As always, I like to take a little time before weighing in with my thoughts on the Oscars…partly so I can respond to all the knee-jerk reactions in the media. And this year, there’s been a lot of knee-jerking. The show has prompted quite an impassioned reaction, most of it directed at host Seth MacFarlane, and most of it negative. Even over a week later, people are still stating their objections to some of his material. So let’s start there.
For the record, this was not the worst Oscars ever, nor was MacFarlane the worst host ever. I’m confident that the people making one or both of those accusations have not seen every televised Oscar show, and are therefore in no position to say what shows back in the 50′s or 60′s, for example, might have been better or worse. Besides, you don’t even have to go that far back for a worse show. You need only rewind two years, to the ceremony honoring the best of 2010, hosted by Anne Hathaway and James Franco. I haven’t seen every Oscar show either, so I can’t say whether or not that was the worst ever. But it was the worst I could remember seeing, and not just because the hosts were not up to the task. In fact, I wrote at the time that I didn’t think Hathaway and Franco even deserved most of the blame. (Well…Franco may have deserved a good-sized chunk.) As I said, it was “badly produced, badly directed, blandly written.” This year’s show wasn’t the best, but for the most part it was competently produced, so it’s already an improvement over two years ago.
From the moment he was announced last year, the chatter was that MacFarlane was an unusual and provocative choice, but an exciting one. Aside from the fact that he was largely unknown to the public and was not a major figure in the film community (though he was coming off the summer success of Ted, his first movie as director and voice actor), his humor was known for often being crass and edgy. But it was a good pick. It showed the Academy taking a chance, which is not something the esteemed old lady is known for doing, and MacFarlane’s combo of comedy and music skills seemed like they would serve him well at a gig like this.
Other than Team Francoway, who were simply the wrong people for the job, I don’t think I’ve seen a really bad hosting turn in my 25 years of Oscar watching (then again, I’m fairly easy to please). Billy Crystal was always great, though his schtick was a little warmed over by last year; Whoopi Goldberg and Steve Martin always did a good job; Hugh Jackman and Ellen DeGeneres both delivered in their years, as did Jon Stewart the two times he hosted. The hosts that are remembered less favorably are David Letterman and Chris Rock, but both were perfectly funny. They just weren’t the typical warm and fuzzy hosts who go down smooth. They pushed a few more buttons, and were true to their well-established personas instead of trying to become something else for Oscar night.
The same goes for MacFarlane. But the degree of vitriol in response has been high…and in several cases, a lot more mean-spirited than anything he dished out. The show, and its host, have been called sexist, misogynistic, anti-Semitic, racist and anti-gay during the last week and a half. Amy Davidson of The New Yorker was one of many who was not remotely amused by MacFarlane’s performance. Two female California state lawmakers sent a letter to the Academy expressing their concerns, as if they don’t have more pressing matters to attend to that involve actually governing. Perhaps I have no right to comment on any of this since I’m not a woman, but at the risk of being labeled a racist, homophobic misogynist for not rebuking everything MacFarlane did, I have to defend the guy. His humor is known for sometimes being offensive, but like South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, MacFarlane is an equal opportunity offender. I don’t think this is a man who has it in for women. I may not be so attuned to things that women would find offensive, and yes, a line like the one about Jessica Chastain’s Zero Dark Thirty character tracking Bin Laden for 12 years being evidence of women never letting anything go was pointless and bound to piss off every female viewer, rightfully so. But I hardly think it was a setback to feminism.
As for charges of anti-Semitism, I can attest from my years of Hebrew school that the Jewish people have survived an awful lot; I think they can endure a couple of cracks about their influence and numbers in the entertainment industry. In fact, I find it more interesting that MacFarlane’s Oscar night humor pushed the envelope as far as what is considered venue-appropriate, while at the same time being as staunchly old-fashioned as including jokes about Jews running Hollywood. Also, I don’t recall there being a backlash three years ago after Steve Martin (co-hosting with Alec Baldwin) described Inglourious Basterds nominee Christoph Waltz’s character as a Nazi hunting Jews, then spread his arms wide and declared, “Well, Christoph? The motherload!” On the contrary, it was one of the best lines of the night, and received the laughs to prove it.
The joke about actresses giving themselves the flu to fit into their dresses bothered some, but did anyone make a peep after the Golden Globes, when Tina Fey described The Hunger Games as what she called the six weeks it took her to fit into her dress? If there were complaints, they sure weren’t loud. I don’t need to tell anyone that Hollywood celebrates beautiful women and sets unrealistic expectations when it comes to the female body image. That’s a problem, but as long as the entire red carpet tradition at the Oscars and every other award show continues, creating pressure for women to pour so much energy into selecting gowns and jewelery and to look amazing or be torn apart in fashion magazines, the culture will persist. Suddenly Seth MacFarlane is a misogynist for cracking a joke about it?
