Oscar night 2013 was full of surprises – not all of them pleasant, judging from the responses of some of Hollywood's creative folks, students of American culture, and social media commentary.
Most of the upset winners, such as Ang Lee, who took home the Best Director statuette for “Life of Pi,” surprised and pleased many who had expected Steven Spielberg to sweep most of his 12 nominations for “Lincoln.”
“Argo,” a taut tale about the CIA-Hollywood-engineered rescue of six Americans during the 1979 Iranian revolution, became only the fourth film in the history of the Academy Awards to win the top prize without having its director, Ben Affleck, even be nominated. The coup pleased many insiders who felt Affleck had been overlooked. "Lincoln" fans, though, were appeased when Irish actor Daniel Day-Lewis won the Best Actor award for his portrayal of "honest Abe," making him the first actor ever to take home three Best Actor awards during his career.
But the biggest surprise of all was the startling, and unsettling to some, performance by none other than first lady Michelle Obama. Just when it looked as if a blowzy Jack Nicholson was getting ready to yuck it up over the Best Picture nominations, he handed the evening over to Washington, via satellite. Before opening the envelope to announce the winner, Mrs. Obama delivered a solemn homily about the cultural importance of movies.
She noted that films can lift spirits, broaden minds, and “transport us to places we never imagined." She went on to laud the nine nominated films, noting that they “took us back in time and all around the world.” She continued, “They taught us that love can endure against all odds and transform our lives in the most surprising ways. And they reminded us that we can overcome any obstacle if we dig deep enough and fight hard enough and find the courage to believe.”
To some industry insiders, the first lady's appearance was nothing short of disturbing.
“I find this downright Orwellian,” says Charles Evered, a screenwriter and director whose film “A Thousand Cuts“ was just nominated for the Saturn Awards, which recognize thrillers and science-fiction films. He acknowledges that movies are a business – after all, the Oscars are perhaps the planet’s most-watched industry trade show – but he also says they are an art form. "When the movers and shakers in the industry get so chummy with ordained powers, how can they be expected to make the kinds of films that deliver a genuine cultural critique of Washington politics?” says Mr. Evered, also a professor at the University of California, Riverside.
According to The Hollywood Reporter, arrangements for Obama's appearance were made two weeks ago by film mogul Harvey Weinstein, who shuttled back and forth between the first lady’s handlers and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Los Angeles. On Sunday night, Nicholson reportedly stood by with a duplicate envelope in case of a glitch.
But what the Academy considered to be a broadcast milestone – the first first lady to ever participate in the Academy Awards so directly – Gwendolyn Foster, editor of the Quarterly Review of film and Video at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, saw as an indictment of artistic integrity in Hollywood.
The Oscar telecast, she said via e-mail, is “a giant commercial posing as an artistic awards event.” The capper was Obama’s surprise appearance, she adds.
“The rather bizarre nature of the awards this year reflects the political and economic times we are living through,” Ms. Foster says. "The idea of Hollywood being better at saving Americans from terrorists, as in 'Argo,' was unsurprisingly what thrilled Hollywood insiders and got their vote. Hollywood to the rescue.”
For event attendees, the evening “had a very happy vibe,” says composer Charles Bernstein, as he exited the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood after the awards were handed out. He suggests that the absence of a single big winner sweeping all the categories is a sign of the health and diversity of the movie industry. A former governor of the Academy, Mr. Bernstein points out that it is important to remember that the film industry responds to what moviegoers will pay to see at the box office. “If people don’t want to see the films we make, then there is no industry,” he adds.
The show’s effort to attract a younger audience by having comedian Seth MacFarlane serve as host was generally well received.
But even that had its strange moments, says Brian Volk-Weiss, head of production and senior vice president of talent management at New Wave Entertainment. “I was pretty shocked with his opening monologue,” he says via e-mail, “and not in a good way.... It was way too long, and even though I am a 'Star Trek' fan, the Shatner bit was weird.” MacFarlane chatted with William Shatner in a comic bit showing the former "Star Trek" captain returning from the future to critique the host’s performance.