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The cinema of nostalgia yearns for Oscar gold

Still from Hugo
A still from Hugo, Martin Scorsese’s 3D recreation of early 20th century Paris. Pic credit: Paramount Pictures

Los Angeles – Hollywood’s in crisis. New technology is threatening upheaval of the movie industry and relentless winds of change are putting those who can’t adapt quickly out of business.

That scenario could describe the US movie industry’s struggle with dwindling box office numbers and the implications of the internet. But it’s also the backdrop to current Oscar favourite The Artist, set in Hollywood of the 1920s when talkies spelt the end of silent movies.

The parallels between past and present are striking. But The Artist is far from the only Oscar hopeful anchored in yesteryear, reflecting what Robert Thompson, a pop culture professor at Syracuse University, identifies as the overriding theme of this year’s competition – nostalgia for the seemingly simpler times of the 20th century.

You don’t have to be a committed student of Americana to notice this trend as the glories of the past are everywhere at this year’s Oscars.

Leading nominee Hugo is Martin Scorsese’s 3D recreation of early 20th century Paris and a reverential ode to the early days of cinema. Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris is even more unabashed in its pursuit of nostalgia. Its modern hero actually steps back in time every night to a different romantic period in the history of Paris.

Another top nominee is The Help, a stirring civil rights drama set in Mississippi in the early 1960s, while My Week With Marilyn is a true-life tale about Marilyn Monroe in England in the same period. War Horse is a sterling account of a heroic horse in World War 1, while the Tree of Life is based on a man’s memories of his childhood in 1950’s Texas.

Even the host is a throwback to the Oscars of the past. Gone are new-fangled ideas about catering to the younger generation with youthful presenters like James Franco or Anne Hathaway. What’s old is new again this year, and so the host is perennial Oscar favourite, eight-time Oscar emcee Billy Crystal.

To put the finishing touches on the nostalgia theme, he will chaperone the whole Oscar shebang in a Kodak Theatre that has been redecorated to look like a classic movie theatre from the golden age of Hollywood.

No wonder then that Salon.com’s critic Andrew O’Hehir calls the grand theme of this year’s Oscars the ‘irresistible allure of the past and the forbidding uncertainty of the future.’

Thompson is more specific, identifying as the catalysts of this year’s Oscar choices not only the end of the so-called American century but also the mixed feelings we have about the rise of the digital lifestyle.

‘These films take us from the complex world of today to a world where there were no cellphones, global warming or Iraq,’ Thompson told dpa. ‘There’s a real appeal to the physicality of that human experience.’

So which of these elegiac odes will triumph? Some 30 experts polled by the Oscar tracking site Goldderby.com were unanimous that The Artist would snag the best picture prize.

Jean Dujardin’s portrayal of the movie’s irresistible hero is tipped to win the best actor prize despite a strong challenge from George Clooney in The Descendants, while the Artist’s creator Michel Hazanavicius is the strong favourite to scoop the director’s Oscar ahead of Scorsese. Other Oscars in which the Artist is strongly favoured include best score and costume design, while Hugo is tipped for art direction and The Tree of Life for cinematography.

Woody Allen is expected to get the best original screenplay prize. Viola Davis from The Help has a virtual lock on the best actress prize, while her screen mate Octavia Spencer is a strong contender for best supporting actress.

Christopher Plummer of The Beginners is the hot favourite for the best supporting actor award, which also represents a tip of the hat to a bygone age. The Canadian actor is 82.

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