With Oscar winners 2012, Hollywood stays in its comfort zone

Nostalgia and historical fare carried the day at Sunday's Academy Awards. 'The Artist,' a black-and-white silent film celebrating Hollywood history, topped the list of Oscar winners 2012.

Chris Pizzello/AP
Octavia Spencer with the Oscar for best actress in a supporting role for "The Help", left, and Meryl Streep with the Oscar for best actress in a leading role for "The Iron Lady" pose at the Governors Ball following the 84th Academy Awards on Sunday, Feb. 26, in the Hollywood section of Los Angeles.

The 84th annual Academy Awards Sunday night was an exercise in comfortable nostalgia.

From the return of well-liked host Billy Crystal, for his ninth tour of duty, to the sweep of the ceremony’s top awards by "The Artist" – a black-and-white silent movie celebrating Hollywood history, which won for Best Actor, Best Film, and Best Director – the evening tripped heavily down memory lane.

Veteran actors such as Christopher Plummer and Meryl Streep, who was up for her 17th nomination and took home her third statuette, lent to Tinseltown an aura of timelessness. 

“My feeling is we live in a time where looking forward is very discomfiting,” composer Charles Bernstein said by cellphone as he mingled his way from the ceremony to the Governor’s Ball on Sunday night. “So we are looking backwards, and frankly nobody does that better than the movies.”

The music of this year's Best Film nominees underscores his point, he says. “All the film scores are like musical time machines,” says Mr. Bernstein. Whether set in 1929 Hollywood, Paris in the early 20th century, the cold-war era, or World War I, he notes, “they took us back to other times and places.”  

Nostalgia often overlooks the messy reality of another era, says Derek Burrill, associate professor of media and cultural studies at the University of California, Riverside, who notes with chagrin that his only miscalculation on his Oscar-party ballot was in the Best Actress category.

“I had picked Viola Davis for ‘The Help,' ” he says. But he's not surprised she didn't win, saying that the movie was outside Hollywood's comfort zone this year, despite what he calls its whitewashing of the civil rights era in the Deep South.

The choices of Meryl Streep and French actor Jean Dujardin for the top acting awards are good fits for the mood at the moment, he says. “In a down economy, people value hard work,” and those films show the performers working really hard, he notes. “Just look at the sheer athleticism of Dujardin,” says Mr. Burrill. And Streep's obvious skill in her portrayal of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher makes giving her the top honor an easy decision. Those two awards were not handouts to celebrities. “We live in an era of divides between the 1 [percent] and [the] 99 percent," so “it really helps that these actors earned their Oscars,” he says.

However, Crystal did gently tweak the Academy by noting that audiences enjoyed watching millionaires give one another gold statuettes. “He borrowed that from Ricky Gervais,” Burrill says, noting that the British comedian specializes in tweaking the Hollywood Foreign Press Association for the self-congratulatory narcissism of the Golden Globe awards.

While Crystal's elbowing was hardly more than a G-rated laugh line during the awards show, it points out the darker side of the Academy Awards, says film professor Christopher Sharrett of Seton Hall University. “What this awards ceremony really makes you realize is the extremely narrow range of films that Hollywood celebrates,” he says. The film output in any given year runs into the hundreds in the United States “and [the] thousands if you include international cinema,” he notes.

Mr. Sharrett concurs with the assessment that the Academy Awards show and others like it these are more about priming these films for the market, not about ferreting out the highest artistic achievement in filmmaking. The aim was a feel-good telecast that didn't include topics that might make people feel uncomfortable: “The fact that even ‘The Help’ wasn’t showcased more at the ceremonies says a lot,” he notes. “This is a calculated moneymaking event.”

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