The 81st Academy Awards confirmed the frustrating truth about the Oscars: actors rarely win for the right parts, and they rarely win for the right reasons. This was all brought home on Sunday when Sean Penn collected his second lead actor Oscar for Milk. Penn’s award seemed to be a confirmation of a good performance, maybe even a great one, but more than that, it felt like a political move against Prop 8. Harvey Milk’s legacy lived on at the Kodak when Dustin Lance Black and Sean Penn both triumphed. Milk beat Andrew Stanton and Jim Reardon’s superior script for Wall-E, it also beat Courtney Hunt’s screenplay for Frozen River. Penn beat Mickey Rourke, who gave the better performance, the more heart-wrenching one, and the more physically difficult one. Penn delivers one brilliant performance after the next, one incarnation after the next. When Milk came along it was as though people forgot this about him. Yes, it was brilliant the same way Meryl Streep is brilliant. If we’re going to give the man an Oscar every time he turns in a great performance, the Oscars are going to look like the Emmys. Mickey Rourke deserved to win and he deserved it for many reasons, the least of which was the work itself. The reason Rourke didn’t win wasn’t because of the work. It was probably because Rourke never cleaned himself up enough in the race towards Oscar. He smiled out at his audience with his missing tooth, capped with silver at last for the Oscars. He let his raggedy hair dangle over his eyes and he never took off his sunglasses. He was crude and clumsy, saying whatever popped into his mind. He belonged in a sweat house, not among the tuxedo-clad, soft-palmed, sophisticates. Look at how long it took Penn to clean himself up enough for them. You might say, well Penn deserved to win because he gave the more complex performance. I would remind you of Denzel Washington, who won for Training Day not because he deserved it but because he was due. Russell Crowe more than deserved it that year for A Beautiful Mind, but since Russell had just pinned some lowly hotel worker to the wall, he lost the Oscar that year. They had no problem voting for Denzel Washington, squeaky clean man that he is.In a night full of predictable wins, few will stand the test of time and one day it will be obvious to everyone who reflects upon this year that Mickey Rourke was the clear winner. Academy history is littered with injustices. Al Pacino finally won an Oscar for Scent of a Woman. Paul Newman won for The Color of Money. Henry Fonda didn’t win until he made On Golden Pond. If ever Mickey Rourke gets a second shot at Oscar you can bet he won’t be so optimistic. He’ll have learned his lesson by the bait and switch of this season, the tease that brought oh so very close but not quite close enough. Sean Penn used his time at the podium wisely. He made it known, loud and clear, that he was standing there for a reason. And though a couple of life-affirming speeches at the Oscars make the Academy feel good about themselves, and perhaps a few of the millions watching at home, whether it does any good or not in the long run remains to be seen. What we do know is that Mickey Rourke had to go home that night without the Oscar he richly deserved. And without his dog Loki, who had died days before. For some people, good fortune is as elusive and unpredictable as a rainbow: it’s so beautiful to look at but impossible to hold on to.
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