The 2003 Oscars
Hosted by Steve Martin


The 2003 Oscars

Well. Just when we had steeled ourselves for another interminable, predictable evening of garish wardrobes and endless thank-yous, we got a funny, fast-paced, understated show (no swan dresses, no see-throughs) that delivered some shocking and welcome surprises.

The first was Roman Polanski's win for best director, for "The Pianist." As powerful as the film is, with the kind of unemphasized directorial touches that fellow professionals would appreciate more than a lay audience - the choreography of thousands of Warsaw Jews shuffling over the bridge that separated the two halves of their ghetto, the ways in which he directed his actors to react to being shot or beaten, the choices of camera angles, the use of what you might call reaction shots to the explosion of a cannon shot or a grenade - Polanski did more: he allowed the moral ambiguities of imperfect human beings to be revealed without forcing them on us or straining to guide our reactions.

And the illustration of that, of course, was Adrien Brody's win as best actor for his performance as the pianist Wladislaw Szpilman. This clueless, softly self-centered man who is swept up in events beyond his experience, with few emotional resources to sustain him beyond his fierce devotion to making music, manages somehow to survive the five most devastating years in the history of the world without even once acting like a hero. It is a moving and resonant and selfless performance whose recognition was as well-deserved as it was unexpected.

Even more of a shock was Ronald Harwood's Oscar for his adaptation of Szpilman's book, in the face of competition from heavy hitters like "Chicago," "The Hours," and "Adaptation." It's likely that they split most of the votes, allowing "The Pianist" to sneak in, but no one would argue that his work did not deserve to win.

The corollary to Polanski's win was that Martin Scorsese went yet another year without an Oscar. Though "Gangs of New York" is not a good film, I expected him to win as a kind of lifetime-achievement award, for his body of work, in the same way that Denzel Washington won last year for "Training Day" - also a bad film - but an award given to make up for his not getting it for "Malcolm X."

Another surprise was Pedro Almodovar's win for best original screenplay for "Talk To Her." The Spanish film board had not even chosen to submit it in the category of Best Foreign Film, but Almodovar was nominated by both the writer-members of the Academy for his script, and by the director-members for his directing. Without question Almodovar belongs in the top rank of world filmmakers today, and "Talk To Her" is not only his deepest, most resonant film to date; it is one of the great films of the age.

I was thrilled by two things that Michael Moore did when "Bowling For Columbine" was announced as the winning documentary feature. First, he brought up on stage every one of the nominated documentary filmmakers to join him, as a way of pointing out how little recognition this field gets; and then by his impassioned attack on George W. Bush for lying to us and the world about his war on Iraq. It was short, to the point, and patently accurate; and yet it drew boos and shouts from many in the audience, showing that even beauty is no guarantee of intelligence.

For the rest, the evening went smoothly, with graceful wit and thoughtful interludes - the assembling of 59 Oscar winners, including Luise Rainer (who even knew she was still alive?) was touching - and very funny hosting by Steve Martin. All in all, the best Oscar night in ages. Let's hope the trend continues.