It’s hard to know why anybody would want to be the producer on the Academy Awards (or any other major award show, for that matter). You take over a bloated beast with too many entrenched elements, step into an unwinnable situation in which no matter how proudly you boast at your desire to change things or put a new stamp on the proceedings, one can safely assume that whatever you do differently will be chided and whatever you do the same will be mocked. It doesn’t matter how unpredictable the awards happened to be, you’re going to be accused of masterminding a predictable telecast. And so if you happen to get stuck with a show in which the winners are crushingly easy to anticipate? Well, you’re doomed.
[Thoughts on the Oscar telecast after the break…]
At Sunday (March 7) night’s 82nd Annual Academy Awards, most of the big prizes, including all four acting awards, were foregone conclusions weeks ago. The history that would arise from Kathryn Bigelow winning Best Director also felt preordained and, what’s worse, it was a story that Bigelow herself had no interest in playing up. The only question became whether or not this Oscar season’s Biggest Movie In History would follow in the footsteps of “The Return of the King” and “Titanic” and land the Best Picture. That question was answered in abrupt and anti-climactic fashion when, with the show already creeping past the 3:30 mark, Tom Hanks had to whip open the envelope and spit out the words “Hurt Locker” without room for suspense.
Nobody can accuse Bill Mechanic and Adam Shankman, this year’s producers, of not trying new things, with the problem being that every new thing they tried stood out like “The Blind Side” in the 10-film Best Picture race.
An opening musical number from Neil Patrick Harris? Energetic, but probably less inspired than similar NPH numbers at this year’s Tonys and Emmys (and definitely less inspired that Hugh Jackman’s musical opening to last year’s telecast). Either turn the whole show over to Harris and his brand of OG variety shenanigans or leave it out entirely. Indeed, plans for several additional musical numbers were scrapped.
The NPH opening proved an ungainly vestigial tie to a different show. Get the young viewers excited and then kick to co-hosts Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin doing a Grump Old Men routine basically introducing every member of the audience accompanied by an easy punchline. Yes, this kind of opening is an Oscar tradition, but if you don’t have any material fresher than gently nudging Woody Harrelson about his appreciation for weed, why bother? Baldwin and Martin had acceptable chemistry, but in terms of delivered laughs, I found myself amused only by Martin, whose Oscar hosting turns have always amused me. The show wasn’t improved by having the pair of them and it may, in fact, have required the addition of a third host outside of the Older White Male demo, something that was rumored, but never occurred.
Certainly the show didn’t hesitate to pander desperately to younger viewers.
The kids love “Twilight”? Let’s get Kristen Stewart and Taylor Lautner on the show. Doing what? Ummm… Introducing a tribute to horror films? Why? No reason in particular. Nevermind that “Twilight” isn’t really a horror movie or that 2009 wasn’t an especially significant year for genre or that at least a third of the films in the montage were either awful or not really horror. Because they got K-Stew and Team Jacob! And not only that, but they got Zac Efron and “Twilight” co-star (and legitimate Oscar nominee) Anna Kendrick to produce right after. This teenybopper-baiting was strategically placed at that point in the show where apathetic audiences usually determine they can’t be bothered to differentiate between sound editing and sound mixing and change the channel.
But it wasn’t only the youngest of viewers the Oscar telecast tried to keep on a short leash. Generation X viewers still fit comfortably into the 18-49 demographic, so Oscar dedicated an extended period of time to paying tribute to John Hughes, complete with appearances by a handful of Hughes veterans who at one point must have been certain their futures included Oscar appearances as more than token curios. The cast testimonials were nice, but the clip package was lazy and seemed to only represent Hughes at his most trite and dated. I’m very much of a generation that revered Hughes and so it was sweet to see him recognized, but the film snob in me couldn’t help but ponder how much less celebration Billy Wilder and Robert Altman received in recent years. And then there’s the issue of why Hughes deserved primetime tribute for dying, but honorary Oscar winners like Gordon Willis and Roger Corman were shunted off to a separate show and only briefly acknowledged tonight.
