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February 25, 2008 |

By Daniel Carlson | Miscellaneous | February 25, 2008 |

Much has been made in the past few hours, and will continue to be discussed (by some) in the coming days and maybe weeks, of the fact that the four acting winners at last night’s Academy Awards were not from the U.S, a foreign sweep that hasn’t happened since the awards for 1965, when Rex Harrison and Julie Andrew led the non-American charge with their wins for My Fair Lady and The Sound of Music, respectively. Some of this year’s wins were predictable, or at least as predictable as an Oscar race can be: Daniel Day-Lewis’ explosive and staggering work in There Will Be Blood was a blast of something grander and more energetic than usual for the awards, as was Javier Bardem’s chilling performance in No Country for Old Men. But these men were in tight races, and even the relative sureness of Bardem’s win was clouded by the presence of Casey Affleck, who was brilliant in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford; Philip Seymour Hoffman, whose excellent supporting turn in Charlie Wilson’s War was so solid and reliable it’s easy to overlook; Tom Wilkinson, the dark horse for Michael Clayton; and Hal Holbrook, whose work in Into the Wild wasn’t necessarily anything to write home about but who could still have captured the sympathy/tribute vote in an upset.

But when you get down to it, Bardem and Day-Lewis had to win, because Tilda Swinton won for her supporting performance in Michael Clayton and Marion Cotillard took home the best actress prize for La Vie en Rose. The actors are fine choices, but it’s the actresses that really betray what the Oscars are all about. The 6,000 or so members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences are of two minds: They want to look smart, and they want to stay respectable. The best word to encapsulate their nebulous desires is probably “classiness”; the Oscars want so badly to be classy that they will kill to get it. Ellen Page’s nomination as best actress was a nice surprise, but a valid move. She was wonderful as the title character in Juno, and carried the film with a mix of defensive sarcasm and emotional angst that felt more genuine and nuanced than they would have coming from most any other young actress. Plus, Juno is this year’s “hip” movie, i.e., the movie that’s classifiably cool as a product that can easily be explained and sold (which is important) to the public and the voting members of the Academy. Nominating Page for Juno isn’t just a recognition of her work and her burgeoning career but a conscious choice on Oscar’s part to appear to be way more in tune with people under 30 than it actually is.

But while Page’s inclusion takes care of the smarts, Oscar still has to be able to look at himself in the morning, which is why Cotillard was nominated and ultimately given the award. She’s French, she made a really moving biopic that no one saw about a singer no one’s heard of, and she’s coincidentally beautiful. La Vie en Rose was a movie for grown-ups, and the Academy ultimately is composed of people who want to feel like they’re making the most professionally respectable choice available. Cotillard’s winning out over Page doesn’t have anything to do with their respective performances; Cotillard is the classy choice, which means Page was never even in it.

Oscar’s hard-on for classiness isn’t completely consistent — sometimes pop culture wins out, as evidenced by Eminem’s win for “Lose Yourself” from 8 Mile a few years back, which was admittedly a damn catchy tune — but once you begin to look at Oscar winners and predict the new ones through the lens of the Academy’s desire to be bona fide, it all becomes pretty clear. No Country for Old Men did so well, picking up additional statues for Joel and Ethan Coen in the writing and directing categories and nabbing best picture, because it’s the trimmest and classiest movie available. Atonement is a touch too stuffy, Michael Clayton isn’t cool enough, There Will Be Blood is way too ungainly and challenging, and Juno’s problems are the same as Page’s. But There Will Be Blood did take the cinematography nod, and Atonement did win for original score. Ditto the win for Ratatouille in the animated feature category; more accomplished than Surf’s Up, but more family-friendly than Persepolis. Those films are also the “classiest” options in their fields, the films the Academy could feel good about awarding without wondering if they were stuck in the past or catering to the kids.

The Academy needs that satisfaction because the Oscars are, though it’s somewhat redundant to point it out, a celebration of movies picked by moviemakers. In fact, every awards show is just that, a group of people who get together to vote to honor the best in their field. But the Oscars have somehow tricked people into thinking that the Awards are handed down from on high by God or the universe or the ghost of John Ford, when really it’s just a bunch of people who made some movies that have been turned into understandable commercial packages for which votes have been cast in a weird ceremony that uncomfortably blurs the lines between art and competition. The Oscars are a party in honor of the Oscars. Perhaps the truest and saddest example of this was this year’s In Memoriam tribute, an annual clip show of actors, writers, filmmakers, and other crewmembers who have died in the past year. The cutoff to be in the reel is January 31, and Heath Ledger’s passing on January 22 guaranteed him a spot in line, though I assume they’d have included him anyway. As the faces of the dead flashed by, the audience applause ebbed and flowed depending on the popularity of the person at the date of their death and their relative star power in general. Ledger, as could have been predicted, was the last to appear, filling the screen in a slowed-down shot from Brokeback Mountain, leaning against a wall in the brown jacket that will forever be married to his memory. It was a weirdly artificial moment, as the Academy put its glorious sadness on display for all to see, and it was only with the passing of time that I and others began to realize that Brad Renfro, who died on January 15, hadn’t been in the package. Was his death too gruesome? Unlikely; Hollywood has never shied away from mourning the passing of its own, no matter the cause. Was his career too old? Again, unlikely; many of the older people featured in the tribute had stopped working long before their deaths, plus Renfro had a role in the upcoming The Informers. For some reason, Renfro was simply overlooked, and though the Academy will probably chalk it up to an oversight and deny whatever intern collated the dead list whatever USC film credit they were earning, it’s hard not to see Renfro’s exclusion as weirdly indicative of the Academy’s whole hang-up with perception. Ledger is just as dead as Renfro, but he’s the kind of dead the Academy wants to hold up to the light. Renfro was a junkie and troubled and dangerous, but Ledger — he’s just classy.

Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.

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