March 30, 2014

Oscars 2013: What Went Down

Filed under: Movies,Oscars — DB @ 8:00 pm
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I know, I know. The Oscars were a month ago. It always takes me at least a couple of weeks to get this follow-up post out, and that’s without life interfering. The amount of time it takes me to generate this post is ridiculous, yes, but I can’t abandon it. History must record what I thought of the winners, presenters, host, scandals and set design. You’ve probably moved on from the Oscars by now, like a normal person, and will not invest your time reading this post. I understand. But for the sake of posterity, I forge ahead. I can not be stopped.

As far as predictions go, this was probably my best year ever. I went 23 for 24, missing only Best Animated Short Film. I doubt I’ll do that well again anytime soon, so I tried to savor the buzz. The Best Picture/Best Director split I was expecting indeed came to pass, with 12 Years a Slave winning the former while Gravity‘s Alfonso Cuarón took the latter. Given the enthusiasm on display during their Best Picture acceptance, the 12 Years crew seemed just fine with that. And Team Gravity, with seven wins, had nothing to complain about. For the record, Gravity is now second to Cabaret as the movie to win the most awards for the year without taking Best Picture. Cabaret took home eight awards — including Best Director for Bob Fosse — in 1972, but lost the big one to The Godfather.

Like last year, I had no complaints about most of the winners, even if I might have gone a different way in a few categories. (Actually, I still feel pretty strongly that Lincoln should have won Best Adapted Screenplay over Argo last year.) Unlike last year, however, the Academy was not as generous in spreading the wealth. Lots of movies took home gold last year, and only one of the nine Best Picture nominees left empty-handed (that was Beasts of the Southern Wild). This year, Best Picture nominees Philomena, Nebraska, The Wolf of Wall Street, Captain Phillips and American Hustle were all shut out. That’s especially surprising for Hustle, given that along with Gravity, it had a field-leading 10 nominations. But honestly, there wasn’t one category where it was the most deserving winner, so apologies to David O. Russell. I have no doubt you’ll get your Oscar sooner than later.

All four winning actors aced their speeches, beginning with Jared Leto, who paid sweet tribute to his mother and scored points for calling attention to the Ukraine and Venezuela. Maybe I’d strike a couple of those points for failing to thank Jennifer Garner, who was sitting right behind him. I mean, the guy thanked everybody in the English-speaking world at the Independent Spirit Awards the previous day. He couldn’t remember his other main co-star?

Lupita Nyong’o’s win was definitely one of the night’s highlights, mainly because everyone was just so genuinely happy for her. As I said in my predictions post, she has been such a classy, grateful, eloquent presence on the many award stages she’s graced this season, and the audience was quick to leap to their feet for her when presenter Christoph Waltz called out her name. And as with all those earlier speeches, this one didn’t disappoint.

The clip cuts off too soon, but as Nyong’o exited the stage, the orchestra played “Pure Imagination” from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, and it felt especially appropriate somehow. The cue probably would have popped up at that moment no matter who had won; the orchestra played an array of great movie themes as winners exited the stage and as the show went to and from commercials. But something about that song playing at the culmination of Nyong’o’s fairy tale introduction to the film industry felt right.

Cate Blanchett effectively ended the resurgence of the Woody Allen controversy by making clear her appreciation for his artistry and collaboration. She also paid warm tribute to her fellow nominees, and made a point that too many actress winners have to make: that there is an audience for movies about women, with women in the central roles, and that Hollywood needs to make more of them. Amen.

And Matthew McConaughey…you gotta love this guy. Every speech he’s given for Dallas Buyers Club has been energetic, funny, maybe a little rambling (he really droned on the previous afternoon when he won at the Independent Spirit Awards), but all uniquely McConaughey and all delivered with such charm that bits which could come across as a little arrogant from someone else instead register as funny and spoken from a place of gratitude and love. I hoped he might offer extended comments about his fellow nominees like Blanchett did, acknowledging that he’s worked with three of them (Bale, DiCaprio and Ejiofor) before, but maybe he was reluctant to invoke Reign of Fire on the Oscar stage.

I do have to say one other thing about that speech. As you saw, McConaughey offered a robust thank you to God. The Man Upstairs is often thanked by award winners and athletes who’ve just won a major victory. Most people wouldn’t read much into it. But leave it to a bunch of conservatives, especially grand idiots like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck to make something out of nothing. Both radio hosts praised McConaughey for his words, and talked about the audience not knowing what to make of such a statement…as if no one in Hollywood believes in God. According to that article, some MTV host tweeted that when McConaughey thanked God, “the audience nearly took his award away.” But as usual, these morons only see what they want to see…usually because they’re making it up. In fact (“fact” — a word these people have never encountered), McConaughey’s remarks got quite a few cheers from the crowd. It’s not like the whole audience applauded, but again, thanking God is pretty common at events like this. No reason the whole audience has to show their support for such a remark, and silence does not mean disapproval. But ass-heads like Limbaugh, Beck and their flock of ignorant fans assume that to express an appreciation of God — and therefore religion in general — would be offensive to a room full of Hollywood liberals. What they don’t understand is that religion isn’t a divisive issue in American society right now; the divisive issue is bigotry, and those who try to hide behind their religious beliefs in order to justify it. And yes, that’s something you’re unlikely to encounter on a large-scale in Hollywood.

Huh…I guess Oscar bloggers are just as susceptible to getting political in their posts as Oscar winners are with their speeches. I learned it from you, Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins. I learned it by watching you. Moving on…

Beyond the four acting winners, speeches throughout the evening were nice, with only husband and wife Best Original Song winners Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez doing anything funny or memorable. And congratulations to Robert, whose Oscar grants him admission to the rather exclusive club of EGOT recipients. I really would have preferred any of the other three nominees to win, but you gotta give respect to the EGOT.

Speaking of songs, Darlene Love, one of the singers spotlighted in the winning documentary 20 Feet from Stardom (and Mrs. Roger Murtaugh, for you Lethal Weapon fans), joined the director and producer onstage and took the opportunity to belt out a brief, joyous hymn that brought the crowd — led by Bill Murray — to their feet.

The only other notable pattern among the speeches concerned the 12 Years a Slave gang and the exposure of an apparent rift between director Steve McQueen and writer John Ridley. When Ridley won for Best Adapted Screenplay, he made his way down the aisle but did not stop to shake hands or even acknowledge the director. Nor did McQueen make an effort to congratulate him. Ridley’s speech made no mention of McQueen either. McQueen, in turn, did not mention Ridley when accepting the Best Picture award. I noted all this while watching, but didn’t think too much of it. Turns out, according to The Wrap, there is something to it after all. It seems that after working with Ridley to shape the script, McQueen asked for co-writing credit, which Ridley refused. This led to a falling out that all involved tried to keep quiet during the awards season so as not to harm the movie’s chances. (There was speculation a few years back that tension between Up in the Air writers Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner during the early part of the 2009 awards season cost them a widely expected Oscar win for Best Adapted Screenplay.) For his part, Ridley dismisses the idea of a feud with McQueen, saying that his failure to mention the director was simply an oversight in the midst of a surreal moment, and pointing out that he thanked McQueen at length the day before during his speech at the Independent Spirit Awards. I’m not sure I buy that, considering the story in The Wrap, although even that story includes details that seem far-fetched. The truth is probably somewhere in between. McQueen may not come across as the warmest guy, but I have trouble believing that he verbally accosted Ridley’s wife at the BAFTA awards. For what it’s worth, Lupita Nyong’o didn’t thank Ridley in her speech either, but that could also have been an oversight. It happens all the time, and Nyong’o warmly congratulated Ridley when he won his Spirit award the day before.

