It has long been de rigueur to stereotype Academy voters as a bunch of retired film technicians, unseen and all-powerful as they tick ballot papers from the comfort of their Beverly Hills armchairs. This, critics claim, explains the Oscars' perennial conservative bias, its love of the middlebrow and its abiding horror of anything newfangled. Yet this year, more than any other, marked the season when the stereotype came good, came down to the party and put on a show.
Just when, exactly, did the movies get so old? The 84th Academy Awards played out as a golden festival of nostalgia, a cosy elegy for times gone by. The intention, explained Morgan Freeman, was "to celebrate the present and to look back to our glorious past", which sounded fair enough until one twigged that the Academy's idea of the present were films with at least one eye in the rear-view mirror.
How else to explain the runaway success of Hugo and The Artist, both of which pay loving tribute to the early days of cinema? How else to account for old-school razzle-dazzle of Billy Crystal (making his ninth appearance as Oscars host), or a poignant choice of venue in the Hollywood and Highland theatre, formerly known as the "Kodak theatre" until the company filed for bankruptcy? "We're here at the beautiful Chapter 11 theatre," quipped Crystal, before segueing into an opening montage that saw him chasing forlornly after an un-spooling roll of film.
The message was plain. Film is on the way out, killed off by the rise of digital, and this year's Oscars were its last hurrah. If the Academy voters needed a mascot they found him, ready-made, in the dapper, grinning figure of The Artist's Georges Valentin, the silent-screen maestro who is forced to confront a rocky and uncertain future. In celebrating him, they offered solace to themselves.
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