So it turns out the 86th annual Academy Awards weren’t as unpredictable as people imagined, but that’s been happening a lot lately. With all the preliminary awards shows getting more hype every year, a pattern gets established. Was it possible that the only award Cate Blanchett wasn’t going to win this year would be the final one, the Oscar? Possible, but highly unlikely.
The biggest surprise of the night was Spike Jonze winning the best original screenplay Oscar for Her. Most figured (and by “most” I mean “I”) that the screenplay award was going to be the consolation prize for American Hustle, but it turned out that the academy didn’t think American Hustle deserved any consolation.
That may have been the second biggest surprise of the night, American Hustle going home empty-handed. As awards season began it was the movie with the momentum. Then the backlash set in. Maybe academy voters realized the story was sort of hollow, but that didn’t bother me. It may not be the deepest film of the year, but American Hustle is tremendously entertaining and a rousing actors showcase. Worse movie have won Oscars, but seeing the academy pivot away from Hustle more curious than upsetting. Look at last year. I continue to be baffled by the antipathy toward Lincoln.
Also unlike last year, I can’t complain about the winners. The best picture of the year was 12 Years a Slave, and it won the best picture Oscar. Gravity was a technical masterpiece, so it deserved its host of technical Ocars as well as Alfonso Cuaron’s directing award for orchestrating the movie’s many demanding facets.
The Oscars telecasts have been following a pattern in recent years. After a disastrous year, the producers respond by playing it safe. Following the the James Franco-Anne Hathaway debacle (and the intervening Eddie Murphy-Brett Ratner flameout), the producers lured reliable Billy Crystal out of the ’90s. After last year’s Seth McFarlane frat house kegger upset a lot of women (and anyone else with taste), inoffensive Ellen DeGeneres got the call.
DeGeneres did a decent job. I like how she did a quick monologue and got right to the first award of the night. As much as he is loved as an Oscar host, Billy Crystal’s shtick would dominate the first half-hour of the night.
DeGeneres’ low-key approach cut through a lot of the show’s pompousness without threatening the oh so serious movie stars in the audience. When DeGeneres pulled the pizza delivery bit, everyone joined in. Brad Pitt handed out plastic plates and even renowned crankypants Harrison Ford passed the slices down the row. Imagine the stars doing that for, say, David Letterman.
True, the pizza bit went on too long. DeGeneres got out of it with a good joke, though, asking Harvey Weinstein to pick up the tab. Tina Fey and Amy Poehler sent a few jabs Weinstein’s way at the Golden Globes. This could be a welcome awards show trend.
Let’s also give DeGeneres credit for actually hosting. She was present throughout the show, always there when the telecast came back from commercial. In the last few years the host would come out at the beginning to do a routine or two and then the mysterious Oscar voice would take over, announcing the next presenters and the upcoming categories while the host would return intermittently for ill-timed comedy routines.
As it turns out, it doesn’t matter if sprightly Ellen DeGeneres or boorish Seth McFarlane or disengaged James Franco is hosting the show. The Oscar telecast is going to run long. The problems with the Oscars go beyond the host, and they were as plain as ever this year.
The unnecessary theme was “heroes,” which meant several of those interminable clip packages with vague mission statements that leave you asking questions like, “What was George Bailey doing in the action hero montage instead of the ‘heroes who take a stand against injustice’ montage?” And the clips always favor more recent films to benefit the short memories of today’s audience. But at least the Pink Panther was in the cartoon hero montage. That made me happy.
The easiest way to shorten the Oscar telecast is to just get rid of those clip packages saluting the best picture nominees. I’m sure they are a sop to the studios who want to promote their movies even more, as if a best picture nomination isn’t promotion enough. But these are not part of Oscar tradition. I can’t pinpoint the year, but I believe they were introduced in the late 1990s. They wasted time when there were only five nominees, but with nine it gets ridiculous. And this year it really did get ridiculous. The producers finally seemed to realize they had to hustle through these things, so the movies were grouped into packages of three, which led to Tyler Perry awkwardly trying to tie together Nebraska, Her and Gravity.
This year’s show started at a fast clip, and it seemed promising for a while. Maybe they could land this thing at under three hours. But as usual, once the program hit its second hour it belly flopped into quicksand.
Just when things are slowing down and the commercial breaks are becoming more frequent — you know, the point when the producers should be speeding things up — the Oscars take perverse delight in adding superfluous musical numbers. Could there be a bigger Oscars cliche than performing “Over the Rainbow” as a salute to The Wizard of Oz? Was anyone demanding another salute to one of the most saluted films in movie history? Then after a particularly moving and tasteful death montage, the sentiment is ruined when Bette Midler sashays out to warble her maudlin “Wind Beneath my Wings.”
Consider that a few years ago all the memorial awards were moved to a separate ceremony in an effort to shorten the Oscar telecast. The obstinate Oscars have remained as long as ever, though, because fluff like these songs and montages have filled the vacuum. The memorial awards may have taken up time, but they often provided the best emotional moments of the show. This year we got the umpty-ninth Oscar rendition of “Over the Rainbow” and a tribute to heroes featuring Superman ignoring the destruction of Metropolis in Man of Steel rather than acceptance speeches from Angela Lansbury and Steve Martin. I don’t call that a fair trade off.
I would also get rid of the clip packages and extraneous songs (I don’t have a problem with the nominees for best original song, and this year they were superbly staged) if the academy would loosen the time limit on the acceptance speeches. Watching this year’s show I got the impression that the producers sent out sternly worded letters and maybe a guy who resembles Luca Brazi warning against going over the time allotted for acceptance speeches. Most of the winners this year complied — you seldom heard the orchestra warming up — but they were so fearful of saying too much that few said anything memorable. I was looking forward to a great speech from Spike Jonze, but he was so caught off guard he couldn’t collect his thoughts and I’ll bet staring at the clock counting down in the distance (which all the winners see) had much to do with it.
The Oscars are run in a way that rewards the producers’ excesses but clamps down on spontaneity, and spontaneity has always been the gold of Oscar night. A few moments of spontaneity slipped through Sunday night. Best supporting actress winner Lupita Nyong’o’s speech was beautiful, the highlight of the evening. Bill Murray’s ad-libbed shout-out to Harold Ramis was sweet. Darlene Love singing her acceptance speech for the documentary 20 Feet From Stardom was a treat. John Travolta mispronouncing Idina Menzel’s name was embarrassing, but spontaneous. Best actress winner Cate Blanchett’s acceptance speech was rambling, but fun. Best actor winner Matthew McConaughey gave the easy-going, Southern-fried thank you we all expected, though McConaughey’s admission that his hero has always been a 10-years-older version of himself had us doing the math and wondering at what point was his hero a naked dude playing bongos.
This year’s Oscar telecast was decent enough, probably the best we’re going to get under the academy’s current way of thinking. It would be great if the producers would loosen up and have some fun again. Posting selfies to Twitter is only an approximation of that.