Yes, he joked about Chris Brown and Rhianna. So has every late night comedian, over and over again. I don’t see them getting raked across the coals. Yes, there was a song called, “We Saw Your Boobs.” Yes, it was silly and a little crude. But no, it wasn’t a statement that actresses are only worth paying attention to when they take their clothes off, nor was it indicative of a night where every introduction or comment on an actress focused on her beauty or looks – another complaint I read somewhere after the show, which was untrue. He introduced plenty of women without referencing their looks, including presenters Jessica Chastain and Jennifer Garner, saying “both have played government agents and both have kicked ass onscreen in every sense.” Nothing about their beauty, just their talent. And since Charlize Theron, Naomi Watts and Jennifer Lawrence were all willing to participate in the boobs number, can’t everyone just lighten up? (No, I suppose if that argument worked there wouldn’t have been any controversy last year about The Help or this year about Django Unchained. Just because certain members of a group take part in something doesn’t mean other members of the same group won’t take offense.) MacFarlane was accused of insulting Adele’s weight when he joked that Rex Reed would be coming out to review her performance, but I saw that not as knock on Adele, but a joke about Rex Reed being an asshole. (For those who didn’t get it, film critic Rex Reed made some obnoxious comments about Melissa McCarthy’s weight in his review of Identity Thief a few weeks ago. He deserved the scorn that came his way. MacFarlane doesn’t.)
It wasn’t just journalists slamming MacFarlane. Actress and Oscar night presenter Jane Fonda, as well as Girls creator and star Lena Dunham weren’t impressed, and just within the last couple of days, Jamie Lee Curtis and Geena Davis have weighed in as well. It’s particularly disappointing to see fellow artists bash MacFarlane in the media. While they, along with anyone else, have the right to be offended by his routine, artists know what it is to take risks and put yourself out there, so I would think they would at least refrain from airing their grievances publicly. All but Dunham are Academy members, and if they felt the need to voice their concerns, they could have done so in private communication to the Academy’s president. Their opinions are certainly valid. But people have varying barometers of what is and isn’t offensive. Curtis starred in True Lies, which faced charges of misogyny and furthering stereotypes of Arabs as terrorists. Dunham has been accused (absurdly) of racism and nepotism. They’re bothered by MacFarlane’s jokes? Fair enough. But I’m bothered that fellow artists who have been in his position can’t muster a little empathy. They don’t have to like what he did, but they don’t have to attack him in public for it.
I was happy to see some writers come to his defense, and female writers at that, like Victoria A. Brownworth in The Advocate (though I think she might go a bit far in the other direction when she describes the ceremony as “a veritable paean to women.”) Even better was this letter to The Hollywood Reporter from an anonymous female development executive, who discusses some of the ways that sexism is rampant in Hollywood, and the problem needs to be addressed in more fundamental ways than tearing apart Seth MacFarlane for doing what a comedian does. A similar argument about women in Hollywood was made by Katherine Lampher in The Christian Science Monitor, though she is less forgiving of the host.
MacFarlane is not a traditional stand-up comic or performer by trade. He has hosted Comedy Central roasts and private ceremonies like the Writer’s Guild Awards, but the global exposure of the Oscar stage is new to him. Still, the Academy leadership and the show’s producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron were willing to take a chance on him, and he took the chance too. Not only did he take it, but he jumped into the deep end. According to Zadan and Meron, MacFarlane was much more involved in all aspects of planning than most hosts. He attended every production meeting along the way, and threw himself into the process. Even at the show itself, he put himself out there more than the typical host just in the sheer amount of the proceedings that he participated in. I don’t remember another host being onstage as much as MacFarlane was. He introduced almost every presenter himself, a task that is usually more evenly split between the host and the anonymous, disembodied announcer. He also was there to throw to each commercial break with a tease of what was coming up. The guy was working it. Many critics described him as coming off smug, amateurish and self-involved. I disagree completely. I think he was comfortable, confident, and fulfilled a host’s duties admirably. He was enjoying himself, and wasn’t afraid to show it. Not every joke landed, but he was quick on his feet when something fell flat. After the off-color joke describing John Wilkes Booth as the actor who “really got inside Lincoln’s head” did little to impress the crowd, he swiftly recovered by expressing surprise that 150 years was still too soon, and that he had some Napoleon jokes coming up that would really make them mad. When his joke about the heavy use of the N word in the Django Unchained script being based on Mel Gibson’s voicemails elicited an uncomfortable reaction, he went with it by asking, “Oh, so you’re on his side?”