On her second occasion hosting the show, Ellen Degeneres did a pretty good job, certainly generating less controversy than Seth MacFarlane did last year. Some people thought her joke about Liza Minnelli crossed a line and seemed uncharacteristically mean for Ellen, but I think people completely misinterpreted the joke, in which she pretended to mistake Minnelli for a drag queen dressed like the actress. Because Minnelli is an icon in the gay community and drag queens often do dress up like her, I took the joke to be about that status that she holds, rather than a dig at Minnelli’s own appearance, which seems to be how others — including perhaps Minnelli herself — interpreted it. Whatever the intention, the two made up later when Ellen took a selfie with Liza prior to the night’s bigger selfie a few moments later.

As to that epic selfie, it definitely goes down as a classic moment in the annals of Oscardom. Meryl Streep knew Ellen was going to come out and enlist her in some sort of bit, but she didn’t know what it was going to be. It turned into a great moment of spontaneity, as Ellen called in a few other nearby stars like Channing Tatum and Jennifer Lawrence, while others like Lupita Nyong’o, her brother Peter, Kevin Spacey, Brad and Angelina and Jared Leto — who must have had to bound over from his seat on the other side of the theater — all poured in symmetrically from each side like a troupe of Busby Berkeley chorus girls. Ellen’s goal was to make the picture the most re-tweeted ever, and the photo achieved that goal in about a half hour, while also briefly crashing Ellen’s Twitter page. Tweets aside, I just enjoyed the gag for the humor of the moment. I also liked Ellen’s intro of the next two presenters, a little joke that got buried under the applause of the selfie moment, in which she introduced Michael B. Jordan and Kristen B. Ell. (Side note: Jordan and Bell had hosted the year’s Sci-Tech Award ceremony, which I must briefly call attention to because this year’s recipients included a guy who was in my department when I worked at ILM: a mad genius named Josh Pines, whose description of the event made it into the headline of The Wrap‘s coverage. Unless you happen to be shooting a digital film in the year 2011, I don’t expect anyone to care about that video I hyperlinked to Josh’s name, but it reminds me of Josh’s energy and eccentricities.)

Now then…the other great audience moment was the pizza delivery. When Ellen was first in the aisle asking people if they would eat pizza, it felt a little stiff. But when she actually brought out an unwitting delivery guy with three boxes and started distributing, that was great. I’ve heard some people gripe that it went on too long, but I thought it was fantastic. The unpredictability of live TV kept it interesting as stars got involved, with Spacey and Pitt helping to hand out plates, while the delivery guy then went to the other side of the theater, forcing Ellen to follow. And as funny as it was to see who jumped at the chance for a slice (I loved Harrison Ford tugging Ellen’s sleeve to get a napkin), it was just as fun to watch the reaction of someone like Leonardo DiCaprio, who declined to eat but seemed so bemused that Ellen had actually gone through with the joke. Then when Ellen off-handedly said that she had no money, she set up a nice extension of the gag by calling across the room to Harvey Weinstein.

I was just as amused later when she passed around Pharrell’s hat to collect donations. “That’s a start,” she said when Weinstein dropped in $200, and she went on to comically guilt Brad Pitt for not putting in more, prompting him to up his contribution. All in all, I’d say the whole episode turned into another classic Oscar moment.

Not that those people can’t afford to chip in, but I wondered if she really kept that money or gave it back to them later. Shaking Harvey Weinstein down for a $200 pizza tip is funny, and I’m sure he forgot about it five minutes later, but I guess it’s hard for me to imagine having to just kiss that kind of money goodbye in the blink of an eye. It’s also hard for me to imagine being as rich as Harvey Weinstein is, so there’s that. I hope he at least got a slice. Wherever the money actually came from, Ellen really did present the pizza guy with the tip on her show the next day.

These antics made up for the less successful moments of Ellen’s performance. Her introduction of presenters could have used a little more punch, and there was a strange moment where the show came back from commercial break just after Karen O’s performance of “The Moon Song” and Ellen was sitting on the edge of the stage with a guitar, seemingly about to do a gag, only to dryly introduce the next presenter. No joke, no bit, nothing. Oh well. Pizza and Twitter ensured Ellen’s gig will be fondly remembered.

The production kind of dropped the ball in this area. Usually a few of the presenters can be counted on to keep the comedy going during the show, but there was precious little of that this year. The closest they came was Jamie Foxx doing an amusing Chariots of Fire bit while his co-presenter Jessica Biel discussed Best Original Score. But these Oscars badly needed some Will Ferrell or Jack Black, some Steve Carell or Tina Fey (whose current commitment to the Golden Globes may preclude her from appearing at the Oscars), some Robert Downey Jr. or Ben Stiller, some Kristen Wiig or Emma Stone. Why didn’t they get American Hustle co-star Louis C.K. to present? Or nominee Sandra Bullock and her co-star from The Heat, Melissa McCarthy? Are Mindy Kaling and Aziz Ansari too associated with TV to be considered as Oscar presenters? What about Chris Pratt? He’s starred in Oscar-winning and nominated movies like Her, Zero Dark Thirty and Moneyball. Let’s get him on stage next year. Point is, comedy is a crucial element in keeping the inevitably long Oscar show moving, and the presenters usually help to carry that weight. Not so much this year. Some blame has to go to the writers, who also didn’t provide funny material for the presenters. Jason Sudeikis presented, but wasn’t given anything funny to do. Robert De Niro had some amusing material about the dark recesses of a screenwriter’s mind, but most of the presenter moments that did get some laughs were off the cuff, like Foxx’s Chariots gag or Bill Murray’s unique Bill Murrayness. Kevin Spacey’s brief invocation of his House of Cards character and equally brief Jack Lemmon impression were appreciated, but beyond that there were few attempts at humor from the presenters. The show could definitely have used some of the comedic energy that Sacha Baron Cohen brought to the Britannia Awards last fall.

Cohen was accepting an award there, not presenting one, but the point remains. And I think I just wanted an excuse to include that clip.

