First, let’s acknowledge the undeniable elephant in the room. The Oscars are a truly terrible idea for a television show. If the concept of the Academy Awards was pitched to any executive in Hollywood, they would be laughed out of the meeting. “No, really, we want to give out 24 awards for filmmaking, but only six of them are likely to be won by recognizable names and faces.” Seriously, that’s the pitch. Yet year after year the same questions are asked. How do they fix the Oscars? How do they make the broadcast shorter? More bearable? More entertaining? The success off the Oscars inevitably lies not with the host, but with the passion the viewing audience has for the films nominated and likely to win.
The industry creates the disconnect by pumping hundreds of millions of marketing dollars into huge blockbusters and then releasing Oscar bait indies in small releases with campaigns focused only on Academy voters. That way if they win, it’s a huge windfall, but if they don’t, it’s not a terrible impact on the studio’s bottom line. The only time the Oscars is truly engaging throughout the entire broadcast is on the rare occasion that a massively successful movie is also considered to have artistic merit – see Titanic, The Lord of the Rings.
Otherwise, there are 18 awards that either go to movies no one saw, or to people no one cares about. I am the first one to champion that no great film is made without incredible casting (why is this not a category), music, editing, sound work, costumes, script and so forth, but the reality is that that does not make an interesting TV show because outside of true film fans, people tune in to see celebrities. So two hours of the broadcast is filler. No amount of tinkering is going to fix that. And that’s okay, but let’s stop pretending that the host or the producers can do anything about whether or not the public at large is invested enough in the films nominated in a particular year to maintain their engagement level through that often tedious middle section of the show. Live action short films anyone?
Additionally, the internet and the number of awards shows preceding the Academy Awards has made most of the winners a foregone conclusion by the time the night arrives. In the rare event of an upset, it essentially means that the Academy is not in step with the critics, the guilds or the general public consensus. So ironically, a true Oscar surprise would simply demonstrate the already often accepted perception that the Oscars and the voters are out of touch. Lose/Lose.
SO. That said, let’s consider last night.
Seth McFarlane. Hosting the Oscars is a nightmare of a job. It’s understandable why many refuse to do it. At best they escape with a “they did okay” which is nothing to write home about. Long gone are the days when Billy Crystal’s silly and charming harmless banter could float the audience along through a show filled with surprise results. The instant response of social media, and the army of writers who have made every joke before the broadcast actually happens makes it an impossible task to be truly surprisingly innovative or creative if the host is a comedian.
I’m a huge fan of Seth McFarlane’s humor. Family Guy is a brilliant and farcical take-no-prisoners brand of offensive humor that revels in the “I can’t believe they just did that/said that/showed that” style that you either love or hate as it pushes truly satirical commentary right up to the edge. He’s also obviously a huge fan of traditional musical theatre and movies in general, and I find the combination brilliant. He’s definitely not for everyone.
His hosting was not as bad as the immediate internet ripping said, but it was not good. And not nearly as good as it could have been if he had been free to be himself. If the show had just opened with “We Saw Your Boobs” in typical McFarlane style, it would have been profane and irreverent and brilliant. The point is both the objectification of women, and the recurring idea that a woman getting naked in a “serious” role is baring her soul – yet studios know they’re also baring their breasts. Win/Win. He clearly wanted to do it, and someone said, “No, we have to show that you know it’s totally not okay to do that number on such an important and serious night.” Thus the convoluted and unnecessary William Shatner “you’re a terrible host” bit. But “Boobs” then a quick “Welcome to the Oscars” moment and a true McFarlane production would have been off and running. It may not be your thing, but it’s who he is, what his comedy says, and that would have been his show. If they didn’t want that, they shouldn’t have hired him. What we got was the tentative version, and that’s why it felt deflated. If it had been a night filled with jokes like the terrible/wonderful John Wilkes Booth joke, it may not have been for everyone, but seeing Billy Crystal ride in on a horse doesn’t do anything for me. No host will ever please everyone, but trying to do so won’t please anyone. This is a guy who responded to frustrations with FCC censors on his cartoon show by writing a song and dance number called “The Freaking FCC” that incorporated all of the most offensive visuals in the history of his show. If they wanted a “Look at all the pretty people, aren’t they lovely” host, they should have hired Jay Leno.
And come on, the Sound of Music bit before Christopher Plummer? Hilarious. The Chris Brown/Rihanna bit – totally on topic as we all continue to be baffled by them. Pinging the Academy for not recognizing Ben Affleck, Tommy Lee Jones smile, studio accountants, Daniel Day Lewis and Don Cheadle? The man is funny. I also found the sock puppet sketch hilarious just for the moment when the socks in the dryer were supposed to be the people in the plane crash. But I’m easily amused.
The sound mixer. It’s early in my wrap up for this comment, but whoever mixed the sound for the broadcast should be run out of town. Seth’s mic wasn’t hot enough to understand the lyrics in the opening, the balance on Adele’s vocal was terrible, and even before Kristen Chenoweth forgot where they were in that only-Neil-Patrick-Harris-is-charming-enough-to-pull-that-off last song, you could barely hear either of them.
The Jaws theme. The idea was amusing, until some producer made the terrible decision to actually cut off the Life of Pi Visual Effects winner. No, he’s not a celebrity, but he just won an Oscar and was in the middle of a touching story about how they nearly went under. With all the discussion of Seth and good taste, this moment was the least tasteful of the night.
The actors in the opening. Huge props to Charlize Theron, Channing Tatum, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Daniel Radcliffe and especially Sally Field for being a part of the opening. They were all charming, and it was nice to see actual stars be willing to be part of the fun. If the opening had just been “Boobs” and then “just kidding, here are some family friendly numbers” without all of the “everyone thinks the host is terrible” business, it would have been a decent opening. The gay men’s chorus moment was great too. I’m still pissed that Channing’s pants weren’t tear-away though.
Speeches. Whatever year it was they warned the actors they would be cut off if they just started listing names – they should reinstate that rule. There is nothing worse than watching that laundry list not-a-speech/speech approach happen. Maybe the real point is that the producers should tell every agent, manager, lawyer and PR person in town, “Look, if your client wins – that’s good business for you. It will make you more money. Obviously they are grateful to you, but they are not going to waste thirty seconds saying your names.” Because in my personal history of viewing Oscar acceptance speeches, I remember Adrien Brody and that kiss, Roberto Benigni climbing on the chair, Cuba Gooding Jr. putting his on the floor and jumping up and down, Halle Berry in tears, Julia Roberts refusing to stop talking, Angelina Jolie and that awkward thing with her brother – these wonderfully, amazing human moments where we get to see those at the top of an aspirational industry be overwhelmed and invite us all in to the moment with them. That’s never happened by thanking some agent at CAA.
The best speeches this year were that Argo writer for his endearingly spazoid approach, Jennifer Lawrence for that brilliant “You’re only standing because I fell down” human moment, handled with self-deprecating wit, Daniel Day Lewis for the Margaret Thatcher bit, Ben Affleck’s producer for the sexy producer joke and then Ben himself for the genuinely heartfelt triumphant moment telling the story from Good Will Hunting through Gigli and J.Lo to Argo. Other than that, mostly a snooze fest in the speeches. Occasionally one of the random categories with a complete unknown winner will steal the spotlight with charm and humor, but not so much this go round.
The music. They cheated, and that helped. Parading Catherine (who sang twice now for Chicago – Renee – zilch) and Jennifer Hudson out was smart, but they can’t do it every year. Barbra obviously sends a certain fanbase into fits. The true winner of the night for music though was Shirley Bassey. I don’t know her, or her work, and I found it a masterful performance – not even relying on the sentiment of who she is to sell it. I loved it. A nice lift with true talent onstage including Adele and Norah as well.
Les Miserables. I chose not to add my review after watching this film to the gajillions of critics and musical theatre lovers out there. I will say, I love the score of this musical more than any other ever written. That love for this piece allowed to me have a wonderful time seeing the film and enjoy the experience despite the horrid injustices done in the adaptation. Seriously though, there is no forgiving that Russell Crowe destroyed the film. The central conflict of the original book, and the musical adaptation, is between justice and forgiveness. The rule of law and the ability of humanity to transcend all boundaries. Of all of Hugo’s great themes (and that book had enough for several novels), I believe that the musical captures it all in my favorite lyric of all time “And remember the truth that once was spoken, to love another person is to see the face of God.” The movie has no core and no center if the conflict between Javert and Valjean is not there. And it wasn’t. Love it or hate it, Hugh Jackman’s commitment was a wonder to behold and he mopped the floor with Crowe. It was so bad I laughed out loud in the theatre at one point thinking, “Oh my god, soooooo many people had to watch this, and approve this and say this is okay, and this, this is the best they could do?” Fail. Massive fail. I couldn’t wait for him to jump off that bridge.
THAT said, “One Day More” is my favorite ensemble number in any musical ever. I put it on in the car just for inspiration sometimes, it moves me that much. The way the melodic themes pass between characters and throw back to earlier sections of the show, and overlap leading to this triumphant ensemble call and response leading to the big finish – I. Love. It. So, just seeing them all onstage singing a song I love, made me happy (I just ignored Russell). Though it needn’t have started with that massively mediocre original song introduced in the film purely to be eligible for an Oscar. Yes, a terrible adaptation, but the music and the score will make it always tolerable for me.
