Host Billy Crystal, himself a relic, leaned heavily on jokes about how modern society degrades the film-viewing experience, snarking about texting during screenings and watching movies on iPads. Pan-Am-ish hostesses walked down the Kodak Theatre's aisles, offering popcorn the way that movie houses once did. Morgan Freeman was the first of the night to speak, giving a tried/true/tired preface about the magic of movies. Cirque du Soleil, which like Crystal and Freeman was at the peak of its relevance a decade ago, pulled off a spectacular routine paying tribute to not-so-of-the-moment titles like North by Northwest and Gone With the Wind. Peppered throughout the night were self-serious testimonials from well-known actors described their first filmgoing experiences.
This, of course, was all to be expected. An affable but reactionary ceremony was nearly guaranteed after two recent attempts at edginess: the widely panned performances of fresh-faced hosts James Franco and Anne Hathaway in 2011, and the implosion of a plan for action-film director Brett Ratner to produce and Eddie Murphy to host this year's Oscars. The common advice to the Academy—including from The Atlantic—following Murphy's exodus was to stop trying to be hip, to abandon plans to court young viewers. It's advice that apparently went heeded. And that's fine; Sunday's show was boring but not a train wreck. There's nothing wrong with acknowledging film history. But shouldn't a celebration of the past year's movies feel tied to, well, the past year?
A lot of people are going to point to the Best Picture win for The Artist—a silent, black-and-white film set in Hollywood's 1920s/30s golden age—as yet another sign that retromania has strangled our culture (you can read that very take on this website). The truth is, though, that The Artist is smarter than that. Yes, it's a nostalgia trip, laden with homages to great, old films. But it's also pro-future, pro-innovation, and anti-memory-wallowing. The Artist charms and grins and winks for most of its runtime, but its middle third turns sour as its protagonist—played by Best Actor winner Jean Dujardin—faces greater and greater levels of debasement for clinging to silent acting. He obsessively watches reels of films he shot in his glory days; his stubborn refusal to change brings very ugly consequences.
The genius of The Artist and, to varying extents, its nominated peers Midnight in Paris, Hugo, and Moneyball, is the acknowledgement of how alluring it can be to mythologize the past. These films even harness that allure to tell their stories. But they all ultimately reject the idea that the past is necessarily better because it is the past.