In response to years of pleading for the Academy Awards to be shorter and more on-point, producers of the eighty-fourth Oscars littered the aisles with old-fashioned popcorn girls, tore out balcony seats to make room for a nu-jazz ensemble, and indulged in more than its fair share of "history of cinema" style montages (both with and without contortionists!) just in case anyone out there was confused as to exactly which art form everyone had gathered to celebrate. (Also new this year: audible microphone feedback!)
The show survived despite these caprices, mostly on the merits of the winners' emotional reactions to receiving their statuettes -- you know, the original reason for putting on a show in the first place. From Meryl Streep's unexpected -- and welcome -- tongue-in-cheek smugness at possible audience reactions to her win for Best Lead Actress for "The Iron Lady" to Christopher Plummer's charming Best Supporting Actor acceptance speech for "Beginners," there were more than a few moments that made the show -- all three hours of it -- worth watching. Here are some highlights from the evening, ranging from the sublime to the merely painful.
Sublime: The first time you heard that wacky xylophone music when "The Artist" won for best Costume Design.
Painful: The six hundredth time you heard it, thanks to "The Artist" winning repeatedly.
Sublime: Billy Crystal is too bland to interfere in the proceedings too egregiously.
Painful: Crystal's fondness for flabby non-jokes, such as "That was back when movies were shot on film instead of digital!" followed by a pause and then innocent blinking until the audience indulges him with polite laughter. Also, his need to repeatedly congratulate his captive audience for how rich they are. Do us humble folk a favor? Put him back in his garment bag, and forget to take him out again next year.
Sublime: Viola Davis let her natural hair fly free, shattering red carpet beauty standards and thrilling fashionistas with her gorgeous look. I was shocked that Chris Rock (who made a documentary on the subject of women's coiffure called "Good Hair") resisted the urge to mention it during his "Best Animated Feature" presentation.
Painful: The moment when you realize that The Academy probably isn't going to give both of its top acting awards to black actresses -- especially from the same movie. I don't care "how far we've come," everyone knows that matters like these are as delicately calculated and balanced as Shinto tea ceremonies. The second Octavia Spencer won for Best Supporting, it was curtains for Viola.
Sublime: Watching selfsame Spencer endure neural collapse at the news that she'd won an Oscar for "The Help." She literally had to be lifted out of her chair by both arms, and her emotions ran high through her entire speech. It's always exciting when you can tell someone really didn't expect to win.
Painful: Presenters who try too hard to make an exciting moment "happen." I'm looking at you, Robert Downey Jr. and Emma Stone. Don't you know that it's not all about you? It's not all about you. Although too much is still better than not enough -- Sandra Bullock seemed to be part of a stage hypnosis act.
Sublime: Realizing that for the rest of her life, Natalie Portman's entrances at awards shows will be heralded by ominous Tchaikovsky "Swan Lake" excerpts. It's like her very own version of Darth Vader's Imperial March.
Painful: Being able to see plainly (in HD, no less) how nearly all the female presenters have been meticulously tucked, tightened, powdered, and painted within an inch of their hungry lives. Exceptions: Milla Jovovich, who looks as if she were sent from a benevolent alien world to teach our pathetic race a thing or two about looking effortlessly glamorous in extreme conditions. And the "Bridesmaids" ladies: There's strength in numbers!
Sublime: The jolt of surprise you feel when they introduce Tom Skerritt. Neat! What's ol' Skerritt been up to lately?
Painful: Before you even have time to check IMDB on your phone, you realize that you misheard -- it's actually Tom Sherak. Everything grays out for a few moments.
Sublime: Christopher Guest and his "Best In Show" comedy posse riffing on Hollywood's obsession with focus group testing.
Painful: For some reason (probably due to actual focus group testing) the producers decide that this skit needs to be set up with ninety seconds of humor-killing explanation via Billy Crystal.
Sublime: Apparently Splenda's putting vitamins in your coffee now? A commercial told me, so it must be true. Also, Hulu finally admits to putting tentacles in your brain.
Painful: We can fly in thousands of ropes of sparkling Austrian crystals with the snap of a finger ... but we can't raise the microphone six inches so that Bret McKenzie ("The Muppets") doesn't have to stoop awkwardly while accepting his Best Song statuette? Come on.
Sublime: "The Descendants" won Best Adapted Screenplay! Kaui Hart Hemmings' novel ascends to a new tier of recognition.
Painful: "The Descendants" got shut out of every other category. Better luck next time, everyone!
Sublime: "The Fantastic Flying Books of Morris Lessmore" wins Best Animated Short Film, hopefully inspiring millions to seek out this magical homage to literature.
Painful: "Hugo" is cool to see and hear. We get it.