man whose hair looks like a lavender chia pet.

Now we switch over to Robin Roberts and Tim Gunn on the ABC preshow. Gunn accosts Brad and Angelina and tells them they're "the most glorious couple on this red carpet," but they won't even deign to break their stride and chat. Maybe you two should've snuck in the back door if you didn't want to speak to anyone.

Jess Cagle, managing editor of Entertainment Weekly, asks Robert Downey Jr. to introduce his "lovely date." "My date? Yes, she's my date for the rest of this incarnation, Susan Downey." Oh dear. The fumbles are coming fast and furious, and the sound is all messed up -- all you can hear is the screaming crowds in the background, which I'm pretty sure is all Miley Cyrus' fault.

OK, the main event is starting. Hugh Jackman opens by demonstrating that he's not very good at telling jokes. He says that "Everything has been downsized because of the recession." This doesn't look hopeful. He says that he came up with an opening number all by himself, and made some sets and props in his garage the night before. This could be very, very bad.

It starts out weak, with goofy lyrics and various cardboard cutout sets for each of the best picture nominees. But then Jackman invites Anne Hathaway onto the stage to play the part of Nixon, and she also breaks into song, and has an incredible voice.

"Mr. Frost, I think I love you!" sings Jackman.

"Oh, Nixon, you know I love you, too!" sings Hathaway, then hits an incredible high note. The audience is audibly charged! Jackman confesses that he hasn't seen "The Reader," so instead he does some kind of futuristic dance that has nothing to do with the movie. Bold!

The ending, though, is the big payoff: "I am Hugh Jackman, and I've waited so long! And no recession can stop my confession or silence my song! These are the Oscars, and this is my creed! I am a slumdog, I am a wrestler, I'll rent 'The Reader,' I'm Wolverine!"

The entire crowd gives Jackman a standing ovation. It's impossible to argue with that level of commitment, isn't it? That was a scrappy, bizarre masterpiece!

After that show-stopper, we move on to another of the much ballyhooed "breaks with tradition": Five former best supporting actress winners come out to present this year's supporting actress nominees. "Tonight we're here to welcome a new member to the group, and to personally help celebrate the five extraordinarily gifted actresses this year." Oh dear, how unwieldy. Couldn't they have used cardboard cutouts of actresses, Jackman-style, instead of herding all five of them onto the stage?

Each actress onstage presents an actress who's nominated. Whoopi begins hers by saying, "It's not easy being a nun," in order to introduce Amy Adams in "Doubt." Goldie Hawn introduces Taraji P. Henson saying, "You reminded us that love is unconditional, timeless and ageless, and a really very special gift to be treasured, and so are you." Hmm, half of these tributes are written by joke writers, the other half by Hallmark card scribes. Did the presenters write their own?

"We honor you, Marisa Tomei," Swinton says in a seriously grandiose tone, but the Oscar goes to Penelope Cruz!

I feel a little relieved when this unruly crowd of legendary actresses exits the stage, replaced by a sketch involving Tina Fey and Steve Martin.

Fey: It has been said that to write is to live forever.

Martin: The man who said that is dead.

Fey: Yet, we all know the importance of writing, because every great movie begins with a great screenplay.

Martin: Or, a very good idea for the poster. But usually, with a screenplay.

Fey: And every writer starts with a blank page.

Martin: And every blank page was once a tree.

Fey: And every tree was once a tiny seed.

Martin: And every tiny seed on Earth was placed here by the alien king Rondelay, to foster our titrates and fuel our positive transfers!

If only Tom Cruise were in the audience and they could cut to his face, grimacing in pain! The ultimate tag line to a great joke.

Next, Dustin Lance Black wins best original screenplay for "Milk." Black says, "To all of the gay and lesbian kids out there tonight who've been told that they're less than by their churches, or by the government, or by their families, that you are beautiful, wonderful creatures of value, and that, no matter what anyone tells you, God does love you, and very soon, I promise you, you will have equal rights, federally, across this great nation of ours." Hanky time! And there's Sean Penn, crying in the background. This whole thing is starting to feel dangerously heartfelt. Where's Lisa Rinna when we need her?


Simon Beaufoy wins best adapted screenplay for "Slumdog Millionaire." Jennifer Aniston comes out with Jack Black to present the best animated feature Oscar with a few lukewarm jokes, during which we cut to a close-up of Angelina Jolie, laughing politely. I'm really starting to feel sorry for both of these women, doomed to be caught in the same fantastical media-scripted narrative for the balance of their days on Earth. Lately their mythical rivalry has transmogrified into a kind of cautionary tale for young wannabe celebrities across the world. "Children of the globe, the limelight will only make you miserable. Consider civil engineering or dentistry instead."

Romance-in-the-movies montage. Is this where we're supposed to stop and order dinner?

Finally, a joke: Ben Stiller comes out dressed like Joaquin Phoenix on his "Letterman" appearance, takes his gum out and sticks it on the podium, then wanders off as Natalie Portman presents the award for best cinematography to Anthony Dod Mantle from "Slumdog Millionaire."