The Hughes tribute wasn’t helped by the director Hamish Hamilton’s struggles to find a camera position that let viewers recognize folks like Judd Nelson and Molly Ringwald.
For the night, the production team almost never had the camera in the right place, delivering confusing angles and five-seconds-too-late audience cutaways. Also, aware that we were in the midst of a history night with wins for Mo’Nique and “Precious” screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher, the director pulled that simultaneously complacent and not-entirely-unracist move where he kept cutting away to any African-American faces he could find in the audience. Since the Academy Awards audience is pretty darned white, that meant we got to see that Morgan Freeman had no noticeable reaction to Fletcher’s win and that Samuel L. Jackson wasn’t positively or negatively moved by Mo’Nique.
Bits meant to illustrate the tougher technical categories fell flat as well. The difference between sound editing and mixing has to be explained every year and this year’s example, drawn from “The Dark Knight,” was one of the least informative reminders to date. Even less useful was Tyler Perry trying to give viewers a primer on editing. Leaving aside the reality that the editing is just one of many technically amateurish aspects of Perry’s filmmaking, every supposed “editing” decision Perry tried to explain is actually performed by the director in a live award show and his reductive examples didn’t come close to showcasing how important editors actually are.
On the more positive side, at least none of the technical categories and their practitioners were actively mocked this year. It always feels offensive when, in order to keep viewers awake, a slumming comedian is brought in to minimize short filmmakers or art directors.
There were absolutely funny presenters. The combination of Tina Fey and Robert Downey Jr. was a winner, as was a blue Ben Stiller speaking N’avi and wearing excruciating-looking yellow contacts to present the makeup Oscar. Having Barbra Streisand to present Best Director, knowing Bigelow was the likely winner, was a perfect choice.
As ever, the Oscar show felt like it ran long, which meant that no matter how many superfluous things from one year were cut, a new assortment of overkill was added. No performances of the nominated Oscar songs? No complaint here. However, the interpretive dance routines set to snippets from the Oscar nominated scores allowed us to see a few “So You Think You Can Dance” stars and conjured up unflattering references to Debbie Allen. The dance break was more obtrusive because of how little “entertainment” the rest of the show had.
Instead, there were clip packages aplenty. Each Best Picture contender had clips, which isn’t unusual, but the clips felt longer than usual and with 10 of them, that ate up more time than usual. The each nominee in the acting categories also had clips, a tradition that comes and goes depending on the producers. Then, when we got to Best Actor and Best Actress, each nominee was introduced by an esteemed (or semi-esteemed) colleague, none of whom were given a reasonable time limit. The only introducer I found indispensable was Colin Farrell, who probably ought to be invited to do all introductions at next week’s ceremony.
Only a few of the night’s winners had to be played off the stage, but there was also a shortage of memorable speeches, though Mo’Nique and Sandra Bullock turned in a couple highlights. The award season is so long and the same people win so frequently that it’s hard to get unforced moments, though the tears running down Gabourey Sidibe’s face as Oprah introduced her nomination were unforced and perhaps the most emotionally impactful moment of the telecast.
Attempts to adjust the focus of the Oscar speeches away from thanking manages and agents and toward grander pronouncements on the true meaning of Oscar fell on deaf ears. [Similarly, some presenters got the “And the winner is…” memo, while others stuck to the non-competitive “And the Oscar goes to…”]
Oscar producers are a pretty powerless lot. I think Bill Condon and his team turned in a peppier telecast last year, with Jackman contributing a more entertaining hosting turn, but I don’t know what lessons from that telecast should have been carried over into this year, nor do I really know what next year’s producers would be wise to change. So when reflecting on a telecast like this one, it’s best to just think of the satisfying winners and tributes — Bigelow, Jeff Bridges, T-Bone Burnett, Michael Giacchino, a pleasant Steve Martin reference to “The Jerk” — and accept with serenity the things that haven’t been fixed in 82 years and probably aren’t ever going to change.
What’d you think of the Oscar telecast? What’d you think of the hosts? What would you change for next year?