Adrien Brody for President: Humility and passion from the hometown longshot.

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Okay, so the man’s not a politician. But based on his appearance at the 75th annual Academy Awards, where he picked up a best actor statuette for his elegant, minimalist performance as a persecuted Jewish musician in the WWII drama The Pianist, he’s definitely a grace-under-pressure kind of guy. Because most people expected the award to go to either Jack Nicholson for About Schmidt or Daniel Day-Lewis for Gangs of New York, Brody was a genuine surprise winner, and he looked on the verge of passing out from sheer disbelief. (I can’t remember the last time I saw a grown man swoon.) Then Brody didn’t just get up on stage—a mildly impressive accomplishment all its own, given the circumstances—he proceeded to plant a wet smackeroo on Halle Berry, who seemed aghast. Hopefully, she wasn’t too offended; if Gene Hackman had presented the award, the overwhelmed Brody probably would have kissed him, too.

He gave a humble, funny, obviously off-the-cuff speech, singling out director Roman Polanski and his own mother, photographer Sylvia Plachy, for special thanks. When his allotted time expired and the orchestra tried to play him off the stage, Brody did something only Julia Roberts has managed to do: He silenced the orchestra by personal request. (It’s much more impressive that the barely known Brody did this; Julia Roberts is so famous and powerful that she could probably ask a perfect stranger to hack off his thumb with a spork and be granted her wish.) Then Brody gave a remarkably gentle, nonpartisan plea for peace, capped by a shout-out to a buddy from Queens who’s serving overseas. All in all, it was the perfect Oscar speech. When telecast producer Gil Cates cut to Brody’s competitors—previous Oscar winners Jack Nicholson, Nicolas Cage, Daniel Day-Lewis and Michael Caine—they were beaming with what seemed like genuine affection, as well they should have. To varying degrees, they’d all been there.

Day-Lewis’ experience winning best actor for 1989’s My Left Foot was perhaps the most similar to Brody’s. He was a long-shot nominee, facing heavy competition from Born on the Fourth of July’s Tom Cruise and Driving Miss Daisy’s Morgan Freeman. And, like Brody, the only people who knew his name at the time were art-house regulars. More significantly, Day-Lewis was one of those rare nominees who actually won a major award in the year that he deserved to win it.

As every reasonable person knows by now, the Academy Awards are rarely about merit. They’re more often about hype, social standing and politics, which is why the organization often awards people who had actually deserved to win the previous year, or five years ago, or 20 years ago. People who don’t really understand the Oscars are apt to complain that Al Pacino, for instance, should not have been given a best actor statue for his raspy-voiced hambone theatrics in Scent of a Woman. But as Clint Eastwood snarled in Unforgiven, "Deserve’s got nothing to do with it." The Academy was playing catch-up when it gave Pacino the statue, because they should have given it to him for Dog Day Afternoon or The Godfather, Part II. Likewise, Nicole Kidman deserved to win, just not for The Hours. She animated 2001’s Moulin Rouge with sheer lovestruck energy, and The Others was powered by her character’s terrifying motherly righteousness; these performances earned her the honor.

Roman Polanski is another better-late-than-never winner. He’s a great artist with an ugly personal life, like Frank Sinatra or Paul Gaugin. (He famously fled the country to escape a statutory rape charge in the late 1970s, and can still be arrested if he returns to the U.S.) Of course, if a scummy past disqualified people for Oscar consideration, there’d be no Oscars, and I have to imagine that this fact, more than any other, explains the ovation that greeted the announcement of Polanski’s name. The membership wanted to give him an award for all the great movies he’s made—including The Pianist, a boldly ironic Holocaust movie that’s more mature in some ways than Schindler’s List. I’d wager that the Academy members voted for Polanski out of artistic respect, and were startled that he won. (Poor Martin Scorsese. At least this time he didn’t lose to a handsome actor making a middlebrow directorial debut.)

Host Steve Martin was his usual acidic self, criticizing the telecast as he hosted it, and it was a good telecast—reasonably paced, entertaining but not frivolous and suspenseful all the way around, thanks mainly to fears that the presenters might make antiwar comments. (I love that so many people are surprised and upset that creative people tend to be liberal, as if such leanings aren’t inherent to the job description; no one is surprised or upset that police officers tend to be conservative.) Presenter Susan Sarandon gingerly flashed a peace sign on the way out onstage—she probably would have gone further if she hadn’t been introducing a roll call of the dead. Barbra Streisand made some kind of muzzy plea to respect the independent voice of artists, or something. I couldn’t tell what kind of point she was making, to be honest, and I bet she didn’t, either; I’m guessing she wrote it on the back of an envelope 30 seconds after hearing Adrien Brody give his shout-out to the troops. (She delivered the most surreal line of the night: "And the Oscar goes to Eminem!")

Of course, best documentary winner Michael Moore went on a bellicose rampage, backed by his fellow best documentary nominees, blasting the "fictitious" President Bush, talking over the chorus of cheers and boos, and throwing in the nonexistent word "fictitional" for good measure. It was a Vanessa Redgrave moment—like Brody’s speech, but combative and deeply unlovable; definitely one for the highlight reel. Bowling for Columbine, while entertaining, was a deeply self-aggrandizing film, but at least Moore, unlike most Hollywood people, is unafraid to have convictions and be publicly despised for stating them. I felt much less animosity toward him than toward all those A-list stars who sat on the front row during Moore’s speech and made a great effort not to betray any sentiment for fear of damaging their biggest investment, their own careers. Now that’s cynical.

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