Darkest Hour stands apart from more routine historical dramas.
Everybody pretty much called it in advance, but nothing was certain until the very end. Joel and Ethan Coen's crowning achievement, "No Country For Old Men," toted some heavy Oscars Sunday night (for Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay and Supporting Actor), but the Academy spread the wealth.
"We, uh... thank you very much," said Ethan, accepting the Best Screenplay Adaptation Oscar, and it was a terrific speech. Six words. Maybe five-and-a-half. Funny. Pithy. Whether it was intentional or the shorter Coen brother just went up on his lines, he demonstrated that screenwriting is not just about crafting dialog. If you set the scene properly, the words themselves don't have to be memorable, just the moment.
It was. And, because of the sense of drama created by the structure of the show, that scene felt like the tipping point for "No Country for Old Men." You didn't know where the evening's storyline was headed, but once it got there, as always, it felt as if it had been inevitable. Kind of like the ending of "No Country" itself.
Later, of course, the Coens would collect Oscars for direction and picture -- and when they came back, Ethan said he didn't really have much to add to what he'd said before. It wasn't necessary.
The Coens clearly came out on top, but it didn't feel quite like a sweep without the editing, cinematography and sound awards, which went to other (also deserving) pictures -- "The Bourne Ultimatum" and "There Will Be Blood."
Most of the big Oscar nominees this year were uniquely American -- "No Country for Old Men," "There Will Be Blood," "Michael Clayton," even "Juno." But it was the Europeans who conquered most of the evening: British actor Daniel Day-Lewis ("There Will Be Blood"), French actress Marion Cotillard ("La Vie en Rose"), Spanish supporting actor Javier Bardem ("No Country for Old Men" -- first win ever for a Spanish actor), and British supporting actress Tilda Swinton ("Michael Clayton"). Day-Lewis's Great American Performance was obviously a descendant of Hollywood legends Walter and John Huston, but the ancestry went unacknowledged.
The supporting actors stole the show's first act. The last part of Bardem's speech, addressed to his mother in the audience and spoken in Spanish, was one of those eye-moistening highlights that we watch the Oscars for. Even if you didn't know what he was saying, it was moving -- and, even if Bardem knew what he was going to say in advance, it didn't feel like acting. He's that good. Swinton's effortlessly convincing joke about George Clooney wearing rubber Batman nipples under his suit in "Michael Clayton" was further evidence of just how good she is, too. One stumble, one premature nudge, and it would have fallen flat. This, ladies and gentlemen, is more than just acting -- it's grace under the pressure on live TV.
On the Regis Philbin pre-show, a TV interviewer told the eventual Best Actress winner Cotillard: "Edith Piaf... died." After a long pause, she added "... before you were born!" Um, yes. Cotillard had all but inhabited the skin of Piaf in a universally acclaimed performance. She probably knew both those things.
Hollywood "It Girl" Diablo Cody nabbed Best Original Screenplay, as expected. But that was the only win for box-office favorite "Juno."
The crowd's most enthusiastic response was probably for Glen Hansard, Markéta Irglová for the song "Falling Slowly" from the Irish film "Once." Bravo to emcee Jon Stewart for bringing Irglová back on stage to give her speech, which was cut off before she could even begin.
Early in the evening (well, in the first half-hour or so), the year's big Oscar winners were "Elizabeth: The Golden Age," "La Vie en Rose," and "The Golden Compass." Not until "Ratatouille" won for Best Animated Feature was there a title with which more than 27 people were familiar.
Two hours in, the leading Oscar winner was "The Bourne Ultimatum" with three (editing, sound mixing, and sound editing). As emcee Stewart accurately noted, somebody somewhere had just taken the lead in their Oscar pool based on a guess.
Sometimes the biggest surprise of the Oscars is who won last year. Like when Jennifer Hudson came out to announce Best Supporting Actor and you went... who's that again? Alan Arkin won last year? But the biggest question was: How did they leave out Roy Scheider from the In Memoriam montage? (Turns out, the segment's drop-dead date for dying is January 31, except for Heath Ledger. Brad Renfro died January 15, but wasn't included, either.)
A favorite moment: Veteran production designer and honorary Oscar recipient Robert Boyle ("North by Northwest," "The Birds") explaining in his filmed intro: "A production designer is responsible for that space within which the action and the meaning of the film is arrived at.... The basis of design is an architectural truth which becomes an emotional truth." In the clips we caught a glimpse of the dead-end street street where the title character of Alfred Hitchock's "Marnie" experienced an early trauma -- with a huge, patently artificial painted backdrop of a docked ship smack in the center of the image. And you know what? It absolutely works. Emotional truth. Movies at their best.
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