Critics were too busy sharpening their knives to notice many of his safer but still funny lines throughout the night, like introducing presenters Zoe Saldana and Chris Pine as “current Star Trek stars and future Priceline.com spokespeople,” or bringing out Daniel Radcliffe and Kristen Stewart with the line, “He’s a boy wizard and she’s a girl vampire. So together they’re pretty much everything the Christian right says is wrong with Hollywood.” He took aim at the Academy’s general failure to nominate blockbusters by describing The Avengers as “the most popular movie of the year, which is why it’s only nominated once.” And he had a great line about the cast of Prometheus coming out to explain “what the hell was going on there.” His bit about Daniel Day-Lewis’ immersive method being challenged by encountering signs of modernity like cell phones and a free-roaming Don Cheadle was terrific. And he got off to a great start with his opening line of the night, “The quest to make Tommy Lee Jones laugh beings now,” a reference to Jones’ stone-faced reaction to a hilarious Will Ferrell-Kristin Wiig bit at the Golden Globes. MacFarlane succeeded, as the side-by-side shows.
The fact is that much more of MacFarlane’s material worked than didn’t. Sure, there were some groans and a few examples of muted applause, but by and large the audience was with him. These critics who ripped his performance should try listening to the room. Perhaps the noises at their Oscar party, or the sound of indignation boiling in their own heads drowned out the consistent laughter of the crowd that followed most of his jokes. The same thing was true of Letterman’s hosting gig. People still talk about it as a failure, but if they actually go back and watch, they’ll find that Letterman was a hit with the audience. Hosting the Oscars is always described as a thankless job, and the reaction to MacFarlane’s performance goes a long way toward proving it. People complain when they think the host is too bland or safe, and they complain when the host pushes buttons and dares to slightly shake up an event which they describe, year after year, as dull and bloated. Make up your minds, assholes. Or better yet, shut up altogether. The Academy’s risk in hiring MacFarlane paid off with a show that accomplished two positive things: it got people talking, and scored the best ratings in four years, with a significant gain in the 18-49 demographic that is probably due, at least in some part, to MacFarlane. I’m happy to see they have defended him in the face of the negative onslaught.
For those who disliked MacFarlane’s performance and might see some victory in his post-ceremony tweet that he would never host the show again, they should know that he said the same thing before the show even happened, citing the amount of work and the time commitment. I hope that when it comes time to choose the next host later this year, the Academy leadership and show producers – whoever they may be – don’t play it safe as a reaction to this backlash, and instead once again choose someone interesting but still appropriate (i.e., a comedian). Last year, right after the Academy’s new president Hawk Koch was elected, there were rumors that he had reached out to Lorne Michaels to produce the show and Jimmy Fallon to host. ABC supposedly didn’t like the idea of Fallon, time-slot rival to their own Jimmy Kimmel, hosting a big program on their network, so it didn’t pan out. Or so the story goes. But Michaels and Fallon…now that’s an Oscar combo I’d love to see. As for Tina Fey’s insistence that she would never host? That’s kinda like what J.J. Abrams said about directing Star Wars. I’m sure she could be convinced.
Now with all of that out of the way, we can get to what the show is actually about. This year, the wealth was nicely spread around, with eight of the nine Best Picture nominees winning at least one award. Only Beasts of the Southern Wild went home empty-handed, but let’s be honest: for such an outside-the-mainstream, low-budget film from a 30 year-old first time director, just being at the Academy Awards with four major nominations was a huge victory. Life of Pi led the night with four awards, Argo and Les Misérables took home three, Lincoln and Django Unchained each won two, while Silver Linings Playbook, Amour and Zero Dark Thirty all claimed one. Non-Best Picture nominees Skyfall, Anna Karenina and Brave also emerged as winners.
-For my own part, out of 24 categories, I called 19 correctly, missed three (Supporting Actor, Makeup and Hairstyling, Production Design) and abstained from two (Live Action Short, Documentary Short). Better than I thought I would do in this unusually unpredictable year. Many of my personal picks missed out, but I was largely satisfied with the slate of nominations this year, so I felt good about how things unfolded. There were no travesties of Oscar justice or unexplainable headscratchers.
-Chief among the new records set and pieces of trivia inscribed was Daniel Day-Lewis becoming the first person to win three Best Actor awards. He also became the first actor to win for a Steven Spielberg movie. Argo became the fourth movie to win Best Picture without its director being nominated. At age 22, Jennifer Lawrence became the second youngest Best Actress winner ever, behind Marlee Matlin, who was 21 when she won for Children of a Lesser God. “Skyfall” became the first song from a James Bond movie to win, and George Clooney joined some elite clubs this year, as the person to receive nominations in more categories than anyone else, and only the sixth person to win in both acting and non-acting categories.
