Embracing past glory

Comedian Billy Crystal popped up at the Oscars last year; this year he hosts for the ninth time and is sure to pop up in a vintage parody.
Comedian Billy Crystal popped up at the Oscars last year; this year he hosts for the ninth time and is sure to pop up in a vintage parody. (MARK J. TERRILL / Associated Press)

Oscar cocks his golden head backward, celebrating silents and nostalgia - not a great draw for awards-show viewers.

Posted: February 26, 2012

The Academy Awards ceremony is, by nature, a rite of self-congratulation and self-love - the movie industry showers plaudits and prizes on itself for the work of the last year, but also for achievements of a lifetime.

Venerable stars and filmmakers are honored for the length and breadth of their careers, vintage clips are spliced into thematic reels, the actors, screenwriters, shooters, costumers, composers, and directors who passed away in the preceding 12 months are remembered.

But as we get ready for the 84th Academy Awards endurance test Sunday night - which is promised, as always, to be fleeter and more fun - Oscar is looking more narcissistic and nostalgic than usual.

Michel Hazanavicius' The Artist, the improbable front-runner in the best-picture race, is a dialogueless, black-and-white film set in, and saluting, Hollywood's silent era. Martin Scorsese's best-picture nominee Hugo, while heavy on CG effects, harks back to moviedom's nascent days, paying tribute to, and projecting footage from, the earliest cinematic endeavors of Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, D.W. Griffith, and, of course, turn-of-the-century motion picture pioneer Georges Méliès (played in the film by Ben Kingsley). Michelle Williams and Kenneth Branagh are in the Oscar hunt for their portrayals of Marilyn Monroe and Laurence Olivier in My Week With Marilyn - about the American sex goddess and the British Shakespearean's problem-plagued collaboration on 1957's The Prince and the Showgirl.

Another best-picture contender, Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris - in which a modern-day protagonist magically time-travels back to the 1920s - parades a squadron of Jazz Age artists, composers, writers, and photographers, including Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí, the duo behind the surrealist classic Un Chien Andalou.

Even the animated-shorts nominees conjure up gems of yesteryear: "The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore" (Oscar-poolers take note: This one is going to win) happily homages Buster Keaton and The Wizard of Oz.

"Celebrate the movies in all of us" is the theme of this year's Academy Awards show. Brian Grazer, the veteran Hollywood producer (and Oscar-winner, for A Beautiful Mind), is overseeing the telecast, and has dispatched his troops to "reimagine" the ceremony's venue, the 2001-built Kodak Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard, to feel more like an old-time movie palace. The idea is not only to tip the hat to vintage Hollywood, but also to get people to consider watching their movies the old-fashioned way, in real brick-and-mortar, wide-screen venues, rather than streaming them on the home computer or watching on an iPhone.

And you can be sure host Billy Crystal (his ninth turn as emcee) will insert himself into some sort of Artist-Hugo-Midnight in Paris parody reel. Wardrobe folks and hairstylists must be going mad with throwback couture and coifs, as the nominees, presenters, and audience members all try to ride the retro wave.

Fans of old movies should be thrilled with this (backward) turn of events. (I am - Turner Classics is my default-mode TV station.) And clearly, the crowd-pleasing The Artist is pleasing crowds in large part because it recognizes the communal, almost primal, experience of watching moving images on a big screen.

But the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, the governing body behind the Oscars, may be kicking itself Monday morning when the audience numbers come in. After expanding the list of best-picture nominees from five to as many as 10 (depending on a first-choice voting system) to embrace more mainstream, mass-appeal movies such as 2010's The Blind Side and last year's Inception, AMPAS and its 5,783 voting members have this year nominated some particularly anemic box-office performers.

To date, the highest-grossing of the nine best-picture candidates is The Help, with $169.6 million in ticket sales. (By contrast, last year's top-grossing best-picture contender was Toy Story 3, earning $415 million, according to boxoffice.com.) The Artist, with Harvey Weinstein and his troops engineering a brilliant marketing campaign, has thus far taken in a modest $28 million at the ticket booth. And if Alexander Payne's The Descendants, starring best-actor front-runner George Clooney, pulls off an upset and wins the best-picture statuette, more people will probably see it when it comes out on DVD and Blu-ray in two weeks than saw it in theaters. Its domestic box office grosses, $75.5 million, aren't bad for an ambitious, complicated family dramedy. But that's by no means a huge number.

If Oscar show ratings correlate with the commercial success of the nominated movies and moviemakers featured therein - the year Titanic won best picture, for example, the Oscars enjoyed some of the largest ratings numbers ever - then the 84th Academy Awards show could be in trouble.

In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Grazer, who stepped in to produce the show after first choice Brett Ratner was booted out, was asked about the big box office/big Nielsens ratings theory.

"I think the movies are important, but I don't subscribe to that entirely," he responded.  "I think the host is pretty central," he added, noting that the Titanic telecast was an aberration - "the most successful movie in the history of film."

The top movies being celebrated Sunday are all about the history of film, but even their cumulative box office doesn't come close to sinking Titanic.

Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at www.philly.com/onmovies.

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