By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood February 22, 2009 at 6:29AM
The best picture Oscar usually goes to a movie that nails the zeitgeist and hits Academy voters in just the right way. In this crazy upside-down year, when the entire world seems in free fall, that movie was Slumdog Millionaire. "We had passion and belief," said producer Christian Colson as he accepted the best picture trophy. "When you have these things anything is possible."
Picking up two Oscar wins for score and song, A.R. Rahman performed two songs as well. He cited "the power of hope in our lives," adding, "all my life I had a choice between hate and love and I chose love and I am here."
As the sprawling Slumdog Millionaire group of all ages, with their beaming, joyful director, Danny Boyle, made their way down the Academy Awards red carpet Sunday afternoon, the buzz surrounding the movie was infectious. Boyle thanked Fox Searchlight for going to such lengths to bring as many of the cast and crew to L.A. as possible. Mumbai enriched the Slumdog movie and changed the lives of the people who made it. Slumdog Millionaire is yet another example of an east-west hybrid film that expands cinematic boundaries. Beaufoy and Boyle embraced the music and melodrama of Bollywood, and translated some of the script into Hindi so that Boyle could use the untrained young actors he really wanted. Partly inspired by such movies as Black Friday, Boyle also used new light camera gyros to whiz through the Mumbai slums.
Congrats to In Contention's Kris Tapley for correctly predicting Japan's Departures for best foreign film and another Japanese film, La Maison en Petits Cubes for animated short (I called that one too). Foreign nominees Waltz with Bashir and The Class were considered the front-runners. It helps to remember that the always hard-to-call foreign category is only voted on by the 500 or so members who see all five films.
Otherwise there were no surprises. The awards took the expected route, from Slumdog's eight wins to Curious Case of Benjamin Button's three technical prizes (makeup, art direction and visual effects). Milk took home awards for Sean Penn and writer Dustin Lance Black; both, in the evening's most political moments, pleaded for equal rights for all Americans. Best supporting actress winner Penelope Cruz, who made some of her remarks in Spanish, was another reminder of the global nature of the Oscars. "Art is our universal language," she said. "We should do anything we can to protect it." Brit Kate Winslet hugged all the actresses on stage as she accepted her Oscar for The Reader, and asked her father to whistle so she could see him in the house. The mood in the Kodak turned somber when Heath Ledger won for The Dark Knight: his father, mother and sister accepted in the name of his young daughter. Six actors have been nominated for an Oscar after they died. Peter Finch is the other one to win a posthumous Academy Award, for Network.
Finally, Hugh Jackman made an engaging and gifted host; I enjoyed his musical numbers, although the epic musical medley with Beyonce, multiple lines of dancers and two other couples was too complex to quite translate on the home screen. (It was choreographed by Baz Luhrmann, who was typically over-the-top.) The most monumental change on this year's show--a keeper--was the brilliant idea of having past winners, five in each acting category, personally address the nominees in a very intimate way. It was moving and wonderful to see the nominees talked to directly by people they clearly admired. And you could see the impact of these icons--from Sophia Loren to Robert DeNiro-- on the folks in the house. They ate it up. "Even if you didn't win, you had a great star telling you what was great about your performance," observed red carpet announcer Robert Osborne after the show.
It made sense to organize the Kudocast around the different stages of film production, saving time on presenters walking on and off. And the round-up of the year's clips, many of them non-nominated movies, worked well. The section on romance featured not only hetero love but Milk's gay lovers Penn and Franco kissing. Albert Maysle's straight-on interviews with doc filmmakers was disarmingly effective. Doc winner James Marsh smartly brought Man on Wire star Philippe Petit up to balance an Oscar on his chin. I laughed at the Judd Apatow comedy short with James Franco, Janusz Kaminski, and Seth Rogen. Queen Latifah singing "I'll Be Seeing You" during the In Memoriam section also played well. And I liked seeing the trailers for upcoming movies over the credits.
At the Governor's Ball, Oscar-winner Sean Penn told ABC local news, "I was very surprised, because there was across the board such a strong category." He thought Mickey Rourke would win, basically.
With the big show over, the movie industry headed into a night of partying, from the Governors Ball to The Vanity Fair party at Sunset Tower, the Elton John party, and Searchlight's Slumdog Millionaire celebration. That's where I'm heading.
Here's Boyle on the red carpet: