This is rare, nuanced storytelling, anchored by one of Brad Pitt’s career-best performances and remarkable technical elements on every level. It’s a special film.
HOLLYWOOD - "Million Dollar Baby" scored a late-round rally Sunday night at the 77th annual Academy Awards as Clint Eastwood's movie about a determined female boxer won for best picture and took Oscars for actress (Hilary Swank), supporting actor (Morgan Freeman) and director (Eastwood).
It was not only Eastwood’s victory, but a disappointment for legendary director Martin Scorsese, who was passed over by the Academy for the fifth time in the directing category. To be sure, his “The Aviator” led the evening with five Oscars to four for “Baby,” but it won only one major award, for Cate Blanchett as best supporting actress.
As the evening began, it looked like it might be an “Aviator” night, as the Scorsese epic dominated the early going with awards in such categories as art direction, costumes, cinematography and editing. But Oscar voters are said to vote with their heads in the technical categories, and with their hearts in the top categories, and “Million Dollar Baby” was a much more emotional film than “Aviator,” with its distant and enigmatic hero.
It was one of the shorter modern Oscar ceremonies, clocking at a little over three hours and 15 minutes, as opposed to one recent four-hour extravaganza. That was partly because host Chris Rock opened on a high-energy quick-talking note, and partly because most of the winners this year avoided reciting laundry lists of their agents, lawyers, relatives, publicists and accountants.
Chris Rock hit a home run with his opening monologue, which was surprisingly pointed, topical,and not shy of controversy. He got into politics with a discussion of “Fahrenheit 9/11” and President Bush, made some fairly impolitics remarks about the career highs and lows of other actors, and threw a zinger at Michael Moore: “When he didn’t get nominated for 'Fahrenheit,' he probably asked himself, ‘Why didn’t I make ‘Super Size Me?’ I’ve already done the research.” Another zinger came while introducing first presenter Halle Berry, “star of the eagerly-awaited “Catwoman 2.”
Rock was quick on the attack, fast-thinking, and his energy level seemed to urge the Oscarcast along. Within the first minute, it was clear he’d been a good choice for emcee, and that the “controversy” over his selection was essentially a media phenonenon floated by the Drudge Report and picked up by the credulous.
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Clint Eastwood won for best director for “Million Dollar Baby,” thanking his 96-year-old mother, “who is here with me tonight.” He also thanked legendary production designer Henry Bumstead, 90, as “head of our crack geriatrics team.” At 74, Eastwood said, he saw 80-year-old Sidney Lumet on the stage, and decided, “I’m just a kid.”
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No surprise, but the audience was joyous as Jamie Foxx won as best actor, for “Ray,” a biopic based on the life of music legend Ray Charles. After thanking the usual suspects, Foxx said: “I see Oprah and I see Halle, and I just want to say your names.” He thanked Oprah Winfrey for introducing him to Sidney Poitier, an inspiration, and then, in an extraordinary moment that brought a hush to the house, he thanked his Grandmother Marie.
“She was my first acting teacher. ‘Stand up straight. Put your shoulders back. Act like you got some sense.’ We would go somewhere, and she would say, ‘Act like you been somewhere.’ And she would whoop me, but then she would talk to me –- and she still talks to me now, only now” he said, “she talks to me in my dreams. And I can’t wait to go to sleep tonight, because we got a lot to talk about. I love you.” There were tears, not only from Foxx.
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Hilary Swank, as widely predicted, won her second Oscar for best actress, for the title role in “Million Dollar Baby.”
“I’m just a girl from a trailer park who had a dream,” she said, thanking among others her trainers. (The helpful Academy voice-over announcer informed us, “She is the first actress ever nominated for playing a boxer.”) When the orchestra played a chord to signal the end of her time, she quipped, “You can’t do that yet –- because I haven’t gotten to Clint yet!”
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“This was a labor of love,”said Morgan Freeman, holding his first Oscar after four nominations. His was the first of the major wins for “Million Dollar Baby,” and his speech was short and to the point: “I want to thank everybody and anybody who ever had anything at all to do with the making of this picture.” He mentioned director and co-star Clint Eastwood, co-star Hilary Swank, and left the stage, cool and composed. No histrionics for the man about whom Pauline Kael asked, "Is there a better actor in America?”
What does the Oscar mean for an African-American actor, Freeman was asked backstage. “Hollywood is continuing to make history. Life goes on. Things change. That’s what it means.”
Asked about his on-again, off-again proposed biopic of Nelson Mandela, he said,”I had a sit-down with [South African producer] Anant Singh a few days ago, and it’s going to happen.”
As for working with Clint Eastwood, “He very, very largely lets you do what you want to do. He directs the picture, and gets out of the way.”
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“Aviator’s” big night continued with Cate Blanchett’s Oscar for best supporting actress, which was third in the “Aviator” parade after awards for art direction and costumes. The elegant Australian actress, who took a considerable risk in playing a Hollywood legend, Katharine Hepburn, briefly thanked director Scorsese and other collaborators, but didn’t show much, or any, emotion.
Best backstage quip that wouldn’t have survived ABC’s seven-second delay: Cate Blanchett, asked if the Oscar would change her life, smiled merrily and said, “Absolutely, you ass----.!”
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Had Chicago home-town favorite Virginia Madsen won, it would have been a different story at the podium –- her nomination was a dramatic turn in a career that has seen its discouraging moments. But Virginia and her mom, Elaine, were upbeat on the red carpet, and Elaine said she told her daughter before the ceremony that being nominated was the real honor, that it allowed her to stand with pride before the industry, and opened up opportunities for many more roles.
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Alejandro Amenabar’s “The Sea Inside,” from Spain, won as Best Foreign Film. It starred Javier Bardem as a man long-paralyzed, who chooses to die and must persuade others to help him. The film shared with “Million Dollar Baby” a subject that caused controversy from groups arguing that life is very much worth living despite such disabilities. Pickets outside the Oscars held large banners denouncing Clint Eastwood and his film but did not single out “The Sea Inside” as a target.
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Charlie Kaufman, the hottest screenwriter in Hollywood, won for best original screenplay for “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” He was nominated twice before, for the stunningly original and experimental screenplays for “Being John Malkovich” and “Adaptation,” and with “Eternal Sunshine” has stretched the envelope again. The film starred Kate Winslet and Jim Carrey as onetime lovers who alternate in erasing the memories of each other from their minds, then find that sense memories of love survive all of the science fiction memory games.
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A montage of Johnny Carson’s funniest moments from Oscarcasts was intercut with memories of his admirers, such as Whoopi Goldberg. Carson’s impeccable timing and flawless choice of material was casually on display: He never seemed to be trying very hard. There were lots of laughs during the montage, but it was a touching moment.
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A major “Aviator” award came in the crucial category of editing. As expected in many quarters, Thelma Schoonmaker, Martin Scorsese’s longtime collaborator since the very dawn of their careers, won for “The Aviator.” She won once before, for Scorsese’s “Raging Bull,” and said, “This belongs to you, Marty, as much as to me, not only because you helped me edit the picture, but because you think like an editor.”
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The evening’s first upset, in my eyes at least, came when Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor won for best screenplay adaptation, for “Sideways.” Paul Haggis was thought to be the front-runner for “Million Dollar Baby,” and so the win by the relative outsider indie film seemed at the time, in light of “Aviator”’s 4-1 Oscar lead at that point, perhaps an indication that it was not going to be “Million Dollar Baby’s” night.
Backstage question: Did “Sideways” appeal to critics because the Paul Giamatti hero (who was 40ish, balding, alcoholic and lovelorn) reminded them of themselves? “I have no idea,” Alexander Payne said, as the critics in the audience chuckled gamely.
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“Boy, am I glad there wasn’t a fourth episode of ‘Lord of the Rings,’ " quipped John Dykstra, who shared the Oscar for best visual effects for “Spider-Man 2.” His collaborators: Scott Stodyk, Anthony LaMolinara and John Frazier. I thought it was a clearly-deserved award, for the best superhero movie since “Superman.”
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Al Pacino said Sidney Lumet’s stage production of Eugene O'Neill's “The Iceman Cometh” inspired him to become an actor. He would later work with Lumet in “Dog Day Afternoon,” and Pacino presented a Lifetime Achievement Award to the legendary New York-based director, whose work includes 12 Angry Men,” “Network,” “The Verdict”and “Running on Empty.”
“I was lucky enough to be nominated for my first picture," he said, "and started fantasizing about my speech. I was a real smart-aleck and thought I’d say, “I don’t want to thank anyone -– I did it all on my own.” Now, at the other end of his career, he said he had an endless list of people to thank, and he listed directors and writers and great screen moments, and said, “What it comes down to is, I’d like to thank the movies.”
In its understatement and simplicity, it was a model for a perfect Oscar acceptance speech.
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“Wasp,” by Andrea Arnold, won as best live-action short subject. As one of the few people who has seen it at this point, I thought it was a deserving winner. The movie is a harrowing, heart-breaking day in the life of a single mother who parks her children outside a pub while she spend hours with a former boyfriend. At one point she comes out to give them some potato chips and a Coke, “to share around.” The film promises an important career for Arnold.
Another well-deserved Oscar went to Chris Landreth’s “Ryan,” an animated short about Ryan Larkin, himself a legendary Canadian animator, now fallen on hard times. In my review of “Ryan,” I assumed it combined live-action shots of faces with animation. Not so, Landreth assured me on the red carpet: The whole film, including the parts that looked as real as photography, was animated. Remarkable.
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One of the more unexpected backstage comments: honoree Sidney Lumet, who has worked with the greatest actors of five decades, was asked about the star of his next picture, Vin Diesel.
“One of the finest actors I have ever worked with,” he said. “In acting, you get to the job any way you can. He was typed as a muscleman, and he had success at that, but take my word for it, you will be amazed at the work he does.”
* * * Scene-stealer with the masterstroke of the night: Jorge Drexler, who won for best song with “Al Otro Lado Del Rio,” from “The Motorcycle Diaries,” and sang his song himself, as a thank you speech.
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Introducing the Best Actress category, Sean Penn got serious and defended Jude Law, one of the targets of Rock’s opening monologue, as “one of our finest actors.” It was a nice gesture, but I think everyone in the hall knew Rock was only kidding. Or maybe they didn’t. Rock, whose monologue advised producers to go for the A-list star and not settle for the generic substitute, missed a perfect one-liner when he followed Sean Penn onto the stage. He should have said: "Sean Penn is right and I apoligize to Jude Law. My advice should have been, if you can't get Jude Law, don't settle for Sean Penn."
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Industry veteran Roger Mayer was given the Jean Hersholt humanitarian award, presented by Martin Scorsese, for his contribution to the preservation of old movies -– one of Scorsese’s own favorite causes. When Mayer and others, including Scorsese, began to organize their preservation efforts many movies were on the brink of being trashed or allowed to disintegrate.
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Robin Williams was reportedly asked by ABC to kill a song about groups that find hidden messages in innocuous films, But he worked some of the material into his intorduction of the animated category, doubting that SpongeBob was gay, but raising questions about Donald Duck and Chip and Dale.
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“The Incredibles,” as expected, won as best animated feature. Director Brad Bird took the Oscar home to Pixar, a center of change in the ongoing transition of animated films from children’s entertainment to mainstream audiences.
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A note of grace: The cellist Yo-Yo Ma came onstage to play during the annual montage of honoring movie legends who died during the year. The list was eclectic, as always, including Ronald Reagan, Ossie Davis, Jerry Goldsmith, Tony Randall, Fay Wray, Elmer Bernstein, Rodney Dangerfield, Virginia Mayo, Paul Winfield, Russ Meyer and Marlon Brando. Two of them were allowed lines of dialogue: Reagan ("Win one just for the Gipper') and Brando (“I could have been a contender. I could have been somebody”).
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