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Happy with the past

When Chris Rock replaced Billy Crystal as host, the Academy Awards promised to be fresh. But the ceremony was dull and the irreverence didn't go down well with the audience.

Comedian Chris Rock's attempts at humour fell flat.

WHEN CHRIS Rock walked onstage to host the Academy Awards ceremony on Sunday night (February 27), he got a standing ovation just for being there — an encouraging sign that the establishment-heavy audience was eager for a show that was fresh and irreverent. That illusion lasted less than five minutes.

All those Oscar voters in the audience weren't amused when Rock started taking some mild jabs at the industry, as he did with an early joke that called Jude Law a second-rank star.

By the end of the evening, Sean Penn was jabbing back with the pompous comment that Jude Law ``is one of our finest actors,'' a humourless, self-important moment he seized before announcing Hilary Swank as the all-too-predictable best-actress winner for "Million Dollar Baby."

The Rock-Penn showdown, and the mini-sweep of top awards for "... Baby," created a perfect snapshot of the dilemma the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences faces: it knows it ought to move into the 21st century but hates the idea.

Rock's presence alone suggests that they know they have to shake things up, if only to compete with the long parade of televised awards shows that now precede it and take such a huge bite out of the Academy Awards' distinctiveness and glamour.

But the tepid response to even the slightest irreverence from the host, and the affection for the old-fashioned "Million Dollar Baby," send a more powerful message: the academy prefers to remain entrenched in the past, clinging to its former glory.

That attitude explains why this year's show was even duller than usual. Rock, probably one of the funniest comedians, is no fool; he knew better than to try to turn the Oscars into the Chris Rock Show. His few attempts to put his mark on the event fell flat.

Because Rock offered few improvised lines, his best moments came from his deadpan delivery, like introducing ``comedy superstar Jeremy Irons,'' but you don't need Chris Rock for that. He was soon trapped in the straitjacket of a deadly format, which takes the Oscars too seriously for their own good and has undermined promising hosts like David Letterman and Steve Martin. Why would anyone have expected anything different, when the programme's producer, Gil Cates, had offered the same old moribund show 11 times before?

With "Million Dollar Baby" winning three of the four biggest prizes — best picture, Clint Eastwood's for director and Swank's for actress — the awards hint at how happy Oscar voters are to linger in the past.

The film may be about a woman boxer, but it is shaped by a pure retro sensibility. It's a throwback not only to the 1930s-era boxing movies but also to the other Oscar-winning films about underdogs, like "Rocky."

"Million Dollar Baby" is, essentially, "Rocky" with a tragic ending, the kind of familiar movie it is easy for the academy to embrace. The most original film to gather a handful of nominations this year, "Sideways," went the way of another fine, innovative movie, "Lost in Translation," which in 2003 was also nominated for best director and best picture and, like "Sideways," won only for its screenplay.

The fate of "Sideways," like the choice of Rock as host, says that the academy will let in a breath of fresh air, but quickly close the window before an actual breeze comes in.

But the Oscars desperately need to escape the aura of déjà vu. After the Golden Globes, the Broadcast Film Critics Awards, the Screen Actors Guild Awards and others, television viewers have already seen Swank thank Clint Eastwood and her boxing trainer, more than once. They've seen Jamie Foxx win best-actor awards for "Ray" and have even seen him get teary when thanking his dead grandmother.

Not only were there no surprises in the major categories, there was none of the contagious emotion that winners sometimes display.

The most unexpected moment in an acceptance came when the 74-year-old Eastwood thanked his 96-year old mother, who was sitting in the audience. As he said when accepting his best-director award, he had watched Sidney Lumet, who is 80, receive the career achievement award and ``I figure I'm just a kid.''

Eastwood was as charming as ever, and seems to be as creatively alive; great for him. But in the backward-looking world of the Oscars, the idea of a 74-year-old kid is awfully close to the truth. That's the joke that should have hit a nerve. — NYT


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