The Academy Awards held few surprises for the second year in a row, making it one of the most boring races in years. Although a few surprises seemed possible, those that did materialize were in categories that only true Oscar geeks would notice. For instance, the animated short winner, “Ryan,” which took the Gold away from frontrunner, “Birthday Boy.” But most every win was easily predicted by those who monitor the race. Does it matter if everyone already knows how it’s going to come out? In some cases, yes. In other cases, no. It depends on how beloved the film or performer is to the American populace. The Oscars were never designed, particularly, to draw ratings for the broadcast; what they were designed to do, way back when they were invented, was to bring more people to the movie theater to see the movies, to generate business for the entertainment industry. The industry doesn’t really need the Oscars anymore; the number-one films weekend after weekend are Boogeyman, Meet the Fockers, and the like. Instead, the Oscars are now a pseudo-cultural cover for what amounts to nothing more than a popularity contest. In case you were wondering why everyone focuses on the fashion, it’s because there really isn’t any other reason to care about the Oscars, is there? Wouldn’t most of us have rather been watching “Desperate Housewives” last Sunday? Tell the truth. Where earlier in the awards season it seemed like Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator was going to finally bring the great director best picture and best director statuettes, along came Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby, which was easily digestible, and most people (other than sucker romantics, like me) pegged as the winner as the buzz mounted to deafening in the weeks before in the ceremony. Eastwood, at 74, becomes the oldest person to ever win a directing Oscar. What’s more impressive is that a man his age would be directing the best films of his career in the last several years – and he is. In attempting to predict the Oscar winner this year, the only pre-Oscar award that counted was the Directors Guild (along with the Golden Globe award for director, but the Globes aren’t reliable predictors). No other guild, from the Producers to the Actors to the Cinematographers to the Editors, mattered. It was all about Clint. Baby took picture, director, actress and supporting actor, but didn’t take a screenplay prize, which rarely happens. That more than anything tells you that the Academy members’ love for Eastwood overrode anything else. The film itself, which is easy to watch but doesn’t hold up to next day scrutiny, was judged by different standards than most, because it was a tender love story about an aging tough guy who shows his vulnerability directed by an aging tough guy who showed us his vulnerability by directing it. Nice move, Clint! The other key to this year’s awards was the silent battle of traditional directors like Eastwood who are fighting the current trend of blockbusters with dazzling special effects and mega-budgets that aim to please the 18 – 24 crowd. Eastwood’s film was made for a scant $30 million and Eastwood made sure during voting season people knew it. The critics rallied around the film as well, with the New York Times supporting Baby by doing one fluff piece after another about Eastwood, as well the Los Angeles Times, which didn’t run a Scorsese piece until long after voting had closed, but felt free to run two Eastwood pieces in the fertile voting period. Finally, Roger Ebert continually announced on his program that Million Dollar Baby was deserving of Best Picture. The other factor, of course, was that Baby was a film that not only made grown men cry but it inspired a protective stance by audiences who wanted to see Maggie Fitzgerald and Frankie and Scrap succeed. It is a movie that draws people in in ways a Scorsese picture can’t; that kind of love is powerful but fleeting – generally, sappy films are impossible to vote against but don’t stand the test of time. For her part, Hilary Swank exclaimed for the world to hear, “I’m just a girl from a trailer park with a dream!” A declaration that might unseat Sally Field’s (another two-time Best Actress winner) own embarrassing, “you like me, you really, really like me.” Swank was the assumed winner, and only Imelda Staunton or Annette Bening stood a chance of upsetting her. With the new Oscar schedule that only gives publicists a month to campaign before voting closes, there was no time to rally around anyone else but Swank. In fact, it’s the shortened season that will continue to make the Oscars outcome woefully predictable. For his brilliant performance as Ray Charles in Ray, Jamie Foxx was widely expected to take Best Actor; as were Morgan Freeman (Baby) and Cate Blanchett (The Aviator) in the supporting categories. Even the screenplay awards were easy to determine early on – Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (original) and Sideways (adapted) took home the awards traditionally given to films loved by critics but not quite mainstream enough to win in any other category. In the end, the Oscars bore out the truth that the Academy almost always goes for movie star-directors when they’re nominated, and that, when combined with a sappy storyline, they are unbeatable, no matter how great the competition. But make no mistake, it is only about who they like, really really like. For the first time in two decades, the best picture winner was not determined by box office. In fact, there was a large disconnect between the public’s favorite and the Academy’s. The two films that were most loved (and most hated) by the public, The Passion of the Christ, and Fahrenheit 9/11 were shut out — presumably due to their controversial nature. The evening’s most depressing element was Scorsese’s loss yet again to an actor-turned-director, and for a boxing movie no less. I can’t pretend to be objective here, but to me, there’s something cruel about the Academy’s need to nominate him every time only to see him lose. Cold Comfort: The Aviator won the most Oscars this year, 5 in total, yet failed to snag the big prizes.
Winners: Picture: Million Dollar Baby Actor: Jamie Foxx, Ray Actress: Hilary Swank, Million Dollar Baby. Supporting Actor: Morgan Freeman, Million Dollar Baby Supporting Actress: Cate Blanchett, The Aviator. Director: Clint Eastwood, Million Dollar Baby. Adapted Screenplay: Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor, Sideways Original Screenplay: Charlie Kaufman, Michel Gondry and Pierre Bismuth, Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind. Art Direction: The Aviator Cinematography: The Aviator Film Editing: The Aviator Visual Effects: Spider-Man 2 Sound Mixing: Ray Editing: The Incredibles Original Score: Finding Neverland Original Song: “Al Otro Lado Del Rio” from The Motorcycle Diaries Costume: The Aviator Make-up: Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. Foreign Film: The Sea Inside (Spain) Animated Feature: The Incredibles Animated Short: Ryan Documentary Feature: Born Into Brothels Documentary Short: Mighty Times: The Children’s March Live Action Short: Wasp. Mirror film critic Sasha Stone edits www.OscarWatch.com.