Finally, The Big Payoff: Kurt Loder On The Oscars

Sunday night's Academy Awards ceremony proceeded with all the suspense of a coronation.

Awards shows are usually dumb fun to watch because of their surpassing inconsequence: How can one movie or play or recording be "better" than another, really? In the case of the Academy Awards, what does it mean when a windy, would-be epic like "Dances With Wolves" beats out a film like "Goodfellas," which is now perceived to be a classic? (This happened in 1990.) Or when a terminally high-toned picture like "The English Patient" manages to elbow aside such exceptional films as "Fargo" and "Jerry Maguire" (as happened in 1996)?

Admirers of director Peter Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy have been grumpily biding their time in this regard. The first installment of the series, "The Fellowship of the Ring," lost out for Best Picture in 2001 to "A Beautiful Mind" — an honorable shortfall: "A Beautiful Mind" is a movie distinguished in its conception, its direction and its performances.

The second "Lord of the Rings" movie — "The Two Towers" — was felt by Academy voters to be not quite as snazzy as the dazzling film version of the Broadway musical "Chicago." How you felt about this probably depended on how you felt about musicals generally.

So this year, with the concluding installment of Jackson's epic, "The Return of the King," nominated for an extraordinary 11 Oscars, the giddy feeling among many "Rings" enthusiasts was that the big prestige payoff was finally at hand. (The commercial payoff, of course, is still being toted up: The three "Rings" movies have grossed a total of more than a billion dollars in this country alone; and "The Return of the King" on its own has grossed more than a billion dollars worldwide since its release less than three months ago.)

And so Sunday night's Academy Awards ceremony proceeded with all the suspense of a coronation (see " 'Return Of The King' Crowned 11 Times At Academy Awards"). Since the "Rings" trilogy is clearly a creative achievement (not least of all technologically and logistically) unprecedented in the 109 years that movies have been screened for paying audiences, the only question was whether or not "The Return of the King" would sweep all of the categories in which it was nominated. The film's early wins — in Art Direction, Costume Design, Visual Effects, and Makeup — were predictable slam dunks; and the rich excellence of Howard Shore's score was equally undeniable. As the statuettes started piling up, an all-conquering victory began to seem inevitable.

Things thus became increasingly exciting for "Rings" partisans, especially when Peter Jackson — looking, as always, as if he'd just rolled out of a hayloft — stepped up onstage with his cowriters, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, to collect the Best Adapted Screenplay award. (Their loving transformation of author J.R.R. Tolkien's thousand-page "Rings" saga into a feasibly shootable, three-part script was a prodigious feat of narrative distillation.) And it was hugely gratifying to watch Jackson, a truly visionary filmmaker, return to the stage to collect the Best Director Oscar that he could in no conceivable way be denied. (As Ian McKellan, who plays the wizard Gandalf in the "Rings" films, put it earlier in the show, "Peter Jackson makes you believe in Middle Earth by taking you there.")

At the end, it was stirring to watch Jackson troop back up onstage along with the rest of the "Rings" crew in attendance — including the by-now universally familiar faces of the four lead Hobbits (Elijah Wood, Sean Astin, Billy Boyd and Dominic Monaghan) — to accept the Best Picture award for what in fact really was the best picture of the year.

The rest of the Academy Awards show was to some extent a backdrop for the triumph of "The Lord of the Rings."

There were no surprises apart from the fundamentally surprising fact that most of the other Oscar winners were entirely deserving. Tim Robbins? Check. Sean Penn? Absolutely. Renée Zellweger? Yes. Charlize Theron? Well ... yeah, okay.

And no one was more deserving than Erroll Morris, who won the Best Documentary Feature award for "The Fog of War," his acclaimed film about Robert S. McNamara, a widely reviled U.S. Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam War years. Morris doesn't simply make documentaries; he creates cinematic meditations on subjects ranging from pet cemeteries ("Gates of Heaven") to cosmology ("A Brief History of Time") and Holocaust denial ("Mr. Death") to murder and justice in America ("The Thin Blue Line," his hypnotic masterwork). Incredibly, over the course of three decades, he had never been nominated for an Academy Award. So upon actually winning one, the first words out of his mouth, unpreventably, no doubt, and entirely understandably, were: "Thank you for finally recognizing my films — I thought it would never happen!"

It was a fine night for just rewards too long delayed.