-Of all the awards, the one that surprised me most was Christoph Waltz’s Best Supporting Actor win for Django Unchained. Not because I didn’t see it coming at all (I predicted De Niro, but acknowledged that Waltz and Tommy Lee Jones both had a strong chance), but because it just seems strange that Waltz is now a two-time Oscar winner. He’s great, and I’ve enjoyed not just his winning performances, but those he gave in between in Carnage and Water for Elephants, but a two-time Oscar winner? After less than five years in Hollywood? It’s a neat, but slightly bewildering accomplishment, especially considering that his characters in Inglourious Basterds and Django aren’t that far apart. He joins an impressive roster of two-timers that includes Spencer Tracy, Bette Davis, Marlon Brando, Jack Lemmon, Elizabeth Taylor, Michael Caine, Jane Fonda, Gene Hackman, Jodie Foster, Anthony Quinn, Maggie Smith, Denzel Washington and Jessica Lange. Waltz’s win is a testament to how much voters obviously enjoyed his performance, and how expert he is at delivering Tarantino’s dialogue. It really is a match made in heaven with those two.
-The other big surprise of the night, though less high-profile, was the tie in the Best Sound Editing category. It was only the sixth tie in Academy history, and lent some unexpected drama to a category that doesn’t get its due from the average movie or Oscar viewer.
-The Best Animated Film win for Brave was a nice triumph for Brenda Chapman, who conceived the film based on personal experience and was Pixar’s first female director until she was replaced during production by Mark Andrews. It was a shocking development at the time, with almost no details given, though ultimately Chapman shared directing credit on the film with Andrews. Now she’s an Oscar winner, and whatever tension might exist between them, you would never know from the way they interacted on stage or in the press room, where they posed for some goofy pictures. (One thing, though: if I were Andrews, I’d probably have hung back so Chapman could speak first.)
-One of the other big stories that has emerged from Oscar night, though less visibly to the average viewer than the MacFarlane brouhaha, centers on the Best Visual Effects triumph for Life of Pi. As I had mentioned in my predictions post, this widely expected win occurred under a storm cloud: Rhythm & Hues, the primary visual effects house that worked on the movie, has been in financial trouble recently and filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy a few weeks ago. When the quartet of winners took the stage, speaker Bill Westenhofer thanked Ang Lee, the talented crew and his family before bringing up the sad irony of winning the Oscar as the company – and the entire VFX industry – is in such dire straits.
As a former employee of a VFX company, with many friends still there, I hear about these issues often. In simplest terms, studios want to pay as little as possible for visual effects (and for everything else, no doubt). In order to secure business, facilities have to bid the work at numbers far below the actual cost. Compounding the problem, other countries offer tax incentives and cheaper labor to the studios in order to lure business (within the U.S., other states outside of California, where the industry was born and raised, also have tax incentives). The result is that VFX artists increasingly live migrant lifestyles, bouncing around from shop to shop, state to state, sometimes country to country in order to make a living, and even then they still have to put in impossible hours to complete the work on time as studios demand increasingly complex visuals at lower and lower prices on shorter and shorter delivery schedules. The piece of the pie these companies and artists receive is small to nonexistent, and they are not represented by a union. Despite the fact that year after year, the highest grossing movies are driven by visual effects, the industry is being destroyed by the studios which are unsurprisingly fixated on their bottom line. Rhythm & Hues is just the latest company to go under, and everyone in the industry is feeling the squeeze. VFX artists organized a protest near the Dolby Theater on Oscar night to call attention to the problem, and newly minted Oscar winner Westenhofer tried to address the issue…until the orchestra started playing the Jaws theme to send him on his way, an obnoxious though not atypical move at the Oscars year after year. Then they cut his microphone altogether – more obnoxious, less typical.
When the winners arrived on stage, there was unusually loud applause and hooting from the audience. Maybe there were just a lot of Pi fans out there, or maybe people were happy to see this team win in the face of R&H’s financial difficulties. Either way, Westenhofer hadn’t been talking that long before the music started to play, and cutting off the microphone was a real bullshit move. I’ve said time and time again that whether it makes compelling TV or not, winners should be allowed to complete their speeches. Most are considerate enough not to drone on endlessly. Oscar night is first and foremost about the film community honoring its own, and so the honorees should be accorded the respect of having their moment.
