Winners are a nod to Hollywood glory

Oscar smiles on classical moviemaking

The 77th Annual Academy Awards

February 28, 2005|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

It was a replay of the 1976 Oscars, when a boxing movie named Rocky, written by and starring Sylvester Stallone, beat out Scorsese's Taxi Driver.

This year, a boxing film directed by and starring another action icon, Clint Eastwood, beat out Scorsese's The Aviator. The loss left Scorsese at 0 for 5, the same Oscars record as Alfred Hitchcock and Robert Altman.

On a night when the academy promised to pay tribute to the old and new, Million Dollar Baby proved to be the voters' idea of a character-centered, emotional movie.

Best actor Jamie Foxx earned the warmest reception of the night for playing Ray Charles in Ray - and, in his acceptance, told of actor Sidney Poitier's bequeathing him some of the older African-American star's sense of "responsibility."

The most overdue prize went to another great African-American talent, Morgan Freeman, best supporting actor for Million Dollar Baby. His ingratiating turn as a kindly gym manager wasn't in the same league as his previous nominated performances as the pimp in Street Smart (1987), the chauffeur in Driving Miss Daisy (1989) and the convict in The Shawshank Redemption (1994).

Yet as the awards for Freeman, Hilary Swank as best actress and Eastwood as best director made clear, academy members considered Million Dollar Baby classical American moviemaking. Only a few critics felt that its labored, obvious trudge to a heavyhanded twist was more like a remote memory of any old studio boxing picture - and that the reverence for Eastwood was a sign of aging baby boomers giving into geezer chic.

It would have been the perfect night for Scorsese to bring home the prize. Sidney Lumet, the New York director of the late 20th century, won an honorary Oscar and saluted Scorsese in his remarks.

Watching clips from Lumet pictures such as Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon, you felt the kinetics of Lumet catching character in motion. But you also sensed the energy of a filmmaker feeding off an explosive city, as Scorsese did in Mean Streets and Taxi Driver and Raging Bull.

Scorsese, a vocal advocate for film preservation, was the perfect presenter for the Jean Hersholt Humanitiarian Award to Roger Mayer, founder of the National Film Preservation Foundation.

And the dominance of Scorsese's film in the prime craft categories helped the academy make good on the pledge it made during the opening split-screen montage of classic and contemporary movies - that it would deliver an evening marrying film past to film present.

Many of the winners brought new life to the honorable Hollywood legacies of trompe l'oeil wizardry and creative glamour, most hilariously Brad Bird, the writer-director of the best animated feature The Incredibles. Bird imparted the snap and brilliance of a Buster Keaton comedy or a Douglas Fairbanks swashbuckler to a computer-animated action comedy. With that supercharged pixie Edna Mode, costume wizard to the title superheroes, he also created and gave voice to an uproarious tribute to Hollywood wardrobe legend Edith Head.

Cate Blanchett's Katharine Hepburn was only one of many skillful and flamboyant homages to the Golden Ages of Hollywood and international cinema that won prizes for The Aviator. The art direction of Dante Ferretti (who began his career working for Fellini) and the editing of Thelma Schoonmaker (the widow of that towering British director Michael Powell) helped Scorsese use contemporary tools, including digital wizardry, not to just to blow an audience's collective mind but also to expand it - both to put viewers in the middle of extreme experience, just as Howard Hughes did in Hells Angels, and to give them the feel of bygone eras.

But it was Million Dollar Baby's night, and Freeman voiced his delight that two more wins for African-Americans (himself and Foxx) mean that Hollywood is "evolving with the rest of the world."

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