There was also the problem of some odd presenter choices to begin with. Jim Carrey? John Travolta? Will Smith? Kate Hudson? Jessica Biel? When was the last time any of these people had a hit? I don’t mean to write them off as irrelevant, but they feel a little warmed over at the present time. Could the producers really not find some people who feel like more vital contributors to movies at the moment? I mean sure, you also had people like Goldie Hawn and Glenn Close, but there’s something about them that is classically associated with the Oscars. They transcend any concerns of “currentness.” Not that I’m saying to go the other way and just throw a bunch of stars who are hot at the moment on Oscar’s stage. That’s how Taylor Lautner ended up there a few years ago, and that doesn’t need to happen either. I suppose it can be a fine line between presenters who have timeless appeal and those who make you feel like you’re watching a show from five or ten years ago. Knowing the difference is a skill that you need if you’re going to produce a show like this one. (I have that skill, in case the Academy is interested.)

Then there was poor Kim Novak. This is another thing Oscar producers often try to do, which is trot out an old-time Hollywood star who has been out of the spotlight for years. It’s a nice idea in theory, but too often it falls flat and ends up an embarrassment for the performer. They can’t read the teleprompter. Or they try to improvise. Or they get caught up in the emotion of being back in the spotlight, but it leads to awkwardness instead of poignancy. Novak fell somewhat victim to that trap, but even beyond that, there was something off about her presentation. If she was reading from the script, then it seemed like she was trying to do this thing where she made the text sound spontaneous, but I don’t know…it wasn’t working, and Matthew McConaughey looked like he had to hold her up, physically and performance-wise. And why Kim Novak anyway? Was she meant to tie into the show’s theme of Heroes? If so, then that should have been explained when she was introduced. So why her? If elderly stars of yesteryear are going to appear on the telecast, there should be some significant reason, or they should be presenting Best Picture. I don’t know…am I just being a dick? Or was Novak’s moment onstage as painful to watch for others as it was for me? It made me sad.

Sidney Poitier fared better. It was hard to see him looking so frail and moving so slowly, but he was still as cool and classy as ever. He has often come off as a measured, thoughtful speaker, so the long pauses he took felt natural. And as his co-presenter Angelina Jolie noted, the occasion marked the 40th anniversary of his historic Best Actor win, so his presence felt justified. And he was there to give out the Best Director prize, one of the night’s biggest. That’s how it should be done.

Jumping back to Travolta for a moment…what can I say that the internet hasn’t already said? His bizarre butchering of Idina Menzel’s name turned the non-existent Adele Dazeem into a web sensation, and turned him into a punching bag for the next few days. Slate offered the Adele Dazeem Name Generator to show how Travolta would mispronounce your name. Buzzfeed speculated on how he would have screwed up the names of other Oscar attendees. Someone started an Adele Dazeem Twitter feed. I actually started to feel bad for the guy, so incessant were the efforts to mock his mistake. He released a brief statement a couple of days later in which he addressed the error but, amusingly, didn’t really apologize or explain himself. Menzel’s performance of “Let it Go” was just a little bit off that night, and some wondered if she was thrown by Travolta’s intro. When she finally commented on the incident a few weeks later (see, this is why I wait so long to post the follow-up!), her response was good-natured. So it sounds like things are all well, and while it’s probably time to let Travolta move on from this, I think Adele Dazeem, whoever she is, must live on.


-The presentations of all four nominated songs were among the best moments of the show. First was Pharrell’s lively performance of “Happy,” which included a trip off the stage and down along the front row where Lupita Nyong’o, Meryl Streep and Amy Adams got their groove on. He really had the room going, and I have to admit, the song has grown on me a lot since the nominations were announced.

Next was the gorgeous staging of “The Moon Song.” Befitting the tune’s delicate lyrics and fragile nature, Karen O —  accompanied by Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig — was seated on a small staircase with her shoes at her side, lit initially by just a single spotlight from above, and then by an enormous full moon projected on the screen behind her, rising throughout the song until it reached full height, her red dress shining beautifully against the dark stage. Visually and vocally, it was a perfect presentation for that song.

U2 kept the flow going with a terrific performance of “Ordinary Love.” The song isn’t an all-out rocker, but they stripped it down even leaner than the studio recording, going with an intimate, acoustic delivery that felt right for the movie, the song and the room. As I watched them standing side by side on stage without a full array of instruments between them, it really struck me just how long these guys have been playing together, how iconic they are, and how long they’ve been involved in social causes like the ones that brought them into Nelson Mandela’s life. They were excellent.

And although I mentioned before that Idina Menzel’s rendition of “Let it Go” was just a touch off — she seemed to be straining at the end — the simple set design evoking the icy look of Frozen was just enough to provide an interesting backdrop against which the singer could shine. Still, the number might have come off even better the next night when Jimmy Fallon played a video of Menzel performing the song accompanied by The Roots on classroom instruments.

-The show’s other two musical performances were fine, but less inspired. Pink did a nice job on “Over the Rainbow” in tribute to the 75th anniversary of The Wizard of Oz, but I felt like she was a little bit flat. I’m not sure how they settled on her to perform the song, but I think they could have found someone better, who could have been a real showstopper. The song certainly lends itself to an emotional performance, but Pink didn’t take it there. Yet according to Entertainment Weekly‘s report about things you didn’t see on the TV broadcast, she was a huge hit in the room, and the standing ovation continued after the show went to commercial.

Then there was Bette Midler performing “Wind Beneath My Wings” after the In Memoriam segment. It was a nice idea, but seeing as it followed the actual montage of departed filmmakers and wasn’t accompanied by additional clips of their work or photos of them, it just felt like an unnecessary time suck. Midler still sounds great, but her performance was a dead spot in the show. In the past, performers like Queen Latifah and James Taylor have sung during the montage itself, which has worked well, and might have been instituted to prevent the audience from applauding names that have broad recognition while others come and go in silence because their work is not as well-known any more. The downside is that when the segment ends, the singer’s presence onstage can take the focus away from the deceased, which is where it should stay. In fact, there was an awkward moment when Midler’s number came to an end and the audience offered a standing ovation. It wasn’t really clear if they were standing for her, or out of respect for those depicted in the montage…particularly Philip Seymour Hoffman, the last person featured. Midler seemed moved by the standing ovation, but I’m not convinced it was about her as much as it was a gesture for Hoffman, whose death was obviously a particularly strong blow to this community. Midler could be heard starting to speak just before the show went to commercial, in one of several instances throughout the evening where speakers were mistakenly caught for a few seconds on live microphones. What did she say to the applauding throngs?

-As for the In Memoriam sequence itself, it was good to see Harold Ramis made it in. Having passed away during the week of the show, he might have been too late an addition to be edited into the piece. There’s often some controversy around the montage over who is omitted, but fortunately it wasn’t much of an issue after this year’s aired. I read a few stories noting that Cory Monteith had been left off, but with all due respect to the late Glee actor, he had almost no presence in movies and should not have been featured. The only person I was surprised and disappointed to find left out was Dennis Farina, whose work in films like Midnight Run, Get Shorty and Out of Sight should have earned him a spot.

Although Sarah Jones — the 27 year-old crew member who was killed in a tragic accident on the set of a Gregg Allman biopic — didn’t make it into the montage, the online movement to include her did perhaps reach the Academy. As the segment ended, there was a banner with her picture on it directing viewers to the Oscar website for an online In Memoriam gallery that was more inclusive than the one on the telecast.