All that said, the VFX community reacted harshly not just to Westenhofer’s treatment, but to two other speeches of the night, complaining that Ang Lee and Best Cinematography winner Claudio Miranda didn’t thank or acknowledge the work of the VFX artists. I’m less sympathetic to these rebukes. First of all, most people who take the stage to accept an Oscar are not used to being in that kind of spotlight. By all accounts, it’s an extremely surreal and disorienting experience. Even a pro like Jennifer Lawrence was quickly at a loss for words, and forgot to thank her director David O. Russell and the all-powerful Harvey Weinstein. When Hilary Swank won her first Best Actress award, she famously forgot to thank her husband. People are not always at their most eloquent or most focused in that moment. If you saw Miranda’s speech, the guy could barely speak coherently, and acknowledged as much. I’m not about to accuse him of slighting the VFX teams. As for Lee, he began his speech by thanking the 3,000 people who worked with him on Life of Pi. No, he didn’t call out Rhythm & Hues specifically, which would have been nice given what’s happening to them. But I don’t believe that not mentioning them was disrespectful or meant to neglect their invaluable work. I’m sure every contributor to the movie could make an argument for why their discipline should be mentioned. The problems in the effects industry are bad, but they are not singular. Plenty of other sectors of the economy, in and out of the film industry, face problems comparable to those the VFX industry is caught in. Members of the VFX community should be upset about what’s happening, but they should also focus on the real problem and not lash out at people who didn’t thank them in an award speech. The industry could absolutely benefit from even just a couple of powerful, respected directors taking up the cause with the studios – a James Cameron, Peter Jackson, Steven Spielberg, David Fincher or Tim Burton – somebody who understands the importance of VFX, uses them consistently and has made the studios a lot of money. But the difference is not going to be made by a quick mention in an Oscar speech, and VFX artists would do better to direct their ire elsewhere and cut these guys some slack.
-Not all the drama on Oscar night happened on stage. I liked this story, about a producer of Best Animated Short winner Paperman being temporarily ejected from the auditorium for throwing a few paper airplanes from her seat when the movie won.
-Poor Anne Hathaway. Some people really just don’t like that girl. I’m not one of them, and although I have described her before as sometimes coming off as over-the-top in her eagerness and enthusiasm, I usually find her to be a class act with a good sense of humor. She has been ridiculed by people throughout the season for some of her speeches (she’s given a lot of them), which have been called insincere and rehearsed. Rehearsed? She’s admitted to practicing her speeches, but how is that any different from writing a speech or a list of names and reading from it? It’s just a different way of being prepared in case you win. I think what people have called a lack of sincerity is actually an abundance of it; she’s so sincere that it bugs people. Throughout the awards season I’ve found her speeches to be gracious, warm and genuine. She’s consistently and eloquently acknowledged her co-nominees, her cast and crew, and she has impressively avoided breaking down in a fit of tears, which…c’mon, Hathaway totally seems like the type who might lose it when winning an award, especially an Oscar. But she hasn’t and she didn’t. So don’t let the haters harsh your buzz, Anne. (I will say though, I wish you had cracked a joke about being back on the Oscar stage for the first time since your maligned hosting gig. And it would have been funny if you thanked Susan Boyle. And it would have been cool for you to mention that your mother played Fantine years ago in a traveling production of Les Misérables, making your win for playing the same character even more special. Cause that does make it more special, right? Or have I crossed an inappropriate line from telling winners what they should say to telling them what they should feel as well?
-The best speeches of the night came toward the end of the show. I still think Lincoln writer Tony Kushner should have taken home the Best Adapted Screenplay award, but I really liked what Argo winner Chris Terrio said about using intelligence and creativity to solve problems nonviolently.
I also liked Quentin Tarantino’s speech, calling out the actors who bring his characters to such memorable life, as well as all the other nominated writers for doing such great work.
Daniel Day-Lewis, always great with a speech, was no different last night, and once again had the crowd rolling as he described how he and presenter Meryl Streep had swapped roles, Abraham Lincoln for Margaret Thatcher. I kept hearing comments from people who were surprised by his humor, but in my previous post I provided links to other speeches Day-Lewis has given throughout the season, all of which have shown him to be as funny as he is humble and appreciative. How great would it be to see Day-Lewis in an intelligent, highbrow comedy? Somebody needs to get him in a room with Alexander Payne!
Best Actress winner Jennifer Lawrence took a spill on the way to the stage to accept her award, but superstar that she is, she humorously and gracefully brushed it off and went on to deliver an appreciative speech, despite her spinning head causing her to forget a few key people (which she rectified later).
And when Ben Affleck got to make his speech for Argo‘s Best Picture win, he once again spoke from the heart, echoing his BAFTA speech by thanking the people who have helped him rebuild his career. It’s a shame that Affleck missed out on the Directing nomination, because he almost certainly would have won had he been there. But given the way his career is going, he may get another chance before too long.
The show may have been long and overstuffed this year, but the stuffing was at least well-made, and attractively presented. The sets were beautiful, and I especially liked the background that looked like hundreds of slender stalks of light. It was like an electronic-age update of the set for The Police video “Wrapped Around Your Finger.” I half expected to see Sting frolicking in between the rows of light.
