In accepting her Oscar, Meryl Streep claimed to hear people all over America say: her? Again? Whatever! That might be a good way of describing the form of an Oscar ceremony: the again-whatever syndrome, the final iteration of a consensus that has been exhaustively rehearsed in all the other ceremonies that precede the Academy Awards.
The big win for The Artist raises the question: is it a novelty one-off, like the once-garlanded and talked-about Life is Beautiful or The Crying Game? Or will it herald a renewed interest in the silent genre? Could it, conceivably, generate a desire among other directors to make silent movies: that is to say, silent films on a subject other than the death of the silent movie? Well, maybe that would be a slightly retrograde fantasy, though it would be good to see The Artist's triumph lead to a renewed interest in cinema history.
One of the oddest aspects of the way this film has crossed over to the non-specialist commentariat is the chortling observation that The Artist is doing so well that it's even getting nominations for best screenplay. But there is nothing odd about it. Screenwriting is not about crafting lines of dialogue: it is about wielding the building blocks of narrative and thinking in pictures. (Although as it happens, director Michel Hazanavicius's non-visible sight gag in the inter-title that follows the suicidal hero placing a revolver to his forehead is a wonderful piece of screenwriting.) Actually, The Artist lost out to Woody Allen's Midnight In Paris for best original screenplay. Of this, more in a moment.
The Artist is a lovely film and the fact that it is still not a blockbuster commercial success, despite all its prizes, indicates that it could have some way yet to run in the cinema. The romantic chemistry is so potent between Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo that I am tempted this morning to sit down to another viewing of their 2006 spy-spoof comedy OSS 117: Cairo, Nest Of Spies, in which Dujardin plays a dopey agent opposite Bejo's activist Larmina El Akmar Betouche. He has a gloriously incorrect argument with her about Islam, which baffles him, triggered by his refusal to believe that there can be so many Muslims in the world. ("Des millions?")
Martin Scorsese's Hugo picked up a clutch of technical awards, which seems to me fair enough: this was an intensely crafted film as Andrew Pulver observed in an early review, it is polished like a gemstone – but I felt that, appropriately for a movie about automata, there was something clockwork about it; Hugo did not come to life entirely, and the theme of early cinema was not a satisfyingly organic part of the film, the way it is in The Artist.
Well, the success of The Artist and Hugo may get us wondering about a revival of pioneering movie magic but Meryl Streep's triumph as Maggie is unlikely to get us pining for a revival of Thatcherism. Why should it, in this era of David Cameron, Andrew Lansley and Emma Harrison? Thatcherism has already been revived: it never went away. It was certainly an inspired piece of impersonation: technically flamboyant, enjoyable and showy in a way that actresses are not often permitted to be in Hollywood movies. (Even Helen Mirren's Queen Elizabeth had to be fairly reticent, negotiating her screen presence opposite powerful males such as Tony Blair and Prince Philip.) And it was great to hear Streep produce one of the intensely exotic accents for which she is celebrated.
Viola Davis's performance in the sucrose civil-rights drama The Help had been tipped, but her performance was not as interesting – or entertaining – as the supporting turn from Octavia Spencer in a more obviously comic role, who won best supporting actress.
Christopher Plummer, as in the Baftas, won the best supporting actor award for his portrayal of a man coming out as gay in the winter of his years. Interestingly, I don't think Plummer's Oscar was a kind of sentimentally disguised "career tribute": I suspect the Academy has been fairly indifferent to all the work Plummer has been doing lately and perhaps would be pushed to name many of his screen credits aside from The Sound of Music, in which he was a rather chilly figure, quite different from the warm, sympathetic role he had in Beginners.
Back then to the screenplay award that went to Woody Allen, and incidentally revived another Hollywood tradition: Allen's legendary dislike of the Oscars and his refusal to turn up to the ceremony in person. It was, perhaps, as the old-fashioned gagsmith and storyteller that Allen was honoured. The fact that Midnight in Paris is his biggest box-office success to date may or may not have weighed in the balance with Academy voters – but it has turned out to be a feelgood audience movie, in a way no one predicted. And incidentally, Allen's encouragement to his actors to improvise means that perhaps the cast should be sharing a tiny bit of the Oscar with him, at least in spirit.
These Oscars, more than in other years, were the Omission Oscars. Steve McQueen's Shame, Lynne Ramsay's We Need To Talk About Kevin, Kenneth Lonergan's Margaret, Asif Kapadia's Senna – all horribly ignored. McQueen says that Shame was passed over because Hollywood and the Academy are prudish and neurotic about sex. That could very well be true, although Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain did reasonably well in the Oscars, and that was remarkably candid about sex. The snub for Kevin is, in my view, more easily explained: the US can be pretty frosty about British or European liberals being ironic about Columbine-style massacres. As for Margaret, it was a long and difficult film in many ways, and part of its brilliance lay in its mystery, its refusal to make clear to the audience what it was centrally about. But with a Harvey-Weinstein-mogul behind it, Anna Paquin could have given Streep a run for her money as best actress.
Perhaps in the end, the most historically significant aspect of the 2012 Oscars was the name of the venue: it took place at the Hollywood and Highland Centre in Hollywood Boulevard – until this year known as the Kodak theatre. The Kodak name was smartly and unceremoniously dumped in 2012 when the building's sponsor Eastman Kodak went bankrupt, and that of course was because film was becoming obsolete and digital is king. (So much for history and ancestor worship.) More and more people shoot on digital: it is cheaper and easier and looking better all the time; the number of directors who have the willingness and clout to shoot on film is decreasing. It only makes the preservation issue more pressing.
Best picture The Artist
Actor Jean Dujardin, The Artist
Actress Meryl Streep, The Iron Lady
Supporting actor Christopher Plummer, Beginners
Supporting actress Octavia Spencer, The Help
Directing Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist
Foreign language film A Separation, Iran
Adapted screenplay Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, The Descendants
Original screenplay Woody Allen, Midnight in Paris
Animated feature film Rango
Art direction Hugo
Sound mixing Hugo
Sound editing Hugo
Original score The Artist
Original song Man or Muppet, The Muppets
Costume design The Artist
Documentary feature Undefeated
Documentary short Saving Face
Film editing The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
Makeup The Iron Lady
Animated short film The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr Morris Lessmore
Live action short film The Shore
Visual effects Hugo