I also saw a comment online grousing that it was inappropriate and in poor taste to put an emphasis on Philip Seymour Hoffman’s screen in the montage, as if his death was more significant than others. But the montage always concludes with someone who was a giant within the industry, and there is almost always a little extra time devoted to them. Interestingly, the In Memoriam section is one of the few aspects of the Oscar show that the producers do not control. The decisions about who will and won’t be included are made by a committee within the Academy. It’s always a difficult task, and former Executive Director of the Academy Bruce Davis thinks it might be best to eliminate it altogether.

-Despite the plea I made in my predictions opus, the producers failed to show enough imagination to get a clip for Best Supporting Actor nominee Barkhad Adbi other than the one we’ve seen over and over again in which he looks at Tom Hanks and says, “I’m the captain now.” Oh well. If you’ve seen the movie, you know how good he was in all his other scenes.

-Am I the only one who was sort of puzzled by the mass of bright red roses that appeared down an entire center section of the backdrop when the show returned from its first commercial break? The color was nice, but all I could think was that American Beauty had projectile vomited all over the set.

-It had been announced in the weeks leading up to the show that this year’s theme — because apparently there has to be a theme — was Heroes. This amounted to little more than three montages spaced throughout the show that paid tribute to different types of movie heroes. The first focused on animated characters. The second concentrated on the ordinary heroes populating movies such as Serpico, Braveheart, Norma Rae, Ali, To Kill a Mockingbird, Milk, Silkwood, Apollo 13, The Blind Side, In the Heat of the Night and Erin Brockovich. The last one was the least clearly defined, straddling the line between the previous grouping by including Rocky and The Karate Kid but mostly focusing on action, fantasy and science-fiction fare like Star Wars, Aliens, The Lord of the Rings, The Hunger Games, Die Hard, The Matrix, The Avengers, The Princess Bride, Jaws, Back to the Future, the Harry Potter movies, Kill Bill and Ghostbusters.

Now as someone who loves movies, I love a good movie montage that artfully puts together an array of clips from classics and favorites. In fact, one of my favorite Oscar memories is a montage that was shown at the beginning of the 1990 ceremony (or ’91 technically, but honoring the movies of ’90) that was created to mark the 100th anniversary of the invention of motion pictures. I always conclude my annual post about my favorite movies of the year by including some montages that movie fans have created to celebrate the work of the previous 12 months. There can be a certain kind of skill on display in a great montage of movie clips, but these three lacked any of that finesse. They felt hastily assembled, with no creative thought into how they were put together.

More significantly, they were the only attempt to even lend the show a sense of having a theme, and they weren’t enough. What’s so odd about how poorly the theme resonated was that to look at this article from a couple of weeks before the show, in which producers Neil Meron and Craig Zadan vaguely previewed the ceremony, there seemed to be a lot more that was supposed to happen. They mention celebrating actors and filmmakers who take on difficult subject matter, so that the hero theme would encompass not just movie characters, but also behind the scenes figures. That didn’t happen. They talk about dividing the show into sections built around the different montages, as if there would have been more effort to incorporate the types of heroes that each montage focused on into the show at large. That didn’t happen. There was supposed to be an “emotional moment”  intended to “illustrate the theme of how movies have inspired” that was set to involve The Amazing Spider-Man star Andrew Garfield “induct[ing] a new superhero into the fraternity of superheroes.” That didn’t happen…although in that case, there are some details.

You probably recall that in November 2013, the City of San Francisco worked with the Make-A-Wish Foundation to realize the dream of 5 year-old cancer survivor Miles Scott to be a superhero for a day. Dubbed “Batkid,” Miles took part in a series of staged heroics around the city, cheered on by huge crowds. On Oscar night, Andrew Garfield was supposed to introduce a montage of what Meron called “popular heroes” which would have been followed by Miles coming out on stage and being made an honorary superhero by Garfield. The initial reports were that Garfield and Scott rehearsed the segment on Saturday, but the producers then decided to cut it for reasons that were never clearly stated. To make it up to Miles, the Academy sent his family to Disneyland on Monday.

Then the New York Post‘s gossip column Page Six claimed that during the rehearsal, Garfield raised concerns with the script and angrily bailed on the show when his suggested changes weren’t accepted. Knowing Garfield’s public image, that sort of behavior seems highly unlikely. Subsequent reports paint a more believable scenario, which is that Garfield did have some concerns with the material, feeling it was “exploitative.” He offered a re-write, but the producers preferred the original draft. Garfield eventually agreed, but the producers ultimately decided that the entire segment was not a good fit with the tone of the show, and cut it altogether. (My favorite part of the article in the previous link? Sony was upset about Garfield being cut because of the lost opportunity to promote May’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2…as if that movie needs help getting attention.) Captain America star Chris Evans was called in as a last-minute replacement to introduce just the montage portion, and that was that. The Academy later issued a statement explaining that the evolving nature of a live show led to the segment being excised. Garfield’s rep also issued a statement, saying that the Academy made the decision, and that any reports of bad behavior on Garfield’s part were untrue. In fact, Andrew visited Miles at his hotel afterwards, and joined the family on their Monday trip to Disneyland. (Both the Academy’s and Garfield’s statements are included here.)

So much drama! Why couldn’t Garfield still have introduced the montage, even if the Batkid portion was eliminated? I don’t know, but I’d guess he was labeled “difficult” after raising concerns about the original script. And an even better question: why was Garfield tapped to “induct” Batkid in the first place when Christian Bale, the actor who actually played Batman, would be in the audience as a nominee? Did the producers approach Bale to do the segment? Did he decline? I know Bale has a reputation for being prickly, but would he refuse to provide a heartwarming moment for a little kid who survived cancer and loves Batman? I would love to know if Bale was ever asked to do it, and I’d love to know what Garfield’s concerns with the material were and why Meron and Zadan really cut the bit entirely. But their dodgy, politically correct statement is all we have to go on. And for what it’s worth, the Batkid bit wasn’t the only thing cut from the show. Apparently there was supposed to be another musical number with a lot of stars involved, but that too was scrapped.

Bringing all of this back around to the point that the show’s Hero theme was badly underdeveloped, the omission of Batkid seems to be just one of several plans the producers hinted at prior to the show that never came to pass. During her monologue, Ellen pointed out that real-life heroes Philomena Lee and Richard Phillips, who were depicted in two of the Best Picture nominees, were in attendance. Yet they may not have been the only ones. According to The Hollywood Reporter, 2013 movies inspired by real life such as 42, Fruitvale Station, Lone Survivor and Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom were represented in the audience by Jackie Robinson’s widow, Oscar Grant’s mother, former Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell and Nelson Mandela’s daughters, respectively. Incorporating them into some kind of salute to movie heroes would have made the show’s intended theme resonate. It might also have been manipulative, but no more so than including Batkid. Whatever the reason that all these plans to bolster the Heroes theme failed to materialize, the remnants of the concept — those three underwhelming montages — came across as unnecessary drags on a show that would clock in at about 3.5 hours. So maybe next year, whoever produces the show (and after two consecutive years, the Academy should move on from Meron and Zadan) might be better off foregoing the idea of a theme and just stick to celebrating the movies from the year gone by. And if they insist on having a theme, they should follow through.

