Penelope Cruz Wins After Tearful Acting Tributes

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For an award show that is known for its self-importance, the Oscars has rarely produced moments that land with an undeniable emotional impact in recent years. That certainly does happen, largely thanks to winners delivering affecting speeches. But as the Academy tinkers with its telecast’s format year in and year out, desperately trying to manufacture enticing moments for an increasingly disinterested viewing public, it’s failed at doing the thing that the movies it honors do so well: surprise us with overwhelming emotion.

That’s why, as a beleaguered, still-unapologetic fan of the Oscars, I constantly revisit the 2009 presentations for the acting categories.

As is often the case, Best Supporting Actress was the first award of the night. It had been tradition for the year’s previous supporting actor winner to introduce the category, list the nominees, and announce the winner. So it was a break from form when, instead, the announcer introduced five past Oscar winners in the category—Eva Marie Saint, Whoopi Goldberg, Tilda Swinton, Goldie Hawn, and Anjelica Huston—each one revealed by a large screen featuring images of them winning their own trophies.

The audience was stunned and immediately gave the quintet a deserved standing ovation. What followed was nearly five minutes of the women delivering personalized, thoughtful tributes to that year’s nominees, explaining what was so remarkable about their performances as well as the impact their work has had on audiences.

(Saint spoke about Viola Davis for Doubt, Huston about Penelope Cruz for Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Goldberg about Amy Adams for Doubt, Hawn about Taraji P. Henson for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and Swinton about Marissa Tomei for The Wrestler.)

For an award show that is too often overly controlled and stuffy, there was a vitality and an unshakable sense of warmth to the sincerity of this—and certainly to nominees’ reactions to the unexpected praise. Crying along at home, I couldn’t help but feel inexplicably proud of the work of these very famous people who I have never met.

When Cruz was announced the winner, there was such a palpable sense of not just Cruz, but everyone in the auditorium feeling deeply touched by what they just witnessed.

The format was repeated for all the acting categories that year, with the other nominees, now knowing what was coming, visibly bracing themselves for their overwhelming moment.

The next year, the presentation style was tweaked, with former co-stars delivering the tributes. Other ceremonies in the years since have either had the previous year’s winner do it all on their own or have abandoned the style entirely. It’s a shame. Those 2009 monologues captured exactly what an Oscars telecast should be filled with but is often too self-conscious to produce: moments that carry real gravity, telegraphing to viewers the importance of the film industry, while turning the attention toward celebrating the art and artists instead of pandering pieces of entertainment.

Every year I scream from my rooftop for the Academy to bring this back. Maybe one day, they’ll hear me in Hollywood.

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