(Click Image to Enlarge)
-Once again, the show was directed by Don Mischer, and once again he proved he sucks at this. To his credit, he did better than the last two years when it came to showcasing celebrities in the crowd, but he still failed to spread the wealth around and provide a sense of the famous faces in the room. There was a point in the show when MacFarlane acknowledged the show’s producers Zadan and Meron, and then director Mischer, calling the latter “masterful.” At that moment, the master cut away to his favorite thing: a wide shot of the middle of the auditorium, with no recognizable faces. Later, when MacFarlane said, “How great was Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty?” Mischer again cut to middle of the crowd, where we caught a glimpse of Renee Zellweger and Queen Latifah, but not Jessica Chastain nor anyone we recognized as connected to Zero Dark Thirty. When Reese Witherspoon was onstage introducing the first three Best Picture nominees, the camera cut to the contingent for the first two, Les Misérables and Life of Pi. But for some reason, despite knowing where all the nominees would be seated, the cutaway that should have showed the Beasts of the Southern Wild camp instead found Bradley Cooper and Robert De Niro. It would have been nice to have one shot all night of Beasts director Benh Zeitlin, to show the new kid on the block reacting to his first Oscar experience. But the only time Zeitlin was on camera was during the few seconds when the envelope for the Best Director award was opened. All the directors were on camera at the moment, except for David O. Russell, who was for some reason replaced with Emmanuelle Riva. It’s not like Mischer didn’t know where to send his cameramen to get the right person in the shot, but nevertheless he failed to do so. Throughout the night, he missed obvious opportunities to cut to certain audience members when they were being mentioned from the stage. Some of those mentions were spontaneous, and maybe a cameraman couldn’t get there in time, but others were during planned portions of the show, like the aforementioned Best Picture intros. He couldn’t have cut to the Lincoln or Zero Dark Thirty crews when their movies were discussed? This is the third year in a row that Mischer has directed the show, and the third year in a row that the show has been incompetently directed. When are they gonna dump this guy? I’m sure he’s nice and all, but maybe it’s time he hung up his headset.
-Speaking of those Best Picture montages, kudos to whoever put them together. They were nicely assembled, providing a good sense of each movie and not just looking like excerpts from the trailers.
-The majority of The Avengers cast – Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Jeremy Renner and Samuel L. Jackson – took the stage to present awards for Best Cinematography and Best Visual Effects. After cinematographer Claudio Miranda had finished his speech and left the stage, the presenters returned to the mic and, as you saw in the clip above, Jackson started to announce the Visual Effects nominees before Renner and Ruffalo interrupted him and told him he had just skipped a bunch of text. Downey started to chime in with some words about it being a big year for effects-driven films, but Jackson comically argued that they should honor the artists by simply presenting the award. It was an awkward bit of business, since it wasn’t clear if Jackson really had skipped a chunk of the presentation, or if the jokey bickering was in fact planned and there was no skipped material after all. I still don’t know the answer, but if it was the former, then the visual effects community was slighted again…and this time it would be worth getting pissed.
-The James Bond tribute was a bit of a disappointment. The producers said in an interview before the show that the intent was always to focus on the music of Bond, in keeping with the theme of the night, and that there was never a plan for the six actors who’ve played 007 to unite onstage. There were still rumors that there had indeed been an attempt to bring the Bonds together, but that Sean Connery and perhaps Pierce Brosnan were holdouts, killing the whole deal. Regardless, even as just a tribute to the music of Bond, the presentation was lacking. After a nice intro by Oscar winner and Die Another Day Bond girl Halle Berry, we were treated to a run-of-the-mill montage accompanied by the James Bond Theme, and then an instrumental of “Live and Let Die.” Not even the actual song with lyrics, but just an instrumental. I did enjoy the way that dovetailed right into the arrival of Shirley Bassey, looking great at 76, who belted out an impressive rendition of “Goldfinger.” I applaud Meron and Zadan for getting Bassey onto the show, but the rest of the tribute was sub par. Why was “Live and Let Die” the only song featured, and why was it not even the actual song? Where was “For Your Eyes Only” or “Nobody Does It Better”? Could they not have gotten at least one or two more singers to come on the show and perform their songs, at least partial versions, if they were concerned about time? Why not fold Adele’s performance of “Skyfall” into this segment, with more Bond clips projected behind her? (And when she did perform later in the show, why was she set so far back instead of out closer to the audience? Bad staging, that.) The tribute was a nice idea, but it should have been better.
-Did anyone notice that as Seth MacFarlane began to acknowledge the orchestra, the music swelled so loud that he could barely be heard, then sharply pulled back before rising again almost loud enough to drown him out as he continued his salute to their contribution? No? Nobody? Well…it made me laugh.
-The tribute to recent movie musicals was another mixed bag. It was strange to begin with that only three movies were featured, especially when one – Chicago – was executive produced by Meron and Zadan, and another – Les Misérables – was a nominee for Best Picture, giving it more attention than any of the competition. Why focus on recent musicals only? Maybe because the Oscars featured a big tribute to movie musicals just a few years ago, when Hugh Jackman hosted? Okay, so they wanted to spotlight musicals of the last decade, rather than the decades worth featured in that big number from the 2008 show. Even then, why just Chicago, Dreamgirls and Les Misérables? There were plenty of other movie musicals to showcase. How about Sweeney Todd, Nine and Moulin Rouge? The Producers, Hairspray and The Muppets? Even Team America and A Prairie Home Companion could qualify as musicals. But these movies were all ignored.
