The 2013 Academy Awards telecast was a mess, but it was an understandable mess. Seth MacFarlane was going to do Seth MacFarlane things, regardless of whether they were appropriate to the setting. And the show featured multiple tributes to the 10th anniversary of “Chicago” because the Oscar-cast was being led by “Chicago” producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron – and, as we were reminded of by the end of Matthew McConaughey's speech tonight, people in Hollywood like to pat themselves on the back when an opportunity presents itself.
Zadan and Meron were back as producers of the 2014 Oscar-cast, but the ways in which this year's show went so badly awry, so often – beyond the usual bloat and predictability of any Oscar show in this century – were harder to see coming.
In lieu of an 11th anniversary “Chicago” tribute – or a random ode to the Zadan and Meron-produced “Smash” – we got a theme of “Heroes In Hollywood,” which played out as a series of formless, endless montages of virtually any kind of Hollywood character who could even vaguely be described as heroic (nearly all male, because this is the business they have chosen), doing little to entertain, illuminate or seem unique to this particular night. (The famous shot of Peter O'Toole blowing out the match in “Lawrence of Arabaia” feels like it could have ended a montage on several dozen other themes.) Oscar shows are always montage-crazy, but usually there's something distinctive about them, even if they're eating up time that could better go to something else – like, say, folding Governor's Award winners like Steve Martin and Angela Lansbury back into the telecast itself. These just filled time, as did Bette Midler singing the full version of “Wind Beneath My Wings” after the In Memoriam montage (which, to that point had been very simple and classy and effective), rather than during it, so that a moment of solemn remembrance instead turned into an excuse for the audience to give Bette a standing ovation while they remembered how much they loved her in “Beaches.” And while Pink sang a fine rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” (and didn't even bust out the trapeze to spice things up), a lengthy tribute to only one of the many iconic films of 1939 (a year that gave us “Gone with the Wind,” “Stagecoach” and “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” to name just a few others) on the 75th anniversary felt much too random.
It was a long, disjointed ceremony, and what was fun and likely to endure came entirely from the winners and their speeches, like Lupita N'Yongo telling the audience, “No matter where you're from, your dreams are valid,” or even improvised bits of introduction, like Bill Murray paying tribute to his late, often-estranged collaborator Harold Ramis. There were many excellent films rewarded, and many excellent speeches, but they were surrounded by a host of bad, ill-timed production choices – at one point, we went a full half-hour between awards being presented – so that it all felt like noise.
Ellen DeGeneres hosted, seven years after her previous stint, a 3 hour and 47 minute slog in which DeGeneres was nice and laid-back and had absolutely nothing biting or memorable to say. On the heels of MacFarlane's “We Saw Your Boobs” antics, it seemed like DeGeneres had been asked back to be nice to the room. Instead, her monologue was filled with strange barbs at members of the audience (accusing Liza Minnelli, for instance, of being a female impersonator of herself), and ending with the joke that there were two possibilities for how the night would end: “Possibility #1: '12 Years a Slave' wins Best Picture. Possibility #2: You're all racist!” (She followed immediately by introducing “our first white presenter,” Anne Hathaway.) Now, that closing joke was by far the funniest one in the monologue, but it felt strange coming from DeGeneres (or, at least, from the talk show version of her, as opposed to the slightly sharper-tongued stand-up she was many years ago).
But at least there was a plan and writing for her monologue with Ellen. After that, the only plan seemed to be “Ellen wanders through the audience; hilarity ensues.” It did not. She committed fiercely to a bit about ordering pizza for the crowd, returning to it on multiple occasions (first to actually hand out slices, then to collect money to pay for it) and dragging each segment out long past the point at which it might have been amusing. One of her more successful stunts back in 2007 was asking Steven Spielberg to take her picture with Clint Eastwood; here, she kept up with modern technology and proposed taking a selfie with Meryl Streep, which eventually morphed into a mega-star-filled photo with Streep, Julia Roberts, Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie (obscured in the finished result by Lupita Nyong'o's brother), Jennifer Lawrence, Kevin Spacey(*) and more. It was, like the attempt to collect pizza money, saved by the willingness of the stars to throw themselves into the idea, but so many other DeGeneres bits died quickly.
(*) Interesting that one of the most enthusiastic crowd reactions of the night came when Spacey came on stage in character as Frank Underwood from “House of Cards.” There was more warmth for a TV show than there was for a number of the nominated films. Makes me wonder how the crowd would have responded if McConaughey had managed to slip a reference to time being a flat circle into his acceptance speech.
Even handed one of the stranger moments in Oscar history in John Travolta's complete mangling of Idina Menzel's name as “Adele Dazim,” DeGeneres did nothing with it (other than giving the correct pronunciation after Menzel sang “Let It Go”). Say what you will about Billy Crystal, whose schtick had clearly not aged well by the time he hosted again a couple of years ago, but he would have grabbed that thing like it was the second coming of Jack Palance's push-ups and used it to carry the show to the finish line. Instead, more pizza gags, followed the inevitable ones about the show running long.
If you're a fan of the movies, and specifically of the ones that did well tonight, there was much to enjoy. But just once, you would hope that a show dedicated to celebrating the very best in one branch of entertainment would understand how to put on even a competent example of great entertainment in another branch. Instead, I fear the ratings (which are always driven more by having some popular films up for big awards than by the host) and the record number of retweets DeGeneres got for the picture (over 2 million at the time of this writing) will convince the Academy that Zadan and Meron are doing fantastic work and should hold onto the job as long as they want it.
What did everybody else think? Were there produced parts of the show you enjoyed? If not, did the winners and their speeches make the whole thing worth it, anyway? What was your favorite moment of the night?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com