-I’ve complained about the lousy job that Don Mischer has done directing the show over the past few years, so I was relieved when it was announced that this year’s telecast would be directed by Hamish Hamilton. Yes, I’m the kind of person who can find disappointment and relief in the choice of the Oscar show director. I have no particular loyalty to Hamish Hamilton, about whom I know nothing. I just know he’s not Don Mischer, and that was good enough for me. He did do a better job than his predecessor, if only because when he cut to reaction shots from the audience, he found famous people to focus on instead of total unknowns in the middle of the room that mean nothing to the TV viewers tuning in to see their favorite movie stars. Still, Hamilton’s directing job wasn’t too impressive. As I mentioned earlier, there were several moments where live mics caught backstage chatter or other snippets not intended to be heard. Or how about when the clip of Best Supporting Actress nominee Sally Hawkins ended and the camera should have shown Hawkins in her seat, but instead landed on June Squibb? It’s not like Hawkins was a moving target. Was it really so hard to have a cameraman in place to capture Hawkins’ reaction, and to cut to said shot from the booth? And what was with that weird camera move we kept seeing where the camera would start to one side of the presenter and then circle to the other side, with the presenter following the camera move instead of just addressing the audience straight ahead? Awkward and arbitrary. C’mon, Academy. Can’t you find someone who knows how to direct live TV?

-As the Oscar-watching faithful know by now, the special achievement awards are no longer presented on Oscar night, but are instead handed out at a ceremony in November called the Governors Awards. Ever since that tradition began five years ago, the recipients have attended the Oscars to take a bow, and highlights from the Governors Awards are usually shown. Alas, not even the bow happened this year, since only one of the honorees was even there. Angelina Jolie received the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, and of course she was at the Oscars with nominated husband Brad Pitt. But none of the three honorary award recipients — Steve Martin, Angela Lansbury or costume designer Piero Tosi — were at the Oscar ceremony. Lansbury was on the London stage appearing in previews of Blithe Spirit; Tosi, who lives in Italy, fears flying and has never traveled to the United States; and Martin, an Oscar regular who you’d think could have made it, was unfortunately out of town.

So while it was disappointing none of them could be there, there was nothing to be done about it. Kevin Spacey introduced the highlight reel, after which the camera cut to Jolie in her seat. At least she got to take the stage later when she and Sidney Poitier presented Best Director. More from the Governors Awards further down.

-For the second year in a row, the Academy held a contest asking film students across the U.S. to explain in a minute-long video how they planned to contribute to the future of film. Six winners were selected by The Academy, Meron, Zadan and Channing Tatum, and Team Oscar got to hand off the statuettes and direct presenters and winners offstage on Oscar night, as well as tour studios and meet filmmakers during the week of the Oscars. I love this idea and was glad to see the Academy continue it. The winning videos can be seen here.

-One final observation, and this isn’t about the production, but I’ll put it here anyway. Some of you movie stars need to learn how to get into the spirit of this thing. It’s Oscar night! I know for those of you who are nominated it can be stressful, but let’s face it: win or lose, you’ll still be successful movie stars in the morning, so loosen up and look alive out there. When The Great Gatsby‘s costume designer Catherine Martin won, there was a shot of Leonardo DiCaprio clapping, but he wasn’t really smiling and looked like he was sort of on auto-pilot. Martin won again later in the night for Best Art Direction, and again there was a shot of Leo, and again he was clapping slowly, distractedly, as if in a daze. Leo! It’s your movie! Would it kill you to muster some genuine happiness for your winning collaborator? Charlize Theron was shown on camera a few times while seated, and she looked like she couldn’t be less pleased to be there. As the directors and producer of Frozen were walking off stage having just won Best Animated Feature, there was a shot of The Walt Disney Company CEO Bob Iger in the audience just sitting there stone-faced while the audience continued to applaud. I’m always baffled by this lack of enthusiasm that Oscar attendees often express. Those of you who are too deep in your own heads need to take a cue from Julia Roberts. Anytime the camera showed her, even when “minor category” winners were having their moment, she was smiling, happy, and looked engaged. She seemed genuinely pleased for every winner, whatever their category. If only all the Hollywood elite could be so down to earth.

-All in all I’d say the show was uneven, but tipped more toward successful. There were more times when it was good than not, and it ended up the highest rated Academy Awards in over a decade, so that’s likely all the Academy and ABC care about. I wonder what the big draws were to attract such a large audience. It wasn’t just Ellen; her last time as host didn’t do this well. There were some big hits among the nominees, but nothing on the scale of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King or Avatar. But maybe Ellen, combined with nominees like Gravity and American Hustle, combined with a strong line-up of musical performers added up to make this year’s show particularly attractive.

I already touched on the Governors Awards earlier, but it deserves additional coverage. The Hollywood Reporter offered a thorough report on the event, and In Contention posted one which basically contains all the same information, but adds comments about how much Judd Apatow and Bill Hader were digging the Steve Martin portion of the night, which makes me smile. Mark Harris also wrote on Grantland about why having a separate ceremony for the honorary awards is such a bad idea and weakens the main Oscar telecast. I’ve always had mixed feelings about this. I do miss the inclusion of these tributes in the main show. They add a lot, especially by illuminating for the more casual viewer the work of artists who they might be less familiar with than contemporary filmmakers. Unofficially, part of the Academy’s reasoning of spinning these special awards off into their own ceremony was to allow for a more relaxed, intimate affair. Harris takes them to task for this, pointing out that with speeches by presenters and recipients posted to YouTube, and journalists in the room covering the event, there is nothing intimate about it. But he doesn’t touch on the Academy’s stated reason for the separate event, which is to allow the Academy to pay tribute to its chosen artists in a more expansive celebration that needn’t be crammed briefly into an already full Oscar ceremony.

While he makes some excellent points about the value and importance of the special awards, he fails to acknowledge that if they were included on the regular telecast, everything about them would be truncated. The presentations, the clip packages (presumably; we don’t get to see those on YouTube), and the speeches would all have to be shorter, and it wouldn’t be possible to honor as many people each year simply due to time constraints. When these awards were included on Oscar night, people complained that they added to the bloat of the show. Now that they’re not included, people complain that they deserve to be part of the big night. Maybe advocates of returning the honorary awards to Oscar night would point to other things that should be removed or trimmed back in order to accommodate them, but the bottom line would be the same: complaints. At the end of the day, I think a separate ceremony makes for a more full and touching appreciation of the honorees, and the availability of full speeches on YouTube goes a long way toward assuaging my early concerns about taking them off the main telecast. But I do think it’s time the Academy start offering a full broadcast of the Governors Awards, one that includes all the clip reels and is not broken up into the fragments we get on YouTube. I’m glad we at least get those, but movie fans deserve to see the full event.