As it was, the tribute began with Catherine Zeta-Jones performing “All That Jazz”, but it seemed a bit pointless since the whole number was staged exactly as it was in the movie. Why not try to bring something new to it, at least? (I also read some comments online that Jones was clearly lip-synching, but if it was true, I didn’t notice.) She was followed by Jennifer Hudson belting out “And I Am Telling You”, her signature number from Dreamgirls. The power of her vocals brought the crowd to their feet, but I’m not crazy about the song, which lacks a compelling melody and just seems designed for an impressive voice to screech and roar. The best number of the tribute was easily the Les Misérables medley. I was concerned this would flop, as medleys always run the risk of being corny. But it turned out to be excellent. It started off with a solo Hugh Jackman performing the nominated song “Suddenly”, then nearly all of the film’s main cast joined in bit by bit for the soaring number “One Day More”, with a dash of “I Dreamed a Dream” for good measure. Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen’s presence seemed to be for inclusion’s sake only, since neither got to solo or even duet, and they aren’t actually part of “One Day More” in the film. Still, the whole performance was stellar (even Russell Crowe, whose singing in the film has earned more derision than it deserves) and was the highlight of the segment.
-One of the coolest things the Academy did this year was hold a contest for film students asking them to make a 30 second video explaining what they would contribute to the future of movies. Six winners were selected and invited to the Oscars to help hand out the statues, in lieu of the nameless spokesmodel types that usually do the honors, and Academy president Hawk Koch even introduced them all by name. I could have done without that part; no offense to them, but that time would be better spent letting a winner complete their speech. But the contest and opportunity is a great idea, and I hope the Academy makes it a new tradition. The winning videos can be seen here. (I like the second and third.)
-Why do people keep asking Kristen Stewart to present awards? She’s terrible at it. Whatever charisma or talent she brings to her performances, she brings none of it to her real life public appearances. She mumbles, she fidgets, she looks down, over and around…if it’s an effort to court younger fans, there are plenty of others who can accomplish that.
-Why does Kristen Stewart keep agreeing to present awards? She has often admitted that she’s uncomfortable and awkward in the spotlight, which is fully apparent from the way she mumbles, fidgets and looks down, over and around as if she can’t wait to get off the stage. Maybe she looked so sullen because of her fresh Razzie win for the final Twilight movie. Nah…she always looks that sullen.
-Although the emphasis on Chicago was a sort of ego-stroking gesture on the part of Meron and Zadan, it was nice to see Richard Gere, Renee Zellweger, Queen Latifah and Catherine Zeta-Jones present together. Where has Zellweger been these last few years? And where was John C. Reilly? I hope his absence was due to unavailability, because if they failed to invite him, that would be an egregious oversight…not to mention an ironic one for the guy who sang “Mr. Cellophane.”
-It seemed a little odd and unfair that only three of the five Best Original Song nominees were performed live on the show. After Hugh Jackman sang as part of the Les Misérables medley and Adele got a big moment to sing “Skyfall”, Norah Jones was trotted out in the middle of the Best Song presentation to perform “Everybody Needs a Best Friend” from Ted. It’s not a long song to begin with, but even so it was a truncated version. And did Jones even have time to exit the stage before the envelope was opened declaring a different song the winner? (Not that Jones would have taken the Oscar had the song won, as she didn’t write it, but still…kinda makes her performance, which already felt like an afterthought, seem all the more pointless.) Then there are the other two nominees, which were only featured as clips. “Before My Time” from Chasing Ice was performed in the film by Scarlett Johansson, who wasn’t at the Oscars due to her schedule on Broadway, but they could have found somebody else to perform the song. And “Pi’s Lullaby”, performed by Bombay Jayashree, would have lended itself to a nice visual presentation if the producers had worked it into the show. Maybe there was a reason they didn’t…but like I said, it seemed odd.
