On Oscar Night, The King’s Speech Reigns Supreme

There were precious few surprises at the 83rd Oscars on the night the Academy tried to appeal to a younger demographic. But a movie set in the 1930s was the big winner

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Mike Blake / Reuters

Best Actor winner Colin Firth poses backstage at the 83rd Academy Awards in Hollywood on Feb. 27, 2011

Success has many cousins. Just a few minutes after the end of the 83rd Academy Awards ceremony — with The King’s Speech picking up four out of a possible 12 Oscars, for Best Picture, Actor, Director and Original Screenplay — the Stuttering Foundation of America e-mailed a press release: “Stuttering Reigns King at Oscars.” “It is an eloquently golden night for people who stutter,” proclaimed the foundation’s president, Jane Fraser. “The King’s Speech has been a godsend for the entire stuttering community.”

Sunday night’s ceremony tried to be a godsend for the entire film community by playing to two different demographics: the young, whose attendance keeps Hollywood in business; and the much older crowd of film professionals sitting in the Kodak Theatre. In an attempt to make the show less antediluvian and more, well, diluvian, the producers offered the two youngest co-hosts and cutest couple in Oscar history: James Franco, 32, and Anne Hathaway, 28, whose combined ages are less than that of last year’s co-host Steve Martin, 65. A fraternity of young presenters made jokes about Banksy, Charlie Sheen and iPhone apps, and one of the snazzier set pieces was a medley of fake songs from “unintentional musicals” (Twilight, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1, The Social Network) by the Gregory Brothers of Auto-Tune the News.

(See the best moments from the 2011 Oscars.)

But the Academy’s mission is to tie the industry’s so-so present with its more glamorous past. It’s really designed for the geriatric set, the elderati, if you will. So this year’s show opened with an evocation of one 1939 classic, Gone with the Wind, and ended with another, as the fifth-graders from P.S. 22 in Staten Island, N.Y., sang “Over the Rainbow” from The Wizard of Oz. The first star presenter was stroke-hobbled, 94-year-old Kirk Douglas, who flirted with Best Supporting Actress winner Melissa Leo, saying, “You’re much more beautiful than you were in The Fighter,” to which she replied, “Hey, you’re pretty good-looking yourself. What’re you doin’ later on?” (For the kids, Leo detonated an F bomb, which Franco and Hathaway quickly picked up on.) There were clips from the luncheons held for the winners of the technical awards and for special honorees Francis Ford Coppola, Kevin Brownlow, Jean-Luc Godard and Eli Wallach (the lifetime achievement tributes were scrapped from the main proceedings). The in memoriam segment, with its glimpses of last year’s deceased artistes while Celine Dion sang live, reminded viewers that they’re all gonna die.

It’s really a miracle that hundreds of millions of people still watch this stately parade. You’d have thought by now that the Academy would take a cue from shows like American Idol and, instead of simply announcing the winners, have a public countdown. Especially in the Best Picture category, now stuffed with 10 nominees, it would add welcome suspense to slice off the bottom five by midshow and then eliminate other nominees one by one until just two were left standing. But no, that would be too … entertaining. To make the evening even more obscure, at least half of the awards categories cover either crafts that the mass of film fans don’t care about or films they haven’t heard of and will likely never see.

By coincidence or design, the ceremony played to the moviegoing majority. Every feature film given an Oscar, except for the foreign-language and documentary winners, earned more than $100 million at the worldwide box office. The two top-grossing pictures of 2010 snagged two prizes each: Toy Story 3, for Best Animated Feature and Song (“We Belong Together” by Randy Newman, which was his second win and 20th nomination), and Alice in Wonderland, for Best Art Direction and Costume Design. Inception, another international smash, took four Oscars in the craft categories. The King’s Speech is closing in on $250 million worldwide, and The Social Network (Best Adapted Screenplay, Editing and Score) is not far behind. The Fighter (Best Supporting Actor and Actress for Christian Bale and Leo) and The Wolfman (Best Makeup) are each $100 million–plus grossers. So there was no need, when a winning film’s name was announced, for an instant search on IMDb.

(See “Oscar Fashion: The 9 Best Women over 40.”)

That also meant precious few upsets. All the odds-on-favorite actors, including Black Swan‘s Natalie Portman and Colin Firth of The King’s Speech, won as expected. But for those predicting a King’s Speech sweep of six or seven Oscars, the show generated some nail biting. With just four awards to go, the front runner had won only for Best Screenplay. When it lost to The Social Network in a couple of categories, like Best Editing, which often mirrors the eventual winner of Best Picture, fans of the Facebook film dared to hope for an upset — a dream dashed when Tom Hooper won for Best Director. That yanked the proceedings out of its Inception-like state and into reality, as the Stuttering Foundation’s poster film roared back to take Best Actor and Picture.

With few surprises in the main categories, viewers looked for enlivening moments of wit or stumbling. The host tandem didn’t provide much of either. While Hathaway poured frantic charm into the gig, providing cheerleader whoops after nearly every introduction, Franco seemed to be there under protest. The famous multitasker was more attentive to his tweets and vlogs than to his gig and, as if one-half of some secretly feuding duo, barely glanced in Hathaway’s direction the entire evening.

As if sensing that their hosts would need help, producers Bruce Cohen and Don Mischer called on earlier emcees, one from the grave. Alec Baldwin, who shared duties with Martin last year, played a character in the clever opening sequence, directed by Troy Miller, that planted Hathaway and Franco in an Inception scenario. Hugh Jackman, the 2009 host, served as the brow-furrowing subject of a Hathaway song. (The lady’s got Broadway chops, as she proved in an Encores! revival of Carnival nine years ago, but the bit was too insidery and totally pointless.) Billy Crystal, host of eight Oscar shows, dating back to 1989, was given an entire segment to pay tribute to 18-time host Bob Hope, who died at the age of 100 in 2003. On tape, Hope got off one of the evening’s best-targeted jokes: “The suspense is fabulous. And all the praying: thousands of voices saying, ‘Let it be me. And if not me — not him.’ “

(See Tuned In’s review of the 2011 Oscars.)

We were left with these random epiphanies and moments: onetime Nine Inch Nails bad boys Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, while accepting the Oscar for Best Score for The Social Network, earned another prize for Best Behaved Winners by thanking the Academy, their director and their wives and kids … the remark by Dave Elsey, a co-winner with Hollywood makeup legend Rick Baker, “It was always my ambition to lose an Oscar one day to Rick Baker. This is better” … the strange outbreak of prop comedy, with Douglas doing his shtick with a cane and an Alice in Wonderland winner placing a tiny Mad Hatter chapeau on his statuette’s head … the tornado entrance of Harpo-haired Like Matheny, winner in the live-action short category, who thanked his mother for doing craft services on the film (Best Director winner Hooper also thanked his mom) … and 20-time nominee Newman’s typically dyspeptic thank you, in which he noted that “at the lunch for the nominees, they have a Randy Newman chicken by this time,” and then chastised the Academy for nominating only four songs. “You could find a fifth song from someone,” he groused. “But hell with it — it might have beat me.”

Really, the show had something for everyone, except the stutterers, to complain about. But hell with it — we’ll be back next year.

See TIME’s review of The King’s Speech.

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