Taking what we can when we can, however, here is Angelina Jolie’s moving acceptance speech…

as well as Steve Martin’s.

Also, Martin Short’s comments about his fellow amigo. This is great stuff, though I was really disappointed to learn that some of these jokes were recycled from Short’s tribute to Carol Burnett when she received the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor a month earlier. Really Marty?

Oh, and I liked Geoffrey Rush’s remarks to Angela Lansbury.

All of the presentations and speeches can be seen here, for any of you not too fatigued by all this reading to click the link.

As I mentioned after the nominations were announced, the Academy inaugurated a new event this year: a public concert at UCLA featuring performances of all the nominated songs (not done by the originating artists) and selections from each nominated score, conducted by their respective composers. In addition, film journalist Elvis Mitchell was on hand to interview the composers. It sounds like the event was well-received, so we’ll see if a new Oscar season tradition has been born. Here’s a report about the event, and a photo gallery.


It wouldn’t be Oscar night without lavish dresses and actresses rocking them. To my eyes, untrained in knowledge of fashion, there were a lot of great looks this year.

I would have included Lupita Nyong’o and Cate Blanchett, but they can be seen in photos and videos above. Nyong’o totally conquered the world of celebrity style this award season. She attended numerous ceremonies and events, and looked amazing pretty much every time.

I’ve mentioned them a few times here already, but I always like to acknowledge the Independent Spirit Awards, which take place every year in a tent at the beach in Santa Monica on the Saturday afternoon before Oscar Sunday. As it would the next night, 12 Years a Slave took prizes for Best Picture, Best Screenplay and Best Supporting Actress. Without Gravity to contend with, it took Best Director and Best Cinematography as well. Also winning at both the Spirit Awards and the Oscars were Lupita Nyong’o’s fellow actors Matthew McConaughey, Cate Blanchett and Jared Leto…marking the first time, if I’m not mistaken, that all four winning actors at the Spirit Awards took home the Oscar as well.

The afternoon’s best speech probably belonged to Jared Leto. At first it seemed like he was just going to read a list of names…which he did…but around the 3:00 mark it started to get interesting.

One cool honor given at this event each year is the Robert Altman Award, which is presented to a film’s director, ensemble cast and casting director. It’s a non-competitive award announced in advance, and this year it went to one of my favorite films of the year, Mud. A great choice.

While the ceremony looked like it was a lot of fun as always, the televised version was a disaster. The Spirit Awards used to be broadcast live in their entirety on Saturday afternoon on the Independent Film Channel. I don’t know when that changed, but now the full show is edited down to an abridged version and shown on Saturday night. As a result, some of the best or most interesting moments get edited out, like last year’s drunken acceptance speech by Safety Not Guaranteed screenwriter Derek Connolly. This year, the edited version was an absolute mess. Reese Witherspoon presented an award at one point, and as the winner walked to the stage, there were shots of audience members seated at their tables applauding…including one of Reese Witherspoon. Later, host Patton Oswalt came out with a piece of paper and started reading off names that Jared Leto forgot to thank. It was a strange and random list which made no sense because the whole middle portion of Leto’s speech which Oswald was having fun with had been edited out of the broadcast, so the joke had zero context. What sense does it make to include a joke that references an incident that was not included? And why would the producers of the show cut parts of Leto’s speech when it was one of the highlights of the event? The TV presentation was full of such problems, which is no surprise considering how rapidly it had to be edited together. In addition, some of the awards — like the one above for Mud — weren’t even included in the broadcast. Idiots. I don’t understand why they don’t just air the entire ceremony like they always did. This was just embarrassing.

You know what else is embarrassing? The amount of space I just took up writing about the minutiae of movie award ceremonies, and the amount of time it took me to do it. I think we’re done here.

March 7, 2013

Oscars 2012: What Went Down

Filed under: Movies,Oscars — DB @ 5:00 pm
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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 says that 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.

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.


March 4, 2012

Oscars 2011: What Went Down

Filed under: Movies,Oscars — DB @ 11:52 pm
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Complete List of Winners

It’s been a week since the coming and going of another Oscar night. Dreams came true, hopes were dashed and cymbals were clanged. It was definitely a better show than last year, though a pretty middling one in general. Still, we must debrief. Or at least, I must debrief. You’re under no obligation to join me.

The inevitability of The Artist came to pass, though interestingly it scored the same number of wins as Hugo, with five each. Not that it matters now, but I just don’t get it. I thought The Artist was fresh and charming, but Best Picture? I never saw that, and I still don’t. It’s too much of a trifle. Enjoyable as it is, it’s also paper thin…and I don’t mean that to be a criticism of the movie. It’s not like it aimed high and fell short. It had no lofty ambitions, and accomplished exactly what it wanted to. But a Best Picture winner should have more meat on its bones. Best Director I can understand even if I wouldn’t have gone that way, but not Best Picture. And certainly not Best Actor, all respect to a delightful performance by Jean Dujardin. Seriously, Best Actor?!? The more I consider it, the less sense it makes.

My emotions are mixed around Best Actress. Meryl Streep’s win can’t be called a surprise exactly, since everyone agreed that the race had boiled down to her and Viola Davis. But most predictions also agreed that Davis would take it, so hearing Colin Firth announce Streep’s name was a curveball of sorts. I feel badly for Davis. She and Streep were both deserving, but Davis – as I said in my predictions post – is going to have a harder time finding roles that will bring her back to the Oscars. And even then, becoming a frontrunner again is always a stroke of luck. Davis is good enough and respected enough in the industry that she’ll probably be back sooner or later. But it would have been nice for her to ride this wave of acclaim all the way.

Yet at the same time…Meryl Streep!!! At last!! It’s been said before – by me, and others – that no one but Meryl Streep could already have two Oscars and still be considered overdue. But it’s been a long drought – 12 nominations since her last win, in 1982 for Sophie’s Choice. Every few years she’s back, and a part of that season’s narrative becomes, “Will this be Meryl Streep’s year?” It feels surreal, in a way, that it finally happened. You know that scene near the end of Terms of Endearment, where Jeff Daniels says to Debra Winger, “I’m thinking about my identity and not having one anymore. I mean, who am I if I’m not the man who’s failing Emma?” It’s kinda like that…who is Meryl Streep if she’s not the actress who keeps getting nominated for Oscars and keeps losing? And how long will it be before she’s overdue again? It was confirmed within the last few weeks that later this year she will begin filming an adaptation of the play August: Osage County, a Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize winning play in which Streep will take on the dynamic lead role of a dysfunctional Oklahoma family’s pill-addicted matriarch. The actress who originated the part on Broadway won a Tony, and if Streep isn’t back in the race next year for the comedic drama Great Hope Springs (due out this summer), surely she’ll be in the 2013 hunt. And probably several more after that.

