Out with the new.
Back with the old.
And that’s not just because “The Artist,” a largely silent film set in 1920s Hollywood, won so many awards, including best picture, actor and director at the Academy Awards ceremony.
“The Descendants” was the only one of the nine films nominated for best picture set in the present. “The Help” took place in the Jim Crow South. Terrence Malick’s “Tree of Life” was set in 1950s Texas — with an occasional flip back to the dinosaur age.
The whole night looked like an AARP pep rally, starting with an introduction by Morgan Freeman, who was followed by Billy Crystal, returning to host his ninth Oscar ceremony. And age was his theme of the night. He did his usual comic medley of movie moments, including a sketch with George Clooney in “The Descendants,” urging Crystal to host the show. He promised “the youngest, hippest writers in town” and the camera panned to a group of drooping, old white men from the film “Moneyball.”
And those may well have been the writers. When Octavia Spencer won a best supporting actress Oscar for playing a maid in “The Help,” Crystal joked that after he saw the movie, he was so moved he wanted to hug the first black woman he saw, adding, “which in Beverly Hills is about a 45-minute drive.” It was a line that could have been used back when Hattie McDaniel, the first black actress to be honored with an Academy Award, won for playing a maid in “Gone With the Wind.”
It all looked very familiar, which is perhaps necessary when so few of the nominated films are. The Academy Awards are about competition, but it’s less about winners and losers than it is about the ceremony’s struggle to stay on top in a television landscape cluttered with award shows, notably ones that ignore tedious technical awards and combine television and movies, like the Golden Globes and the Screen Actors Guild Awards. (People still watch a lot of television; movie attendance in 2011 was at a 16-year low.)
Previous efforts to rejuvenate the Oscars mostly flopped, including last year’s event, which paired an ill-prepared, disaffected James Franco with a hypereager Anne Hathaway and had them try to amuse youths with lame jokes about text messages, Twitter and iPhone apps.
Sunday’s event tried to return to tradition, but it didn’t do itself any favors by starting with some of the least interesting awards. The first acting award wasn’t announced until 45 minutes into the show. Even the montage of clips from classics, from “Star Wars” to “When Harry Met Sally,” was mostly a reminder of the many movies we liked better than this year’s nominees. A taped skit, imagining a focus group’s reaction to “The Wizard of Oz,” was more imaginative. So was a Cirque du Soleil homage to classic cinema.
There were other signs of Hollywood of yesteryear, though a few seemed less retro than regressive. For all of Hollywood’s supposed political correctness, some of the bigger awards went to movies with an oddly atavistic way of righting social wrongs. “The Help” rues racial wrongdoing but puts a white heroine in the foreground — a little like the 1967 movie “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.”
Similarly, Christopher Plummer, 82, won for the supporting actor award for playing a gay father in “Beginners.” That character, too, is shown through the prism of a straight leading man, Ewan McGregor. The industry congratulates itself on its big, progressive heart but it’s the progressivism of a 62-year-old white man — the median age of Academy voters, according to a study by The Los Angeles Times.
Even “The Artist,” which seems so fresh, works as a fantasy for older Hollywood men — a star facing decline finds new vigor from the love of a younger, trophy wife.
For a town that prides itself on tinsel and titillation, the night was pretty tame. Angelina Jolie showed some leg, Jennifer Lopez showed quite a bit of cleavage, but the raciest moment may have been when Sandra Bullock introduced the foreign-language film award in German.
One of the few surprises came before the ceremony began, when Sacha Baron Cohen approached the E! host Ryan Seacrest on the red carpet. The comedian was in character from his new movie, “The Dictator,” and carried an urn filled with what he described as the ashes of Kim Jong Il, the deceased leader of North Korea. The comedian spilled the ashes all over a shocked Seacrest, saying, as he was hustled off by security guards, “When someone asks you what you are wearing, you will say Kim Jong Il.” Seacrest was not amused.
Meryl Streep, who has been nominated 17 times and won last in 1983, earned a third Oscar for “The Iron Lady.” She joked about how often she receives awards, saying she imagined half the country was sighing, her again? Streep’s awards record was already an old joke in 1990, when she was in “Postcards From the Edge” and Crystal was host for the first time. Back then he cracked that no one could have imagined that the Berlin Wall would fall, Nelson Mandela would be freed and “Meryl Streep would not be nominated.”