Seriously, by the end of Hugh Jackman's opening number during the 2009 Academy Awards telecast, did it even matter if the rest of the show was any good?
Those who'd seen Jackman's three terms as emcee for Broadway's Tony Awards pretty much knew the star would make for a sharp, genial, singing-and-dancing ringleader here - he won an Emmy for his hosting duties in 2005 - and even those who hadn't were likely relieved at the momentary break from the snarky, stand-up stylings of previous Oscar hosts Jon Stewart, Whoopi Goldberg, and Steve Martin. Yet a mere 10 minutes into Sunday night's broadcast of the 81st Annual Academy Awards, it was clear that producers Bill Condon and Laurence Mark (respectively, the writer/director and producer of 2006's Dreamgirls), in their first stab at this annual entertainment behemoth, hadn't just secured the right man for the job, but (arguably) the new first choice for all future takes on the job.
In the first of many, many breaks from recent tradition, the telecast began not with a series of film clips or a skit, but with the introduction of its host, whose amusingly self-deprecating greeting led directly to the show's opening number - a little something that Jackman "stayed up all night in my garage" putting together. I'm now thinking Jackman's garage might be the most enchanted place on earth.
With the emcee taking a seat within a deliberately tacky set for Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, Jackman's medley of 2009 titles began with a witty goof on Slumdog Millionaire ("What's my final answer? / Is it written there? / Do I really care? / I'm only here so I can phone a friend... ."), and led directly to a Music Man-inspired riff on Milk. It was a terrific start, with the host delivering fine vocals and even better dance moves, but in truth, the number itself didn't appear to offer anything, really, that we hadn't seen in all those Best Picture salutes that made Billy Crystal (the former Best Oscar Host of All Time) deservedly legendary.
Man, did that ever change. Departing from the Best Picture line-up, Jackman gave a nod to the fanboys by hopping onto a makeshift Batmobile for a brief comic screed on the Academy's continual dissing of comic-book movies, followed by a wickedly clever visual/aural combo that found the host enacting five stages of Benjamin Button's development. ("When I was four, my back was sore, and I had pubic hair / I'm aging in reverse but no one seems to be aware... .") And then Anne Hathaway showed up, and if there were any lingering doubts about this being the most sheerly pleasurable opening number in Oscar memory, they were promptly erased.
Pulling her from the front row of the audience, Jackman brought the "unprepared" Rachel Getting Married nominee on stage for a duet that found the host playing David Frost to Hathaway's Richard Nixon, and I pray that some ingenious talents are currently collaborating on an actual musical for the performers to star in together; their routine was sexy, beautifully well sung, and positively hysterical. (Kate Winslet won the Oscar, but Hathaway stole the show.) Then there was a splendidly silly "modern dance" take on The Reader, which the host joked about not having viewed ("I was gonna see it later but I fell behind / My Batmobile took longer than I thought to design... ."), and a glorious climax that found Jackman belting atop the ropes of a wrestling ring, and the Kodak Theatre crowd went understandably berserk - the show wasn't even 15 minutes old, and we'd already witnessed the first of the evening's nine standing ovations. (And the first, to my recollection, to follow an opening production number.)
Had nothing else of interest or enjoyment occurred over the next three hours and 15 minutes, that number - and Jackman's spectacular energy and talent - would have guaranteed this year's ceremony as one for the ages. (Expect Emmy #2 for Jackman this September.) But while nothing to come would match the delirious thrill of its song-and-dance prelude, the shock of the 81st Annual Academy Awards was that the show didn't squander the goodwill of its opener; hour for hour, segment for segment, it was the most brisk, inspired, and wholly entertaining Oscar telecast of the 32 I've yet seen. Condon and Mark promised to shake things up and they did, in large ways and small, and nearly all of their tinkerings with the telecast's annual presentation were terrific ones.
As opposed to the annual tradition of having last year's acting winners present Oscars to victors in gender-opposite categories - last year's Best Actor giving the award to this year's Best Actress, and so on - Condon and Mark lined up five previous recipients in each performance category to present the award together, prefaced by the actors offering testimonies to the nominees' portrayals and careers. (This was done in lieu of performance clips.) Not only was this an extraordinarily generous and big-hearted move - a reminder to everyone that, no matter whose name was in the envelope, all five were winners - but it kept yielding wonderful things: Shirley MacLaine praising Hathaway's "extraordinary voice" and advising the tearful, overjoyed star to "keep singing"; Robert De Niro deadpanning, "How did he do it? How, for so many years, did Sean Penn get all those jobs playing straight men?" (With line-ups that included acting royalty Sophia Loren, Anthony Hopkins, and Eva Marie Saint, the introductions to three of the four acting awards were greeted with standing ovations; only the preface to Best Supporting Actor found the audience seated, perhaps because they knew they'd be standing for the award's eventual, posthumous recipient.)
