At this point, one has to say to Oscar: if you’re that embarrassed by the Best Original Song category, just get rid of it. Yes, it’s recognized some great movie moments — and given us some great Oscarcast moments — over the last 77 years, involving everyone from Rodgers and Hammerstein to Springsteen to Sondheim to Eminem. But it’s clear the Academy feels the award has had its day, as evinced this year by the embarrassing all-time low of a two-nominee field, and now, the decision to drop performances of the nominated songs from the ceremony — for the second time in three years.
I wrote just yesterday that The Muppets had already been somewhat edged out of the show: with almost everyone predicting two song nominations for their latest screen outing, with the infectious group number “Life’s a Happy Song” favored to win, the Academy’s music branch wound up nominating only the lower-key ballad “Man or Muppet,” a showcase for new Muppet recruit Walter and his non-felt screen partner Jason Segel.
It’s not the lavish production opportunity for Kermit and the gang that the telecast producers were probably hoping for, but with the song in the film featuring a cameo from TV comic Jim Parsons, it still offers a number of fun staging options — as, indeed, does the second nominee, the upbeat, Sergio Mendes-penned Latin trifle “Real in Rio” from animated hit “Rio.” While the line two years ago was that the nominated songs — the best of which, Ryan Bingham’s alt-country weeper “The Weary Kind” from “Crazy Heart” won the Oscar — weren’t dynamic enough for the show, that’s hardly the case this year, even if they’re not exactly songs for the ages.
These days, the music branch and the telecast producers seem to be at loggerheads year after year. Where the latter want to court viewers with big pop names, the voters now steadfastly, even perversely, refuse to nominate the frontrunning songs that would allow them to do so: Bruce Springsteen in 2008, Cher last year, The Muppets and Mary J. Blige this year. If it means whittling the field down to two nominees through negative voting to keep the category defiantly anti-populist, it seems, that’s what they’ll do.
It is, of course, a dramatic change from the 1980s, when Billboard #1 hits ruled the category — an era the telecast producers must look back on with fond longing. As Joe Reid wrote recently, that speaks as much to a shift in cinema’s relationship to popular music as to anything specifically Academy-related, but the fact remains that the category, while still capable of honoring wonderful songs (recent winners “Falling Slowly” and “The Weary Kind” do the award proud), just isn’t working. The Academy decision to reduce its presence on the telecast this year seems a tacit acknowledgement of that sad truth.
For more views on movies, awards season and other pursuits, follow @GuyLodge on Twitter.
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