LOS ANGELES – It’s only the 84th year of the Academy Awards, yet the nostalgia factor feels as though Hollywood is celebrating a centennial of some sort.
Film itself has been around for well over a century, and Sunday’s Oscar nominees span every decade of the last hundred years, with an unusual emphasis on the history and artistry of cinema’s earlier days.
Oscar show producer Brian Grazer says that the Hollywood & Highland Center, the hall formerly known as the Kodak where the ceremony takes place, will be redesigned to resemble a “timeless movie theater.” It’s a fitting transformation on a night whose key nominees are “Hugo” and “The Artist,” two love songs to forebears of the flickering image.
Set amid the transition from silent cinema to talking pictures in the late 1920s, “The Artist” is the best-picture favorite and would become the only silent movie to win top honors since the first Oscar show 83 years ago.
The leader with 11 nominations, “Hugo” was made by Martin Scorsese, arguably Hollywood’s biggest cheerleader for the rediscovery and preservation of early films. Adapted from Brian Selznick’s children’s book The Invention of Hugo Cabret, the film centers on a boy and girl in 1930s Paris who unravel a mystery surrounding French film pioneer Georges Melies (Ben Kingsley), whose fantastical silent-era shorts of 100 years ago or more are recreated by Scorsese using the best technology modern digital Hollywood has to offer.
Known for tough, violent adult stories such as “Raging Bull” and best-picture winner “The Departed,” Scorsese clearly had a ball making his first digital 3-D film. Using today’s technology to revisit the past also imparted a sense of the innovation required by Melies to make his films in the first place.
“The Artist” is right behind with 10 nominations and also is favored to win best director for French filmmaker Michel Hazanavicius. People thought he was a little soft in the head a few years ago when Hazanavicius pitched his idea of making a black-and-white silent film the way almost no one has since the 1920s.
Modern dabblers in silent cinema often take an avant-garde approach, but Hazanavicius wanted to make something for general audiences. After all, there was a time when silent movies were the only game in town, and Charles Chaplin, Buster Keaton and D.W. Griffith were the blockbuster filmmakers of their era.
Writer-director Hazanavicius settled on a comic melodrama following the decline of a silent-film superstar (best-actor nominee Jean Dujardin), whose career crumbles in the sound era and who finds a guardian angel in a rising talent (Berenice Bejo, a supporting-actress contender and Hazanavicius’ real-life romantic partner).
“One of my concerns was how people are going to react to a silent movie now,” Hazanavicius said. “I thought it was easier for people to accept, to see a silent movie if the subject is about a silent actor. As an audience, to say, ‘OK, it’s a silent actor, it’s a silent movie. Why not? That makes sense.”’
On a nostalgia-tinged night, it also makes sense that Billy Crystal returns as Oscar host for the first time in eight years. The most-beloved modern Oscar emcee, Crystal is back for his ninth time, second only to Bob Hope, who was host at 19 ceremonies.
Along with “Hugo” and “The Artist,” which span the early 1900s through the 1930s, key nominees cover the last century, from Steven Spielberg’s World War I saga “War Horse” to Stephen Daldry’s Sept. 11-themed drama “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” and Alexander Payne’s contemporary family story “The Descendants.”
All are among the nine best-picture contenders, joined by Woody Allen’s romantic fantasy “Midnight in Paris,” which time travels from today to the 1920s and earlier; Tate Taylor’s Deep South drama “The Help,” set at the start of the 1960s civil-rights movement; Bennett Miller’s baseball story “Moneyball,” chronicling the Oakland A’s efforts to build a winning team on a penny-pinching budget; and Terrence Malick’s family drama “The Tree of Life,” an elegiac tale largely set in the 1950s, with sweeping glimpses back to the dawn of creation.
The latter two star Brad Pitt, a best-actor nominee for “Moneyball.” The A-list crowd also includes acting nominees George Clooney for “The Descendants,” Meryl Streep for the Margaret Thatcher story “The Iron Lady,” Glenn Close for the Irish drama “Albert Nobbs” and Michelle Williams and Kenneth Branagh for the Marilyn Monroe tale “My Week with Marilyn.”
Williams as Monroe and Branagh as Laurence Olivier bring another dose of old-time Hollywood to Sunday’s show, their film chronicling the uneasy collaboration between the screen legends on the set of the 1957 romance “The Prince and the Showgirl.”
The record-holder with 17 acting nominations, Golden Globe winner Streep looked like an early favorite to claim her third Oscar, which would be almost its own bit of nostalgia: She hasn’t won in nearly three decades.
But at the Screen Actors Guild Awards, one of the most-accurate forecasts for Oscar night, Viola Davis beat Streep for best actress for her role as a maid taking a stand against racial prejudice in 1960s Mississippi in “The Help.”
While Davis and Streep are in a showdown for best actress, “The Artist” star Dujardin and “The Descendants” star Clooney, playing a father weighed down by family crises, are in a two-man race for best actor. Dujardin won the SAG honor and a Golden Globe for musical or comedy performance, while Clooney was the recipient of the Globe for dramatic actor.
SAG recipient Christopher Plummer is the front-runner for supporting actor as an elderly dad who comes out as gay in “Beginners,” and at 82, he would become the oldest acting winner ever. Davis’ co-star – Octavia Spencer, playing a brash fellow maid in “The Help” – also won at SAG and looks like a rock-solid winner for supporting actress.
An Oscar would cap a venerable career for Plummer and mark an abrupt career transformation for Spencer, who toiled in small parts for years before her breakout role in “The Help.”
“I’m an Oscar nominee. I love saying that,” Spencer said. “So whatever happens, I can always say that.”