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‘The Artist’ triumphs; Streep surprises

Wesley Morris and Ty Burr on the Oscars
By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / February 27, 2012
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Hollywood celebrated its own roots last night at the 84th annual Academy Awards. The Oscar for best picture of 2011 went to “The Artist,’’ the only silent film to take the top prize other than “Wings,’’ which won at the very first Academy Awards in 1929. The film also won statues for Michel Hazanavicius’s direction, Jean Dujardin’s lead performance as a silent star struggling with the coming of sound, costume design, and musical score.

“Hugo,’’ Martin Scorsese’s enchanted salute to the very earliest days of cinema, also won five Oscars in the “craft’’ categories of cinematography, art direction, visual effects, sound mixing, and sound editing.

The evening’s biggest surprise was Meryl Streep’s best actress win for her portrayal of former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher in “The Iron Lady.’’ It was Streep’s 17th nomination, but while the actress has far more nods than any other performer in the Academy’s history, she hadn’t won an Oscar since 1982’s “Sophie’s Choice,’’ and the smart money was on Viola Davis for “The Help.’’

The smart money was wrong. In her acceptance speech, Streep thanked her husband, Don Gummer, and her longtime hair and makeup artist Roy Helland, who earlier in the evening won the Oscar for best makeup. “I see my life before my eyes, my old friends and my new friends,’’ said the jubilant actress, thanking them for “this inexplicably wonderful career.’’

Dujardin’s performance was based partly on silent icon Douglas Fairbanks, whom the actor cited as an inspiration in his speech. Dujardin is the first Frenchman to win a best actor award, but the film’s allegiance to Hollywood then and now is clear. In accepting the best picture award, Hazanavicius thanked the late, legendary writer-director Billy Wilder not once, but three times.

The award for best supporting actress went to a tearful Octavia Spencer for her broadly touching performance in “The Help.’’ Best supporting actor went to Christopher Plummer for his role as an elderly gay dad in “Beginners.’’

At 82, Plummer is the oldest performer to ever win an acting Oscar; much loved for his many roles over the years, including Captain Von Trapp in 1965’s “The Sound of Music,’’ “Beginners’’ marked only his second Oscar nomination, after a supporting actor nod for “The Last Station’’ in 2009. Said Plummer as he accepted his statue, “When I first emerged from my mother’s womb, I was already rehearsing my Academy acceptance speech. Thankfully, that was so long ago, I’ve forgotten it.’’

This year’s Oscars seemed obsessed with the past. “Hugo’’ and “The Artist’’ led the pack with 11 and 10 nominations, respectively, and both films looked back to long-vanished eras in filmmaking - the primitive movie magic of special-effects pioneer Georges Melies in “Hugo’’ and the tumult of the transition to talking pictures in “The Artist.’’ Most of the nominees, in fact, offered retro pleasures of one sort or another, with only “The Descendants’’ and parts of “Midnight in Paris’’ taking place in the here and now.

But even “Midnight,’’ director Woody Allen’s biggest hit in years and winner of the Oscar for best original screenplay - as usual, he wasn’t there to accept - was primarily about the lure of the past. Oscar voters appeared to be listening. A recent news article revealing the demographic makeup of the Academy (primarily male, white, and aged) further underscored the culturally conservative tendencies of this, the biggest and oldest film awards event of them all.

That said, the awarding of the best foreign language Oscar to “A Separation’’ marked the first time the Academy had honored a film from Iran. Writer-director Asghar Farhadi dedicated his win to the people of his country in a speech that seemed carefully tailored to avoid political repercussions back home.

Best adapted screenplay went to Alexander Payne, Jim Rash, and Manchester-by-the-Sea native Nat Faxon for their script for “The Descendants,’’ a poignant comedy-drama that at one point last fall looked like a major Oscar contender but that walked away with only one award last night.

Honorary Oscars went to actor James Earl Jones and makeup artist Dick Smith, and the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award went to Oprah Winfrey for her global charity efforts. As expected, the Oscar for best animated feature went to the reptilian spaghetti-western parody “Rango,’’ with director Gore Verbinski thanking his vocal leading man, “that real-life chameleon, Johnny Depp.’’

“Undefeated,’’ a crowd-pleaser about a struggling high school football team, won best documentary feature in a tightly contested category. Best short documentary went to “Saving Face,’’ about efforts to help female victims of acid attacks in Pakistan.

An unexpected exception to the march of awards for “Hugo’’ and “The Artist’’ was the Oscar for best editing to “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,’’ one of the few nominated films that was squarely in the culture’s commercial mainstream. In a year in which the relevance of the Academy Awards was the subject of even more debate than usual, the nine films nominated for best picture included only one, the civil rights-era melodrama “The Help,’’ that made more than $100 million at the box office. The raucous comedy hit “Bridesmaids’’ was nominated in the writing and supporting actress categories but shut out elsewhere.

The rules for nominating pictures were altered several years ago, in part to allow for a broader range of genres and films, but best picture nominees like “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close,’’ “War Horse,’’ and “Hugo’’ found it comparatively difficult to find broad commercial success.

Despite being moved up a month in 2004, the Oscars still come at the end of a three-month long march of awards, and suspense is hard to come by. “The Artist’’ debuted at the Cannes Film Festival in May and was immediately acclaimed as a dark horse longshot for best picture. By Oscar week, after winning a Golden Globe and dozens of other awards, its momentum seemed unstoppable. The best picture win means that “The Artist’’ is the first film to take the top prize at the Oscars, France’s Cesars, the British Academy awards, the Golden Globes, and the Independent Spirit Awards.

After recent Oscar telecasts tried courting younger audiences to general derision, this year brought actor-comedian Billy Crystal back as host for his ninth time. The opening clip-reel parody and the song-and-dance number referencing all the best picture nominees made the show feel like 1998 all over again, even if Justin Bieber made a brief appearance in a comic attempt to “court the 18 to 24 audience.’’

The nominations and wins for “Hugo’’ were especially a vindication for director Martin Scorsese, who tackled a genre (family fantasy) well outside his accepted purview of crime fiction and who gambled further that 3-D could be more than just a technological fad. That the film employed the latest cinematic gizmo to elevate the oldest ways of making movies was just one more retro irony in an evening packed with them.

Ty Burr can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.

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