Anyway, it can’t be denied that it was great to see her holding an Oscar again. As usual, she gave a down to earth and self-deprecating speech in which she paid tribute to the many friends she has made over her 35 years in the movie biz. Incidentally, Streep joins a select group of actors who have collected three Oscars: Jack Nicholson, Walter Brennan and Ingrid Bergman. She’ll need one more to tie the record of four acting wins, held by Katherine Hepburn.

No major surprises going down the line. I only managed a middling 15 correct predictions out of 24 his year, but admittedly I knew I was going against the grain in my picks for Best Actor (I stuck with Clooney), Best Adapted Screenplay (I followed my first instinct – Moneyball – instead of going with the favored The Descendants) and Best Visual Effects (where I should have known that Rise of the Planet of the Apes wouldn’t be able to fend off the more Academy-favored Hugo). In the below-the-line categories, the biggest surprise was The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo‘s win for Best Editing. Few pundits saw that coming. Even winners Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall – who became the first back-to-back editing winners since 1936 (they won last year for The Social Network) – didn’t see that coming, and were so stunned that they could barely muster a speech.

Speaking of speeches, other highlights included Asghar Farhadi, writer/director of Best Foreign Language Film winner A Separation, offering a gentle and heartfelt reminder that Iran does not exist solely in a political context, and that there are plenty of people from that nation who respect all cultures and want to share experiences through art. (Of course, Iran’s political leaders were celebrating the win because it came at the expense of Israel’s nominated film. I prefer Farhadi’s point of view…and Jon Stewart’s as well). It was also nice to see The Artist‘s Ludovic Bource, winner of Best Original Score, stop on his way to the stage to hug or shake hands with his fellow nominees Alberto Iglesias, Howard Shore and John Williams, and then acknowledge them in his speech.

I was a little surprised by Hugo taking both sound awards, and by The Artist taking Best Costume Design despite the black-and-white that I thought would derail its chances. And while Hugo undoubtedly sported some fine cinematography from Robert Richardson, that award so should have gone to The Tree of Life. Pretty soon Emmanuel Lubezki may join Roger Deakins as one of recent history’s most unjustly Oscar-less lensers.

Billy was back, and it was like he’d never left. Literally. He stuck to his traditional schtick, and it was just like a plate of comfort food, though perhaps one left sitting out to cool just a touch too long. Crystal is one of Oscar’s all-time great hosts, and part of the fun of having him there is watching him do his usual bits. I like seeing him insert himself into nominated movies for the opening gag…but the last few times he’s done it, he’s played the angle of, “Should I go back and host the Oscars again?” That gets a little old. I did like the Justin Bieber cameo though, a cleverly executed jab at the Academy’s foolish efforts to lure younger viewers. And Crystal’s deliberately cheesy Best Picture medley is always fun, but none of this year’s lyrics were too memorable (whereas, über-Oscar nerd that I am, I can still sing parts of his medleys from the early 90s, which had great lyrics for The Godfather Part III, JFK and The Prince of Tides, among others). Plus, couldn’t the song’s writers have come up with a better way to address Moneyball than just calling attention to Jonah Hill’s weight loss?

The monologue was surprisingly brief, with most of the time yielded to the opening film and the medley. Usually Crystal banters with the audience a little more, but he got right down to business this time. He had plenty of good one-liners throughout the show, but there wasn’t anything special for him to work with. No Jack Palance one-armed-pushups, no non-stop flow of New Zealanders winning in nearly every category (though NZ was represented by a win for “Man or Muppet” songwriter Bret McKenzie). It was a dry show by and large, fitting for a ho-hum year of movies, and Crystal did what he could with it. As we’d all hoped for and expected, it was an improvement over last year’s misguided Franco/Hathaway experiment.

It was a pretty good slate this year. We got some stalwarts like Tom Hanks, Michael Douglas and an ageless Tom Cruise, along with plenty of funny presentations that I thought worked well. Best in Show goes to Chris Rock for his hilarious introduction to Best Animated Feature…

…followed by Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis emerging from the orchestra pit to present Best Original Song.

Great stuff…but no joke about there only being two nominees for Best Song?

I enjoyed the bits by Ben Stiller and Emma Stone (preceded by a funny intro with Crystal and Melissa McCarthy), as well as the Robert Downey, Jr. and Gwyneth Paltrow presentation, though each one seemed to play only decently in the room. In fact, the audience seemed pretty stiff this year overall, which is too bad, because I thought these presenters did well. Kudos to Paltrow too, for selling her part of the stint with Downey. Award show banter often lives or dies on the strength of the straight-man – or straight-woman, in this case. If they can’t sell the joke, the awkwardness can be painful. But Gwyneth’s got the goods.

It was great to see Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy on the show, if only briefly. Next time, give them a bit more to do and invite some of the other Muppets to join them. (In fact, why not have Statler and Waldorf in the balcony all night, lobbing insults at the host?) The show also made smart use of the Bridesmaids cast by having the six women present a string of connected awards in pairs of two, rather than having them present one award and utter a single line each. Kristen Wiig and Maya Rudolph did an amusing “size does matter” riff about Best Live Action Short Film, while Rose Byrne and Melissa McCarthy carried forth a joke from the SAG Awards in which the Bridemaids ladies discussed a drinking game based around the mention of “Scorsese.”

Angelina Jolie seemed to get a lot of humorless attention for the leg-flashing stance she took upon reaching the microphone to present the Best Adapted Screenplay award, but it seemed obvious to me that she was just trying to be playful; same with Cameron Diaz and Jennifer Lopez when they did their little spin-around before announcing the Best Makeup winner. But as I said, the crowd wasn’t so receptive to playfulness this year. Nor was the entertainment media apparently, as I read numerous comments in the day or two after the show about how Jim Rash, one of the adapted screenplay winners for The Descendants, was insulting Jolie when he mimicked her leggy pose. I read one headline that blared something like, “Award Winner Savagely Mocks Jolie.” Jesus people, bring it down a few notches. There was nothing savage about it. Jolie did something kinda funny, and Rash played with it. I doubt anybody’s feelings were hurt, and both Rash and Jolie’s gestures were all in good fun.

The most disappointing among the presenters  – not that it was her fault – was Tina Fey. She’s been a highlight of the show in recent years, but this time she was given almost no material to work with. They had her out there to present three awards, but didn’t come up with anything funny for her to do. What a waste. Her co-presenter Bradley Cooper was funny…but that was more due to his goofy handlebar moustache. (The one joke Fey cracked can be seen in the Best Film Editing clip above.)

And by the way, congratulations to the show’s producers for entrusting Jennifer Lopez with presenting an award that wasn’t for music. She’s presented several times over the years, but I think that was a first.

-This is the Oscars. It’s the big leagues. It’s also 2012. Can we really not solve the problem of a microphone buzz persisting through the entire telecast?

