At a time when the rest of the country is cutting back, this year's Academy Awards were all about excess.
The revamped extravaganza was a result of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' effort to boost ratings for the Oscar broadcast, which hit an all-time low last year.
That included Broadway-worthy song-and-dance interludes. Star-studded presentations. Mini-films produced to introduce awards. Some speculated 2009's Academy Awards might be dressed down, but as we watched Hollywood's biggest self-celebration of the year, one message reigned: Forget the tough times and indulge in the fantasy of the movie industry.
But the presentation had its flaws.
Host Hugh Jackman kicked off the night with a lengthy musical number referencing the five best picture nominees. Compared to the chuckle-enducing monologues of past comedic hosts like Jon Stewart and David Letterman, it came off as more than a little over the top. The Oscars-as-musical treatment didn't work when Rob Lowe tried it in 1989; and it didn't work last night.
When Jackman wasn't soft-shoeing across the stage solo, the night's musical interludes sounded much like an inept DJ's crafting a remix. Beyonce Knowles, in between high-kicking her way through "The Musical Is Back," awkwardly broke into her now-ubiquitous rendition of Etta James' "At Last." Producers tried to unite Bollywood and Hollywood during an AR Rahman-John Legend medley, but the effect, especially at the end of the number, was of two separate songs blaring at the same time, full blast.
And then there were the ego-stroking sessions that preceded the four major acting awards. Presenting the Oscars for best supporting actor/actress and best actor/actress, five past winners from each category took the stage to remind each of this year's nominees just how wonderful and important they were, no matter if they won the award or not. The split screens of the fawning presenters and the nominees was awkward in its best moments, and in its worst felt a bit like watching a cult initiation.
The telecast's producers did manage to keep the show current by acknowledging one of the movie industry's more bizarre stories of late: Oscar-nominated actor Joaquin Phoenix's decision to abandon Hollywood for the rap world and adopt an out-of-sorts persona in the process. In one of the night's funniest moments, Ben Stiller donned dark glasses and a shaggy beard while presenting the Oscar for best cinematography with Natalie Portman, parodying Phoenix's recent appearance on Letterman's "Late Show" in which he removed a piece of gum from his mouth and stuck it to the host's desk.
Preliminary figures show the producers' efforts worked: according to Nielsen Media Research, viewership went up six percent over last year's audience of 32 million. Still, the telecast is likely to be among the three least-watched Oscars ever.
Despite the early hiccups and congratulatory presentations to the nominated actors, the night's winners kept the show moving with brief but sincere acceptance speeches.
After winning the hearts of moviegoers around world, "Slumdog Millionaire," the buoyantly hopeful romance set amid the poverty of Mumbai, India, won the Academy Award for best picture, capping a night of wins that also included best director Oscar for Danny Boyle.
With eight Oscars, "Slumdog" took home the most statuettes of any movie at the 81st Academy Awards held Sunday at the Kodak Theatre in Los Angeles.