Our dearest Departed

Feb 28, 2007 at 12:00 am

Maybe it was all the alcohol. Or maybe it was presenter Gwyneth Paltrow's weird, asymmetrical hair and the patterned, see-through gown that looked like one of those optical illusion paintings you're supposed to stare at until you see something that isn't really there (in her case, a pair of breasts). Or maybe it was the fact that, for once, a real-live decent film took home the Best Picture award.

Whatever the factors were that coalesced on Sunday night to create the first-ever absurd Oscars, let us take a moment to praise them. Others have tried, but it took host Ellen DeGeneres to do what David Letterman, Chris Rock and even Steve Martin have failed to do: Take the Oscars past the point of irrelevancy and into a weird, hilarious alternate universe of their own. Under DeGeneres' reign, Hollywood became a place where it helps to be illiterate and from the Bronx (especially if you aren't), and where even the host of the biggest televised event on earth is trying to get Martin Scorsese to read her latest screenplay. She didn't lord over the proceedings from a safe onstage perch; she got out into the crowd and demanded that Steven Spielberg keep taking a digital snapshot of her with Clint Eastwood (for MySpace, no less) until he got it right.

She even allowed three of her pals — the slovenly, unkempt power trio of Will Ferrell, Jack Black and John C. Reilly — to deliver a song-and-dance routine about the lengths to which comedians will go in order to snag a statue (i.e., play a quadruple amputee who teaches Shakespeare in the inner city). The overall message: We may not know how you people operate, but we sure as hell want to be a part of all your bizarre, fantastic meaninglessness. After years of declining ticket sales and hand-wringing, "Do movies matter?" talk, it's a sentiment we could all stand to hear.

It helped that most of the winners this year were — given the Academy's track record — absurdly deserving of recognition. You know Oscar cynicism has reached an all-time high when the most-acclaimed, highest-grossing Best Picture nominee, The Departed, isn't considered an obvious lock going into the ceremony. Sunday's show made it clear that, every once in a while, the 5,000 or so overpaid individuals who make up the voting body actually know what constitutes great filmmaking, even if they themselves can't muster up a watchable few minutes of celluloid.

It was a year full of performances too good to ignore (Helen Mirren, Forest Whitaker), even for them. So they asserted their individuality where it mattered, favoring the gruesome over the pretty, as they did by giving the "coffee table" awards — cinematography, art direction, makeup — to Pan's Labyrinth. (As for denying it the Best Foreign Language statue, well, let's just hope they were trying to make a timely statement on government wire-tapping by giving it to The Lives of Others.) They split the difference between giving an award to a lovely if grizzled vet (Peter O'Toole) or a brash, foul-mouthed first-time nominee (Mark Wahlberg), choosing instead to honor a grizzled, gloriously profane veteran (Alan Arkin). To see a character actor as calloused as Arkin have to put down his little gold man while he tearfully choked out his speech made every minute of the seemingly eight-hour show worthwhile.

Ultimately it was long-denied golden boy Martin Scorsese whose aura dominated the proceedings. As he waited like an eager Eagle Scout for the ultimate merit badge, we heard countless other nominees and presenters sing his praises: How he inspired them to become filmmakers, how working with him is like the world's best film school, how he valiantly attempted to corral even the dildo-wielding Jack Nicholson. After such an orgy of retroactive praise, a sixth Best Director loss would've been truly insulting. You could even see a hint of dread cross the master's face as he watched the Huey, Dewey and Louie of '70s cinema — Spielberg, Lucas and Coppola — introduce the award with some lame comedic patter about how it's better to "receive than give." Scorsese smiled wanly through it all, but his thought patterns were clear: "If I have to watch these assholes hand my award to someone else ..."

Other great, galvanic, iconoclastic directors would be well past the point of caring. But for someone as steeped in film history as Scorsese to still want that damn trophy, well, it's almost enough to convince you that the Oscars still mean something. By finally handing it over to the master and his Departed — in all its blood-soaked, foul-mouthed, Scorsese glory — the motion picture industry took one small step in assuring its own relevance for years — at least two or three — to come.

Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]