Nostalgia reigned supreme in Hollywood, as the film industry saluted the golden era of its craft by handing a slew of Oscars to The Artist, the black-and-white, largely-silent, independent movie which has completed a trailblazing journey through this awards season.
The film, about a silent-era movie star coming to terms with the arrival of the “talkies,” justified heavy favouritism to walk off with five awards, including three of the biggest ones: Best Picture, Best Director, for its creator Michel Hazanavicius, and Best Actor for its leading male, Jean Dujardin.
Acclaimed as both a celebration of “old” Hollywood and a demonstration of the enduring power of a largely-defunct genre, The Artist becomes the first silent title to win the most prestigious prize in show-business since 1929.
“Wow... la Victoire!” said a beaming Dujardin, after picking up the trophy. Hazanavicius meanwhile thanked Uggie, the Jack Russell terrier who stars in the film, joking: “but I don’t think he cares” about the accolade.
The sepia-toned tone extended beyond the mere winner’s podium. On the catwalk yesterday afternoon, 1920s styles reigned supreme. On stage, the decorations were Art Deco. Even the post-Oscar Governor’s Ball had a Prohibition-era theme.
History will also record that The Artist, whose largely French cast and crew have now been propelled to stardom, was also the first ever Best Picture winner from a non English-speaking country. “They must be going nuts in France right now,” joked the show’s host Billy Crystal, himself a throwback to a bygone era. “Or whatever the French have in place of mirth.”
The night’s most popular winner was meanwhile Meryl Streep, who despite her lofty status has for years been the event’s perennial bridesmaid. Her Best Actress award, for playing Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady followed a run of twelve straight unsuccessful Oscar nominations. “When they called my name I had this feeling I could feel half of America go ‘oh no... her again!’ But... whatever!“ she said.
Perhaps controversially, Streep neglected to thank the former British Prime Minister in her acceptance speech, though speaking afterwards, she made a somewhat equivocal reference to her “zeal” and “sense of rightness.”
In the Supporting Actress category, Octavia Spencer was honoured for her portrayal of Minny Jackson, a black housemaid in civil-rights-era Mississippi in The Help, a small summer movie which became one of last year’s break-out hits. After a tearful acceptance speech, she retired backstage where she declared herself “humbled” and thanked the film’s ensemble cast. “We left our egos at the door and worked together as one beautiful unit.”
History was made in the Best Supporting Actor category by Christopher Plummer, who at the age of 82 became the eldest person to ever win an Oscar, for his role in Beginners, where he played a gay man coming out to his wife of 45 years. Upon steeping onstage, he looked at the golden statue and declared: “you’re only two years older than me, darling. Where have you been all my life?”
Speaking later, Plummer described the trophy, his first Academy Award, as “la crème on top” of his career. Asked about his legacy, he added: “I can carry on acting for another ten years at least... We don’t retire in acting, we carry on until we die!”
Other big awards went to Woody Allen, who won Best Screenplay for Midnight in Paris, but (as is his habit) neglected to attend the three-hour ceremony at the Kodak Theatre in Los Angeles, and Alexander Payne, who led the team which won Best Adapted Screenplay for The Descendants.
In the technical categories, another movie celebrating the early days of movies walked away with a large haul. Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, a grandiose, cinematic plea for film preservation, took five Oscars. Beneficiaries of its success included two Brits: John Midgley won Best Sound Mixing and Alex Henning won Best Visual Effects.
It has been generally a poor awards season for British contenders, but patriotically-minded viewers could take comfort from a smattering of other home-grown victories, including that of Mark Coulier won Best Make-up for his work on The Iron Lady.
In a touching rags-to-riches story, Terry George, a film-maker from Ulster, also struck gold for the UK. He shared the Best Short Film Oscar with his producer and 31-year-old daughter Oorlagh for The Shore, a drama about post-troubles Northern Ireland.
Made in just five days, on a tiny budget, the due friends and family as cast and crew on the 29 minute film. The location was a beach in the County Down fishing village of Killough, where his family has a holiday cottage. “I’m going to go back to the village where we shot this, and use it not only to promote the peace process, but also tourism in Northern Ireland,” he said, afterwards.
Mr George, who is best known as a screenwriter of such films as In the Name of the Father and Hotel Rwanda was achieving a historic first; no parent and child have ever shared an Oscar in the history of the awards. “Now I don’t have to wait for a wedding to say how brilliant my daughter is,” he joked.
A final noteworthy event, from the point of view of Oscar historians, came when Undefeated, a film about a high school American Football team, won Best Documentary. Its director became the second person in history to drop the “f-word” during his speech, cracking a taboo first broken by Melissa Leo last year.