Meryl Streep provided the only real upset of the night at the 84th Academy Awards Sunday night, breaking a 30-year losing streak. After winning Oscars in 1979 and 1982, she went home empty-handed after 12 nominations in the intervening years. But just as we thought the Oscar voters were starting to take her for granted, they honoured her once more. She may have joked that this was her last chance to win one of these things. But she already has high-profile projects lined up for this year (Great Hope Springs) and next (August: Osage County). And at age 63 she clearly has many great roles ahead of her.
Otherwise, Sunday's show was fairly predictable, with the lion's share of trophies split evenly between the Hollywood studio darling Hugo and the irresistible foreign charmer The Artist. Thankfully, it was the French film that took the top prizes; both films are skillful, inventive paeans to movie history, but The Artist is the much more delicate, subtle piece of work that allows the audience to discover its riches without hitting us over the head with them.
Combined with Meryl's victory, this goes some way to reclaiming a bit of Oscar-voter integrity after their painfully unambitious nominations. Ignoring challenging, boundary-pushing films like Shame, Drive and We Need to Talk About Kevin will always be a black mark on the awards this year, but at least they did the best with the nominations they were given. But although The Tree of Life and Moneyball went home empty-handed, so did Transformers 3 and Real Steel. And giving The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo a top award (for film editing) was a nice touch.
Had Viola Davis won this year as predicted, it would be another case of awarding the prize to a beloved actor in a solid but not particularly outstanding role - see also Sandra Bullock in 2010, Renee Zellweger in 2004, Michael Caine in 2000. The Academy has a history of giving out Oscars to people they like, and there may not be anything wrong with that, except that the winning performances may not be indicative of the actor or filmmaker's best work. Even this year's most long-deserved Oscar - for Christopher Plummer - was for one of his most nuanced and engaging performances.
Perhaps this is what made this year's Oscars feel so classic. Even though most of the winners were easily predicted, the acceptance speeches were heartfelt expressions of joy rather than listings of agents and publicists. The four acting winners were especially irrepressible, letting their unscripted emotion get the better of them as they acknowledged the support of their loved ones and their colleagues. Jean Dujardin simply let his inner charm off the leash. Octavia Spencer fought back tears of astonishment. Plummer and Streep were offhanded, delighted and generous. Even having Billy Crystal back as host for a ninth time gave the show an eerily retro quality. They could have telecast it in black and white.
On the other hand, the show's producers were ruthless in keeping things clipping along. We had Crystal's opening song, a stunning but inexplicable Cirque du Soleil performance and Corinne Bailey Rae's In Memorium tribute, but there were no big musical numbers, which was a shame, as these often provide the evening's most memorable moments. Even the nominated songs were reduced to just a few seconds in a clip (which was kind of harsh given that there were only two nominees in the category). Instead we had talking-head montages of stars reminiscing about the movies - hardly magical or memorable television. And it zipped along so briskly that they were done 20 minutes early. Frankly, I would have enjoyed 20 minutes of tacky musical nuttiness in there somewhere.
That said, this approach did leave the ceremony's best moments to the winners. In previous years they have been upstaged by doc-style short films, rambling presenters and intrusive orchestras. This year's austerity awards only allowed two presenters to really talk, as Natalie Portman and Colin Firth were given the space to talk intimately to the nominees. On the other hand, the Muppets and Ben Stiller and Emma Stone provided comical moments that were a bit strained, and Tom Cruise's climactic appearance to present Best Picture felt rather anti-climactic.
Perhaps skewing younger and hipper simply isn't in Oscar's blood - would it have been too much to have the stars of The Hunger Games on stage? Or maybe Taylor Kitsch in his John Carter loincloth? A nod to Twilight hysteria before the final film lands on us later this year? Crystal continually joked about Oscar's age, joking that after Kodak's bankruptcy the venue was being rebranded The Flomax Theatre. Surely this would be an easy thing to fix for the 85th awards: let some chart-topping music groups perform the nominated songs, get some rising star actors on the stage as presenters, and find a host who's connected with current pop culture. Is Chelsea Handler available?