It was a night of firsts: the first time a woman won Best Director. The first time a film that grossed a pitiful $14.9 million won Best Film. The first time the Best Actor and Actress nominees were paraded onstage like beauty-pageant contestants. The first time gay prison sex and marijuana were referenced in the opening dance number. The first time a worst-actress Razzie winner took home Best Actress in the same year. And the first time an Iraq bomb-disposal squad inspired a break-dance routine. But with all these groundbreaking moments, the show's dullness remained reliably consistent to years past.
It was a well-oiled show — just not terribly different from anything in the previous 81 Oscar ceremonies. Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin did double duty like hardworking Catskills comics (“Damn Helen Mirren.” “No, Dame Helen Mirren”). Sandwiched between stars and AARP commercials, they were charming, of course, and made it through the show like the seasoned pros they are: no feathers ruffled, no spotlight stolen. The biggest laughs of the night, however, came from the Tina Fey–Robert Downey Jr. writer-actor face-off and, of course, those classically literal ABC reaction shots. (Jew joke? Cut to Ethan Coen. Precious win for Best Adapted Screenplay? Cut to Morgan Freeman.)
But was there a thank-you speech, gaffe, or unscripted moment we’ll remember for years to come? No. Did the backstage “Thank-You Cam” stop anyone from thanking their attorney or agent in the broadcast? No. Did Kathryn Bigelow or her team manage to say anything to make The Hurt Locker seem more vital? Unfortunately, no. The whole show felt like inside baseball; very few winners did much to make their films more relevant to the world outside the theater. Even The Cove’s co-producer Fisher Stevens forgot to give the dolphins a shout-out! (The oddly long John Hughes tribute, however, felt sincere.)
That said, at least great films and great performances won the day. The Hurt Locker and The Cove were serious films, Christoph Waltz (can we make “Über bingo!” a catchprase?) and Mo’Nique delivered great performances, and Jeff Bridges deserved his award more than anyone else, and probably won it because he, like Dubya, was the contender you most wanted to have a beer with. And at least Sandra Bullock was sensible enough to ask, “Did I really earn this or did I just wear y’all down?” It’s about time someone admitted to the campaigning. Sadly, we did miss a James Cameron acceptance speech, but the King of the World was nearly promoted to God, thanks to his production supervisor, who told us to “remember the world we live in is just as amazing as the one we created for you.” Not “more amazing," mind you, just “as amazing.” Though, to be fair, it took God just one day to create the Earth, and Cameron more than ten years to create Pandora. Point: God.
Despite the dull stretches, the show did present some mysteries: Patrick Swayze history aside, why was Demi Moore picked to deliver the In Memoriam tribute, since as a stunning member of the ageless undead, she must be unable to sympathize? Has Jason Reitman irritated so many people that they could only find Jason Bateman to introduce Up in the Air? (It felt a bit like taking your pal to the prom.) Did the show's producers hate The Blind Side and pick Ryan Reynolds to introduce it because they knew he couldn’t possibly say the phrase “with no coat and no hope” without sounding like he was making fun of it? What was Sean Penn mumbling about? What was up with Sarah Jessica Parker’s hair? Why did the Documentary Short–winning producer, Elinor Burkett, pull a Kanye and cut off the film's director, Roger Ross Williams? And do people still think Snuggies are funny? You can pack a lot more unanswered questions into four hours than you can surprises.