The Descendants was the only one of the nine films nominated for best picture set in the present. The Help took place in the Jim Crow South. Terrence Malicks Tree of Life was set in 1950 Texas with an occasional flip back to the Dinosaur Age.
The whole night looked like an AARP pep rally, starting with an introduction by Morgan Freeman, who was followed by Billy Crystal, returning to host his ninth Oscar ceremony. And age was his theme of the night. He did his usual comic medley of movie moments, including a sketch with George Clooney in The Descendants, urging Crystal to host the show. He promised the youngest, hippest writers in town and the camera panned to a group of drooping, old white men from the film Moneyball.
And those may well have been the writers. When Octavia Spencer won a best supporting actress Oscar for playing a maid in The Help, Crystal joked that after he saw the movie, he was so moved he wanted to hug the first black woman he saw, adding, which in Beverly Hills is about a 45-minute drive. It was a line that could have been used back when Hattie McDaniel, the first black actress to be honoured with an Academy Award, won for playing a maid in Gone With the Wind.
Previous efforts to rejuvenate the Oscars mostly flopped, including last years event, which paired an ill-prepared, disaffected James Franco with a hypereager Anne Hathaway and had them try to amuse youth with lame jokes about text messages, Twitter and iPhone apps.
Sundays event tried to return to tradition, but it didnt do itself any favours by starting with some of the least interesting awards.
For a town that prides itself on tinsel and titillation, the night was pretty tame. Angelina Jolie showed some leg, Jennifer Lopez showed quite a bit of cleavage, but the raciest moment may have been when Sandra Bullock introduced the foreign-language film award in German.
One of the few surprises came before the ceremony began, when Sacha Baron Cohen approached the E! host Ryan Seacrest on the red carpet. The comedian was in character from his new movie, The Dictator, and carried an urn filled with what he described as the ashes of Kim Jong-il. He spilled the ashes all over a shocked Seacrest, saying, as he was hustled off by guards, When someone asks you what you are wearing, you will say Kim Jong-il. Seacrest was not amused.
Meryl Streep, who has been nominated 17 times and won last in 1983, earned a third Oscar for The Iron Lady. She joked about how often she receives awards, saying she imagined half the country was sighing, her again Streeps awards record was already an old joke in 1990, when she was in Postcards From the Edge and Crystal was host for the first time. Back then he cracked that no one could have imagined that the Berlin Wall would fall, Nelson Mandela would be freed and Meryl Streep would not be nominated.