White—no fan of Precious—takes the podium. “Mo’Nique could not attend tonight, but the award is hers.” He shrugs and moves on without a word of praise for her. It’s an ungallant reminder of why critics and moviemakers don’t get together more often.
Bigelow accepts her prizes with elegant understatement, and Waltz winningly tells the critics, “I’m so grateful to get to stand up in front of you who I hoped to fear one day.” But it’s up to Clooney to save the evening, and he does it twice, as presenter and accepter, both times judging the room with uncanny perceptiveness. Presenting an award to Fantastic Mr. Fox’s shy and rabbity director Wes Anderson, Clooney leans into the lectern and decides to terrorize him, merrily announcing, “I’m like, Mariah Carey fucked up right now!” Hoots and cheers. “I was talking to Wes, and he told me, ‘George, tonight, when I give my acceptance speech, I’m gonna blow the roof off this fuckin’ place!’ I said, ‘Wes, there are people who are really good at this—Meryl Streep is here!’ He said, ‘Fuck her!’ ” Roars from the room, and from Streep, who gives Anderson a standing ovation. Clooney concludes his own acceptance by noting that he’s a sincere fan of print journalism, reminding everyone that his dad was a newspaper guy and saying, “I really do wish you all the best of luck.” Well played.
Clooney is honored again the next night—this time in a tie with Morgan Freeman—at the National Board of Review Awards dinner at Cipriani. The NBR is a somewhat mysterious organization with a voting process that is, in its murkiness, halfway between the College of Cardinals and a Florida election. These days, its claim to fame is that it announces winners before any other group—the news came way back on December 3, allowing information-starved Oscar handicappers to sift the group’s choices obsessively even while insisting that they are a harbinger of nothing. But five weeks later, the NBR’s decision to go heavily for the indifferently received Invictus—giving it Best Actor and Best Director—seems like a bad guess, a case of failed futures trading.
News of the earthquake in Haiti has just broken, and as the long evening unfolds, BlackBerrying starts—first surreptitiously, then with impunity. (Some are scanning the news, although in truth, many more are relishing the gleeful Schadenfreude of reading about Jay and Conan.) But others are watching the acceptance speeches closely. Perhaps too closely. It’s easy for people in the thick of the process to believe that even the smallest moment can pivotally affect the Oscars—that whether through emotionalism or wit or galvanic skin response, someone is always acquiring momentum or losing it. Even 30 seconds at a microphone becomes overburdened with portent. From the back of the vast room, a publicist watches The Hurt Locker’s “Breakthrough Actor” winner Jeremy Renner, a soft-spoken guy who gives the intriguing impression that at any moment he could ricochet in an unexpected direction, accept his prize and remark with a wry smile, “It feels cool to still be breaking out at 39 … I’m okay with that.”
“There could have been more money spent on our campaign. It’s depressing that [there wasn’t]—and depressing that it’s necessary at all.”
“Ugh!” the publicist says, as adrenalized as someone in a presidential-debate spin room. “Did you see him up there? He was comatose! We’re going to have to wake him up or he’s not going to win anything.”
That panic feels symptomatic of a recession year during which, uncharacteristically, nobody has overspent on trade advertisements or lavish parties—yes, even during a period of record-breaking box office. The electorate, perhaps even the Oscar electorate, seems surly, and no company wants to look Marie Antoinette–ish. (Not that things will ever go back to the days of mid-nineties Miramaxian campaign excess; according to Academy regulations, studios can’t even have quotes from critics on the DVD packages they send to voters.)
So Campaign 2010 is leaning heavily on “free media,” from online interviews to large-scale coups like the hour 20/20 devoted to The Blind Side to the holy grail of an embrace from Oprah (who, besides serving with Tyler Perry as co–fairy godmother of Precious, has bestowed her show’s largesse on Avatar, Nine, and Up in the Air). An acceptance speech is free media, even if only a few dozen Oscar voters are listening. You better work it, Renner! Later in the evening, a few people actually express disappointment when Best Actress winner Carey Mulligan fails to weep at the podium.
It’s a good night for Up in the Air, which also wins Best Adapted Screenplay (Reitman’s and Sheldon Turner’s awkward, have-we-met? acceptance speeches look like exactly what they are—the result of a Writers Guild credit arbitration) and Best Picture. Presenter Michael Douglas praises the movie for “its ability to blend social commentary with good old-fashioned entertainment.” That is, in one sentence, the pitch—the sell that the backers of Up in the Air want to resonate with Oscar voters—and very much the argument they do not want Avatar to hijack over the coming week, when the action moves to Los Angeles. Avatar has, by this point, bolstered its other narratives by shocking the conventional wisdom and opening to stellar reviews. If the Oscars are all about story line, the skepticism that preceded Avatar’s first screenings was the best thing that could have happened to it.