Equally novel was the presentation of the other awards, fashioned as a kind of "how to make a movie" narrative beginning with the screenplay Oscars, moving through the tech and music categories, and culminating in Best Director, Actor and Actress, and Picture. It was an imperfect strategy (Supporting Actor and the documentary prizes were squeezed in amidst this "chronology"), but it certainly kept the show's tempo hopping along - Will Smith, for instance, revealed the winners in four categories back to back - and there was an additional, time-saving short cut taken in the Best Original Song category, which featured mere 30-second samplings of the nominated songs and culminated in a surprisingly effective melding of all three.
And lord but the show had some big laughs! Along with a Jackman/Hathaway musical, would someone please get to work on a big-screen comedy co-starring Steve Martin and Tina Fey? (I mean another one, as they only shared a few scenes together in Baby Mama.) The duo's breezy, thoroughly hilarious presentation of the screenplay Oscars was probably the evening's comedic highlight - "It has been said that to write is to live forever." "The man who wrote that... is dead." - but we were also treated to Ben Stiller's satisfyingly mean-spirited channeling of Joaquin Phoenix, and Penn's statuette-accepting nod to Hollywood's notoriously liberal bias ("You Commie, homo-loving sons of guns..."), and a hysterical Judd Apatow short that found Seth Rogen's and James Franco's Pineapple Express stoners catching up with nominated films on DVD. (Best gag: Franco mistaking The Love Guru for Slumdog Millionaire. Best meta-gag: Franco watching Franco kissing Penn in Milk.)
Was it a flawless Oscar telecast? Of course not. (Could there be such a thing?) While Queen Latifah performed a gorgeous "I'll Be Seeing You" in the annual tribute to those who've passed, the camera was so busy gliding across the stage that we TV viewers oftentimes couldn't read the names and professions of those being saluted, and even with the Queen singing, the audience still indulged in that damned habit of applauding certain names more than others, as if the deceased were still taking active part in a Hollywood popularity contest. (This year's winner? Paul Newman.)
Despite the talents of Jackman, Beyoncé Knowles, and others, a mid-show salute to musicals was so incoherently assembled that it felt like an elephantine parody of Moulin Rouge's "Elephant Love Medley"... and turned out, depressingly, to have been created by Moulin Rouge auteur Baz Luhrmann himself. And while I thought the presentation of "cinematic yearbooks" - offering film clips from 2008's un-nominated action movies and romances and such - was an excellent notion mostly well-executed, I would've been happier if their editors had somehow forgotten about the existence of Speed Racer and Space Chimps and Star Wars: The Clone Wars.
Quibbles notwithstanding, though, the telecast was superb, and nearly across the board, victors accepted their trophies with graciousness, elegance, good humor, and infectious joy; they made for great television even if you didn't necessarily agree with voters' choices. (Did I want Winslet to win for The Reader? No. Could I be happier about the six-time nominee finally winning? No.) Best Supporting Actress Penélope Cruz was as charmingly ecstatic as Spanish compatriot Javier Bardem was last year; Penn and Milk screenwriter Dustin Lance Black gave impassioned, heartfelt rallying cries in support of gay-marriage legislation; Heath Ledger's parents and sister accepted his statuette with moving sincerity; the expectedly irrepressible Philippe Petit, of Best Documentary Feature winner Man on Wire, balanced the Oscar on his chin. (I didn't go with this win in my predictions, but still wound up guessing 16 of the 24 categories correctly... only two-thirds right, yes, but a whole five better than last year!)
And Best Director Danny Boyle - in one of the eight enormously popular wins for Best Picture champ Slumdog Millionaire - made good on a promise made to his kids by bouncing like Tigger, and praised and thanked Condon, Mark, Jackman, and company for the evening's festivities. "I don't know what it looks like on television," he said to the audience's cheers, "but in the room it's bloody wonderful." It was bloody wonderful out here, too, Danny.