By Steven Rea The Philadelphia Inquirer
PHILADELPHIA — Silence is golden. Oscar golden.
“The Artist,” the French-made, black-and-white silent film that tips its hat jauntily to Hollywood’s early days, won five Oscars Sunday night at a nostalgia-soaked 84th Academy Awards ceremony in Hollywood. “Hugo,” Martin Scorsese’s elaborate 3-D fantasy — and a film that also celebrates cinema’s nascency — scored five Oscars, too, but mostly in technical categories.
Capping an improbable awards season run (and nabbing best picture, best actor, and two other prizes at the Independent Spirit Awards held Saturday), “The Artist” didn’t sweep in its 10 nominated categories, but charmed Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences voters — scoring precious metal for best picture, best actor, best director, original score and costumes. It is only the second silent film in Oscar history to win best picture. The first, “Wings,” was honored at the inaugural Academy Awards ceremony in 1929.
Jean Dujardin, who stars in “The Artist” as the silent-era screen idol struggling to make the transition to talkies, is the first Frenchman to win the best-actor Oscar. George Clooney, nominated for his beautifully nuanced work in “The Descendants,” will have to wait another day. And year.
The Oscar for actress in a leading role went to Meryl Streep, for her decades-spanning portrait of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in “The Iron Lady.” It was Streep’s 17th nomination, but the first time she took home an Oscar in 29 years; then, she won for “Sophie’s Choice.” Streep is now in the three-peat club, having won a supporting-actress Academy Award for “Kramer vs. Kramer.”
Moviedom’s betuxed and begowned luminaries stepped off the red carpet and into a remade, and rechristened, movie palace — the Hollywood and Highland Center, known until just this week as the Kodak — to bathe in a glamorous retro glow. (The Kodak company is in bankruptcy, and gave up its naming rights for the theater, which emcee Billy Crystal dubbed “the beautiful Chapter 11 Theatre.”)
The celebration of movies’ “glorious past” (per Morgan Freeman, the first star to step on the stage) and their perhaps-not-so-glorious present began with Crystal, host of the telecast for the ninth time, inserting himself into a montage of clip mock-offs and offering his traditional song-and-dance medley honoring (kind of) this year’s nine best-picture nominees.
Octavia Spencer won the supporting-actress statuette in the earliest of the evening’s major awards. Spencer, a first-time Oscar nominee, won for her scene-stealing performance in “The Help” as a feisty and acerbic Mississippi maid. She accepted the prize happily, and tearfully.
Christopher Plummer won the supporting actor Oscar, for his performance in “Beginners,” playing a father who comes out of the closet late in his life. The veteran actor accepted the much-deserved award with a gracious nod to his competition in the category, which included the also-82-year-old Max von Sydow. Plummer held his Oscar aloft and quipped, “You’re only two years older than me, darling. Where have you been all my life?”
With best picture contenders “The Artist,” “Hugo,” “Midnight in Paris” and “War Horse” all steeped in nostalgia, and with the Oscars’ venue dressed up to resemble a grand, old-fashioned bijou, the evening’s ceremony was as much a loving look back through decades of movie-making as it was a salute to the movies of 2011, some still playing in the multiplexes, others streaming and just out on DVD.
The first of the night’s Academy Awards went to Robert Richardson for the eye-popping 3-D cinematography on Martin Scorsese’s best picture nominee, the children’s fantasy “Hugo.” “Hugo” also pocketed early prizes for art direction, sound editing and mixing. If there were surprises to be had, they were few and far between: an editing award for “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” even shocked its speechless editing duo. Woody Allen, on the other hand, was expected to win the best original screenplay Oscar for his hit “Midnight in Paris,” and he did, although characteristically, Allen was not present to receive his award.
The adapted screenplay Oscar went to Alexander Payne and his co-writers for “The Descendants,” working from the Kaui Hart Hemmings’ novel.
“A Separation,” the Iranian drama about a couple lost in a tumult of domestic and moral concerns, won the Oscar for best foreign-language film. It was the first Academy Award for a feature from the troubled Middle Eastern country. Asghar Farhadi, the film’s director, had also been nominated in the best original-screenplay category.
“Rango,” the enjoyably wacko, Johnny Depp-voiced tale of a lizard lawman, came away with the best animated feature Academy Award, winning over two box-office hits (“Kung Fu Panda 2” and “Puss In Boots”) and two little-seen cartoon imports (“A Cat in Paris” and “Chico &Rita.”)
“Undefeated,” a documentary about an underdog high school football team, its trouble-plagued players and inspirational coach, won the documentary feature Oscar. The film plays like a verite version of “The Blind Side.”