Audience-friendly changes refresh classic awards show

It seems as though the Academy does indeed listen to the cries for justice and change. Film fanatics have complained that the Oscars run longer than the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. The Academy replied by running a compact three-hour show.

For those who criticize boring hosts that don’t connect with the present generation, funny man Chris Rock was on hand to cut loose.

Oh, and speaking of those Hobbits – what about diversity in selection? Did the Academy avoid the landslide of lavish praise to one film this time around? The answer is, undoubtedly, yes.

This year’s Oscars were surprisingly new and different in ways many people may not have expected. Gone were the “I draped a dead swan over me” dresses of Bj?rk and instead, the red carpet was trampled by fairly conservative and elegantly attired stars and starlets. Either the wrath of the fashion critics has become too much for Hollywood or perhaps the Janet Jackson fiasco has once again caused more changes. Regardless, the titans of Hollywood played it safe for clothing.

The awards themselves were given a bit of a twist as the audience seemed to be jumped by presenters in different locations. Host Chris Rock made a wisecrack about perhaps having an Oscar presented in the parking lot at some point. While torn on the decision, I would have to admit that it made for a much easier time for the cameramen, as the presenters were almost always standing next to the seated nominees.

Rock as host proved to be a controversial choice, as he publicly announced that the Oscars were, in other terms, a joke. On the stage, however, I was rather surprised at how tame he was. The first half of the show, he appeared to have more flexibility for jokes. His segment on whether ‘real’ moviegoers see Oscar picks was kind of stupid though, as Rock clearly had an agenda to fill and the whole concept seemed contrived for “Saturday Night Live” or “Mad TV.” Overall though, he gave a solid turn as host and I wouldn’t be surprised if the Academy made another bold choice next year with a newer, younger host.

As for the winners, there were very few surprises. It seems as though almost everyone who was nominated got something by the end of the night. “Spider-Man 2” was rewarded for its elaborate fights with the Visual Effects Oscar, while “Ray” and “The Incredibles” snared Sound Mixing and Sound Editing, respectively. In a surprise for the Best Score category, Jan Kaczmarek was given the gold for the “Finding Neverland” soundtrack – the film’s only award. In an upset, Jorge Drexler’s “Al Otro del Rio” (“The Motorcycle Diaries”) surprised all with a win for Best Song.

Fans of Charlie Kaufman were given hope after the Academy honored his efforts with the Best Original Screenplay for “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and the surprise hit “Sideways” snared the Best Adaptation award. Both were proper choices for the writing categories.

Who were the big winners overall though? While Martin Scorsese was snubbed yet again for Best Director (the Academy instead chose to make Clint Eastwood’s day), his gamble with Leonardo Dicaprio was rewarded with wins in the categories of Film Editing, Costume Design, Cinematography, Art Direction and Best Supporting Actress (Cate Blanchett as Katherine Hepburn).

While “The Aviator” was recognized for superior visuals, “Million Dollar Baby” hit it rich in the acting categories with Morgan Freeman receiving a long-deserved statue for Best Supporting Actor. Clint Eastwood thanked his nonagenarian 96-year-old mother in the audience for sticking around to see him win another directing Oscar, after his first win for “Unforgiven” in 1992, and tough guys all over the world to see the famous stony fa?ade crumble with a tear or two in his eyes. Hilary Swank snapped up her second Oscar in 10 years, punching her cinematic weight and giving a thank you speech that still resembled a Most Wanted List. Hilary, you forgot to thank your parakeet and your third-grade teacher and your accountant …

But perhaps the most emotional person during the evening was the man who everyone had pegged to take home the gold – Jamie Foxx. The star of “Ray” told an emotional tale of his grandmother (who was his first acting teacher) and a chill-inducing anecdote from Sidney Poitier, who passed on responsibility to the younger man.

That’s perhaps the best way to describe this year’s Oscars – the passing of the torch from the old style to the new, with a mixed bag of winners and moments.