Anne Hathaway. She gets her own section here because I’m a little bipolar in my feelings on this. It’s clear that the industry and many in the social media world have turned on her through this awards season. I was busy enough in January that for the first time in years I didn’t watch the Globes or the SAG Awards. I have a special place in my heart for Anne because of a particularly articulate and wonderful speech she gave at an HRC gala several years ago. That shouldn’t matter any more than those who are annoyed at her handling of the campaign should either, but that’s part of the process. However, I will say that despite all of the above irritations with Les Miserables, and as a huge fun of the incredibly well-sung and moving recordings that I have heard and memorized, I truly believe that the single shot performance of her “I Dreamed a Dream” was one of the most breathtaking scene in a film this year, and one of the best in the last several years. I loved it, I sobbed, I didn’t think it was overdone, I believed it, and the vocal sacrifices felt in service of the emotional intent rather than as excuses for lack of ability. So yes, her speech was terrible, that first moment was indulgent in a flabbergasting way that I can’t believe she intended, and then that last moment of “This is for all the Fantine’s” as though there are prostitutes in France still pawning their hair and teeth (weaves and grills don’t count) was ludicrous. But she deserved this award.
Sidebar – the other problem with so many awards shows is that in the event that an actor/director/producer becomes the favorite, by the time we get to the Oscars they’ve already given their best speech at another awards show – see Jennifer Lawrence SAG Award.
Jennifer Lawrence. Perfection. I thought she was brilliant in Silver Linings Playbook and she manages to project an air of authenticity in the middle of the biggest PR event in the world. I adore her and cannot wait to see her work as she continues to challenge herself.
Christoph Waltz. He’s brilliant, but really he should probably have been in the lead category. All of these men are genius, so a wealth of riches, and splitting hairs for the win.
The Director Debacle. Before it became the compromise that Argo would win Best Picture because of the embarrassing oversight of Ben, this should have been a showdown between Ben Affleck and Kathryn Bigelow for two incredibly different approaches to real-life, relevant and visionary storytelling. I loved Life of Pi, but these two excluded directors were the standouts for me for the actual vision and direction.
Zero Dark Thirty. The Academy should be embarrassed for allowing the real world controversy and discussion of this film to overshadow the work itself. Because isn’t that what art at its best does? Create conversation? Challenge us to examine ourselves and our world from a new point of view? The torture controversy is a conversation. Whether you agree with the film’s depiction or how close it is to actual events, it is a real thing that we as a country engaged in. I applaud the film creators for presenting it in a way that leaves both sides ammunition in the argument. I love a film that is provocative and forces conversation. Kathryn and her team should have been applauded, not shunned, for bravely saying something – whether we agree with them or not. It is not the job of filmmakers to dictate policy or legislation, or even ensure that every detail in the story they tell is accurate. This isn’t a documentary. Or a history book. But the best films, and the greatest art, asks challenging questions. This they absolutely did.
Daniel Day Lewis. He is unfathomable. The only way I manage to comprehend him is to remember that he was terrible in Nine. Kind of like Meryl in Mama Mia, which is nice, because it proves they are still actually human beings. Can someone please figure out a film for them to star in together (that is not some drippy husband/wife thingy)? War of the Roses-esque or Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? or Lion in Winter? Come on.
So, all in all, not the worst broadcast ever, but by no means awesome. The music helped, the winners were mostly expected. I take the apples and oranges approach to these shows – the comparison of art and performances is ridiculous and at this level they should all be equally amazing, just different. At its best the Oscars is a celebration of the power of film as an art form to impact the world. I only get irritated when I think something is unworthy, and I thought there was a lot of great film work done this year – both recognized and unrecognized by the Academy.
And if you’re that jerk saying “Who cares? It’s the most famous people in the world fighting over a bunch of silly statues and patting each other on the back while the whole world watches.” Yes, yes it is. And three weeks ago we did the same thing for a bunch of guys who run back and forth trying to cross a line with an oblong ball. We all have our things, and if this annoys you – how on earth did you make it to the end of this Lord-of-the-Rings-long rambling blog post?
The Oscars are never going to amazing. It’s the nature of the beast. So, excuse me while I start trolling the internet for the best bets for next year’s show!
PS – favorite line of the night, Ben Falcone (Melissa McCarthy’s husband) on the red carpet. Ryan Seacrest: “Who are you wearing?” Ben: “I’m wearing Tuxedo.” Taking the piss out of Seacrest – always funny. I will always blame him for the Kardashians being a thing.