-Only two things were less surprising than wins by Daniel Day-Lewis and Anne Hathaway: Iran complaining about Argo‘s Best Picture win, and idiots complaining about Michelle Obama. Yes, when Jack Nicholson came out to present Best Picture, he introduced a surprise co-presenter. The First Lady appeared onscreen via satellite from The White House (awkwardly flanked by a number of military personnel in what looked like the most uncomfortable reception ever). The First Lady, of course, was all class and elegance as she talked about the importance of movies and then opened the envelope to reveal Argo as the winner. The idea to have Mrs. Obama on the show came from Harvey Weinstein’s daughter, and Weinstein helped make it happen. I suppose this year was a fitting one for something like that, with a number of Best Picture nominees being so politically relevant (Argo, Zero Dark Thirty, Lincoln, even Beasts of the Southern Wild and Les Misérables), but really it was just intended as an unexpected treat. Of course, not everyone saw it that way. Blowhards who feel the need to politicize everything expressed their disgust at the First Lady’s appearance. I love reading through some of the comments mentioned in this article, because it demonstrates what imbeciles these people are. I expected them all to be conservatives, but I stand corrected: one of the quoted douchebags is MSNBC commentator Donny Deutsch, whose remarks include calling Mrs. Obama “uninvited.” Yeah, that’s right, dipshit. She just took over the satellite feed and inserted herself into the Oscars. Do you know what “invited” means? You should look it up, and then use it properly, because you can’t possibly be stupid enough to think that she crashed the Oscars. Then there’s conservative Jennifer Rubin’s comment about Mrs. Obama “intruding” and feeling “entitled.” Hey moron, it’s not intruding when you’re asked to be there, nor are you being entitled when you accept an invitation. And to the Fox News fuckwad, Todd Starnes, how did Mrs. Obama “make it about herself?” She was asked to be there, and she talked about movies – same as any other presenter. Surely the conservative critics would have had complete respect for the Oscars had Michelle Obama not appeared, because, you know, conservatives love Hollywood. And as the article above points out, other First Ladies and even Presidents, including Laura Bush and Ronald Reagan, have been involved in past Oscar ceremonies, either in pre-taped appearances or in the case of FDR, a live radio address in 1941. So get over it. I’m only interested in one narrow-minded, politicized Oscar critique, and that’s Stephen Colbert’s.
Anyway, my only issue with Mrs. Obama’s presentation was her overly worshipful talk about the impact of movies. Not her fault; I’m sure it was written for her, and that sort of inflated praise is a hallmark of Oscar night. The Academy loves to give presenters long paragraphs about the power of movies. I love movies like I love little else, but even I tend to roll my eyes at this. Other than that, I thought the First Lady’s involvement was pretty cool. And I’m glad to see she’s brushing off the criticism without a second thought.
While critics were busy tearing up Seth MacFarlane for demeaning women, others in the media engaged in the time honored tradition of passing judgement on dresses and gowns, and by extension, the ladies wearing them. Well who am I to question this practice? I appreciate a nice Oscar dress and the person inside it as much as anyone, and among those whose Oscar night looks jumped out for me were Halle Berry, Jennifer Aniston, Kerry Washington, Jennifer Lawrence, Sandra Bullock, Samantha Barks, Charlize Theron, Jennifer Garner, Helen Hunt, Naomi Watts and Jessica Chastain.
Ladies, kudos to your good taste and your designers’ skills. And you’re all damn fine actresses to boot.
THE INDEPENDENT SPIRIT AWARDS
As always, Oscar Sunday was preceded by the breezier, more casual Saturday celebration at the beach in Santa Monica known as the Independent Spirit Awards. I like to take a detour and mention these, since they can sometimes be forgotten in the shadow of the golden guy. Silver Linings Playbook was the big winner, with awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress and Best Screenplay. John Hawkes and Helen Hunt won Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress, respectively, for their roles in The Sessions, while Best Supporting Actor went to Matthew McConaughey for Magic Mike.
The Spirit Awards are typically a loose and irreverent affair, and there are usually some great moments to emerge, whether courtesy of hosts, winners or presenters. The highlight this year came with the first award, Best First Screenplay, which was awarded to Derek Connolly for Safety Not Guaranteed. Although he seemed a little shell-shocked when he took the stage, he spoke logically and coherently. Well apparently he was totally plastered and just kept going on and on. I don’t know what happened in the room, but the TV broadcast, which was an edited version of the show and aired later in the day, jumped ahead five minutes to an amusing effort by Bryan Cranston to help presenter Kerry Washington get Connolly off the stage. The blitzed winner seemed oblivious to their intent, but finally allowed himself, with a bemused grin, to be led offstage.
The clip below covers the first fifteen minutes of the show, which includes a great opening monologue by host Andy Samberg, and the announcement of Connolly’s category. It ends as his name is called, and you can click here for the next segment, to see the bizarre moment that transpired when he got onstage. Those who felt the Oscars were too heavy on jokes about women and decried the lack of dick humor would do well to watch Samberg’s opening.
And with that, the 2012 awards season finally comes to a close…unless you’re holding out for the MTV Movie Awards in April (nominations were just announced…and surprisingly, given their track record of late, it’s a solidly non-embarrassing line-up). It’s been one of the more unusual years on the awards circuit that I can remember, with the kind of excitement, tension and twists worthy of the movies themselves. I’m sure next year will go back to business as usual, with a bunch of frontrunners on an inevitable march to victory. But here’s hoping for some similar excitement.