Here's a skit with "Pineapple Express" stars James Franco and Seth Rogen laughing through the heavy scenes from "The Reader." What is that, the second or third cheap shot at "The Reader" and how no one wants to see it? The rest of the skit is mostly that Judd Apatow-Rogen stoner humor we've grown to know and like, only half of it funny.

Beyoncé joins Jackman onstage for a musical medley. Strangely enough, it's tough to tell what any of the songs have to do with each other. "Top Hat, White Tie and Tails," "Maria," "One Night Only," "You Can't Stop the Beat," "At Last," "Mamma Mia" -- OK, at least that one makes sense -- and "Somewhere Over the Rainbow"? The whole thing was like smoking crack while listening to records with the musical theater crowd.

Oh no, now we've got former best supporting actors onstage. Alan Arkin calls Philip Seymour Hoffman "Seymour Philip Hoffman." Josh Brolin, Robert Downey Jr. and Michael Shannon all look relaxed, like Heath Ledger is going to win it no matter how good they were. Heath Ledger wins. His family walks grimly onstage to accept the award. Get the hankies. Dad, mom and sister all say a few words, while everyone in the audience sobs in unison.

"Thank you very much," says Bill Maher, who's there to present the Oscar for best documentary. "Everybody's crying, and now I have to go on." Then he says something about his own documentary ("Religulous") and the fact that, "Someday we all do have to confront the notion that our silly gods cost the world too greatly." Poor guy! He's supposed to be funny in the middle of a group wake for Ledger, and all he's armed with is a joke about how the world's religions are a collective joke? Now that's courage.

"Man on Wire" wins, and the man who was on the wire, Philippe Petit, who one of the filmmakers has said wouldn't be allowed to appear onstage, runs up anyway. He gives a shout-out to co-nominee Werner Herzog, does a magic trick, then balances his Oscar on his chin. Are the rest of you soon-to-be-winners taking notes?

"Slumdog Millionaire" wins a bunch of Oscars in a row, which means that a lot of very sincere people go onstage, gush aimlessly, and don't thank their agents. It's quite refreshing.

Danny Boyle wins best director for "Slumdog Millionaire." Boyle seems very happy and bounces up and down onstage. "My kids are too old to remember this now, but when they were much younger, I swore to them that if this miracle ever happened, that I would receive it in the spirit of Tigger from 'Winnie the Pooh.'"

Gee, Tigger, do you figure "Slumdog Millionaire" will win best picture?

Here's Sophia Loren, Shirley MacLaine, Halle Berry, Nicole Kidman and last year's winner, Marion Cotillard, to present the best actress Oscar. Maybe I'm just tired and sentimental, but suddenly I'm sold on this break with tradition. MacLaine tells Anne Hathaway she's going to win more awards, and, "By the way, I think you have an extraordinary voice." Hathaway sobs and says, "Thank you, I love you!" A coldhearted cynic like me should find this actresses-tearily-congratulating-actresses exercise tiresome, but instead, I'm weeping openly. It's nice that each nominated actress is honored, instead of simply shown in extreme close-up, trying not to look disappointed as the winner is announced. Sophia Loren just pronouncing the words "Meryl Streep" can somehow bring a tear to your eye, and then Loren goes and calls a visibly moved Streep "astonishing."

And Kate Winslet wins best actress! But who doesn't love Winslet and want to see her win? I'm surrounded by snotty tissues. Help! What is happening to me?

Just to crush me into pieces when I'm already falling apart, Robert De Niro, Ben Kingsley, Anthony Hopkins, Adrien Brody and Michael Douglas appear onstage. "How did he do it?" asks Robert De Niro. "How, for so many years, did Sean Penn get all those jobs playing straight men?" Uproarious laughter.

Kingsley: "We're better off having you in the ring. The returning champ, Mickey Rourke!" Sniff. Poor Loki!

But Sean Penn wins best actor! "You commie, homo-loving sons of guns!" he gushes from the podium. "I did not expect this, and I want it to be very clear that I do know how hard I make it to appreciate me, often."

But we know the Big Message is coming, and our tear ducts are poised and ready to do his bidding, appreciatively or not. "I think that it is a good time for those who voted for the ban in gay marriage to sit and reflect and anticipate their great shame and the shame in their grandchildren's eyes if they continue that way of support. We've got to have equal rights for everyone." I like the shame angle on this issue, particularly out of Penn's mouth.

He ends with the words, "Mickey Rourke rises again, and he is my brother!" And suddenly, Rourke really does stand for all things that is Oscar!

But not quite as much as "Slumdog Millionaire," which of course wins best picture. The children bum-rush the stage! The world is filled with laughter, and hope! Hugh Jackman suddenly seems about 15 times more charming and special than he did three and a half hours ago!

Hurray for the Recession Oscars, the sincerest, sweetest, most heartfelt Oscars ever! How in the world is it even possible? Thank God that the commie, homo-loving sons of guns have taken over this country once and for all!

Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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