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Oscars were 'Ladies' Night in a Boys' Town'

By John Anderson, Special to CNN
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Oscar had to atone for history of overlooked female directors, says critic John Anderson
  • Steve Martin, Alec Baldwin were the funniest Oscar hosts ever, says critic
  • Anderson: It will look profoundly shortsighted that "Avatar" didn't win best picture
  • Salute to the late director John Hughes was "overlong," critic says

Editor's note: John Anderson is a film critic for Variety and the Washington Post, and a contributor to the New York Times. He is the author of "Sundancing" (2000) and "I Wake up Screening" (2006).

New York (CNN) -- When Alec Baldwin closed out the Academy Awards on Sunday night by slapping director Kathryn Bigelow squarely on the backside, that pretty much said it all.

It was Ladies' Night in a Boys' Town.

Yes, the opening routine by Baldwin and Steve Martin was very funny; there was sincerity and genuine gratitude from many of the winners; despite weird digressions into arcane areas like sound recording, the program moved briskly enough.

But did the orchestra need to follow Bigelow's win of her long-deserved best director prize, for "The Hurt Locker," by playing the old Helen Reddy song "I Am Woman"?

When Zoe Saldana and Carey Mulligan arrived on stage to present the Best Original Song award, did they have to be intro-ed with "Thank Heaven For Little Girls"?

And in addition to being groped by Baldwin, did Bigelow have to be so muscled-in-on by her fellow producers when she was picking up the best picture award for her film, "The Hurt Locker"?

'The Hurt Locker' wins six Oscars

Maybe that wacky Elinor Burkett had a point: The producer of "Music by Prudence" -- which had just won the Oscar for best documentary short -- barreled on stage, saying "Let the woman speak!" and commandeering the mike from her director, Roger Ross Williams.

She provided a classic moment of Oscar craziness and the one instance of spontaneity in an evening when all the big favorites won all the big prizes. Burkett seemed boorish, sure. But that doesn't necessarily make her wrong.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences certainly faced a dilemma this year: Vote for the future, or make up for the past.

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Years from now, it will probably look profoundly shortsighted that "Avatar," one of the biggest movies ever -- and, more importantly, the one that indicates where movies are going -- didn't win the top prize when Hollywood had a chance to bestow it.

Instead, the Oscars gave their most coveted awards to a small indie film about an unpopular war and a director whose sex had never before been honored with a best director prize.

What helped make it all so complicated was not that there's been a long, long history of overlooked genius female directors that the Oscars had to atone for.

The sin at stake was -- and is -- that women simply have never been given an equal chance to direct.

Predictably, Bigelow didn't have to be as good as the boys, she had to be better. And she was.

But earning your Oscars and actually getting them are two different things. Fortunately for Bigelow, she had history on her side last night.

James Cameron didn't.

The billions being made by "Avatar" will probably be some consolation, but neither he nor his movie are warm and fuzzy, which is what the Academy voters like.

In fact, the big-hearted, sentimental acceptance by best actor Jeff Bridges ("Crazy Heart"), and the rather elegant, funny remarks by best actress Sandra Bullock ("The Blind Side"), are exactly what we all want Oscar night to be.

That, and a few good jokes, which is what Martin and Baldwin provided, arriving on stage after a musical extravaganza starring Neil Patrick Harris that seemed ready to recall the bad old days of producer Alan Carr and the notorious Rob Lowe/Snow White musical overture of 1989.

Looking back on Oscar's 'train wreck'

Nothing so ghastly reared its ugly head last night, although there were a few moments of bad choices, bad manners and a strategy that was, at best, elusive.

For all the changing characters and categories on Oscar-watchers' betting pool ballots, there are certain things we bet on no matter what: one, that the show will be interminable; two, that it will last at least until midnight (ET) no matter how they try to contain it; and, three, that there will be moments in the show itself that, although planned by seemingly sane individuals, will be inexplicable, if not grotesque.

Last night did not disappoint. While someone like poor Tivi Magnusson got drowned out by the orchestra (after he and Joachim Back won best live action short for "The New Tenants"), the show's producers thought it made perfect sense to devote relatively huge chunks of time to examining the niceties of animated short subjects or providing weary viewers the inevitable, unspeakable interpretive dance number, this one devoted to the evening's musical scores.

More painful, at least to this viewer's eyes, was an overlong salute to the late director John Hughes, featuring a reunion of some of his more famous players, a few of whom -- Molly Ringwald, for instance, and Judd Nelson -- looked positively shell shocked.

The only surprises of the night were in the best foreign film category: The Argentine "El Secreto de Sus Ojos," beat out the favored "White Ribbon," thus continuing the Oscar tradition of giving the foreign-film prize to something few have even seen (a foreign-film Oscar doesn't do much good, one should remember, for a movie that's already opened and closed).

The other surprise was the rudeness with which costume designer Sandy Powell accepted her "Young Victoria" Oscar.

"I've already got two of these," she said, before dissing her coworkers and, by extension, the Academy in toto.

Brusque dismissal is not a quality Oscar tolerates very well and it's not likely Ms. Powell will be back, unlike Martin and Baldwin, who were the funniest Oscar hosts ever, proving there's power in numbers, the sum often can be more than the parts, and that it's always good to have an extra pair of hands, as long as they stay off Kathryn Bigelow's butt.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John Anderson.