-There were a handful of montages during the course of the show in which actors, against a simple black screen, talked about the magic of movies. One of the reasons we watch the Oscars is to see movie stars and great actors, so appearances by people like Edward Norton, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Gabourey Sidibe were all well and good, but the Academy has done this self-indulgent “power of the movies” stuff before. I’m a huge movie fan, and even I was rolling my eyes a little bit. On the plus side, the interviews were directed by Bennett Miller, so…that’s cool.

-The pre-filmed Wizard of Oz focus group bit starring Christopher Guest and his amazing troupe of improvisors was an inspired idea. I thought it could have been a little funnier, but it was still a treat to see that gang – Guest, Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara, Fred Willard, Jennifer Coolidge and Bob Balaban – together again.

Alas, no Michael McKean, Jane Lynch, Parker Posey, Ed Begley, Jr. or John Michael Higgins. Maybe they’ll do another one next year. Imagine a crowd of similarly uptight characters trying to make sense of 2001: A Space Odyssey? Actually – that should have been a running gag through the show. Instead of listening to actors telling us how movies transport them, there should have been different focus group films with Guest and Company.

-Once again, the show’s director Don Mischer – also the co-producer – seemed to be operating from the booth as if he were blind. The guy seems bizarrely incapable of cutting to famous faces in the audience. He fared a tiny bit better this year than last, capturing some reactions from George Clooney, Steven Spielberg and others here and there. But the number of times the camera cut to a shot of the crowd featuring a bunch of total unknowns was staggering. Where was Gary Oldman all night? Or Rooney Mara, who was seen only when the Dragon Tattoo editors addressed her from stage? Natalie Portman? Viola Davis? Glenn Close? They were hardly featured at all. It’s like Mischer was sending his cameramen into the most remote corners of the audience to capture anonymous members of the crowd and then cutting to the shot that was furthest away from the nearest celebrity at any given time. I don’t care how many years of experience this guy has; any skill he may have once possessed is no more. Mischer has got to go. Somebody get me Louis J. Horovitz stat! (Note the first line of trivia next to his picture. I doubt Mischer will earn any such honors.)

-One thing I will give Mischer credit for – or maybe it goes to his fellow producer Brian Grazer – is letting nearly every winner complete a speech without getting played off the stage by the orchestra. Whenever a category has more than one winner, it seems like whoever talks second is doomed to be cut off. But in almost every case, multiple winners were not only allowed to speak, but actually finish! In fact, the only category where the winners got cut short was Best Documentary. One of the recipients did drop an F-bomb, but it was caught by the delay, and the speech still went on for a bit before they were cut off. They weren’t even up there that long. So obnoxious. Let people have their moment, damnit!

-Having the Best Actor and Best Actress presenters directly address the nominees isn’t working anymore. When it was first introduced for the 2008 awards, it was a neat and novel device: bring out five previous winners in all four acting categories and have each of them salute one of the current nominees. It was a great idea. But it worked because it was unusual and unexpected, and even though the comments were being read from a teleprompter in most cases, the gesture still felt personal and intimate. The next year, they tried for something similar, but it was clunky: dissing the two Supporting categories, the producers brought out former co-stars of each lead acting nominee and had them salute their nominated one-time co-star. Then those presenters exited the stage and the previous year’s acting winner came out to actually open the envelope and hand out the award. This year and last, the presentations were further streamlined by just having the previous year’s winner (opposite gender, in keeping with Academy tradition of one year’s Best Actor presenting the next year’s Best Actress, and vice versa) pay tribute to all five nominees before opening the envelope. But the magic is gone. That first time, it felt special to have, for example, Shirley MacLaine honoring Anne Hathaway, Robert De Niro lauding his friend Sean Penn, Kevin Kline paying tribute to Heath Ledger and Whoopi Goldberg addressing fellow onscreen nun Amy Adams. But now it feels stiff, it drags the presentations out and the presence of the teleprompter feels more noticeable, making the remarks seem less genuine. Next year, let’s just go back to reading the names and showing a clip. Or find another creative way to conduct the presentation. Maybe have video clips of fellow actors – not necessarily former winners, not necessarily former co-stars, but just a small assortment of respected actors discussing all the nominated performances in a given category and what they liked or admired about them. There are videos on the Academy website in which some of this year’s below-the-line categories are reviewed this way. Just an idea. But it’s time to retire this bit for a few years. Oh, and whatever is done, it should be done for the Supporting Actor and Supporting Actress nominees too. Where’s the love?

-The In Memoriam tribute was given an elegant presentation, but once again most of the names came and went without any reference to the films the deceased had worked on. A few clips or sound bytes were included for the most well-known in the montage, like Elizabeth Taylor, Peter Falk and Sidney Lumet. But for all the lesser known folks, particularly those who worked behind-the-scenes, it’s nice to see a sampling of the films they worked on so we have some context.

Before winning Best Actress, Meryl Streep took the stage to call attention to this year’s honorary Oscars, which were presented back in November. These awards used to be given out on Oscar night, but a new tradition was started a few years ago to honor the recipients at a separate event, known as the Governors Awards. This year’s honorary Oscars, as shown in the highlight clip introduced by Streep, were given to pioneering makeup artist Dick Smith (The Godfather, The Exorcist, Amadeus) and James Earl Jones. Oprah Winfrey received the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, which has been awarded over the years to people like Bob Hope, Audrey Hepburn, Paul Newman and Jerry Lewis. All three were in attendance on Oscar night, and while I do miss having these honors incorporated into the ceremony, the Governors Awards evening really allows them to be properly celebrated, without having to abbreviate the tributes so as to cater to an impatient TV audience. The acceptance speeches and clips of the presenters are available on the Academy’s website and are worth checking out. I especially enjoyed J.J. Abrams’ tribute to Smith:

When I arrived at the Oscar party I was attending, the TV was already tuned to the red carpet, though thankfully the sound was muted. I can’t abide the vacuous comments and stupid questions posed by most of the interviewers, but I do like looking at the beautiful belles in their dresses and gowns. Natalie Portman pretty much took my breath away when I first saw her on the carpet. Seriously, I think I lost my balance and had to grope for the wall behind me to steady myself. Dear lord, she looked good. I liked the Grace Kelly hairdo sported by Penelope Cruz, and Jessica Chastain’s dress was a standout as well. I haven’t looked up how the fashion police rated Jennifer Lopez, but I had absolutely no problem with her seashellish get-up. Michelle Williams, Cameron Diaz, Viola Davis, Kristen Wiig, Milla Jovovich, Maya Rudolph, Tina Fey and Gwyneth Paltrow all looked nice, and it has to be said: Janet McTeer? Totally hot. She was in disguise as a hulkin’ dude in Albert Nobbs, but in reality she’s a serious cougar. Anyway, to preserve my memory, here’s a sampling. It’s okay…I respect them all for their intelligence and acting chops as well as their ability to look good.

Every year, Oscar night leaves in its wake reviews about how the show is boring and stale, how the Academy is irrelevant and out of touch (complaints that also spring up after nominations are announced and provocative films like Shame are inevitably omitted) and how it can all be fixed. I wanted to weigh in on that, but I also want to get this post finished while this year’s show is still reasonably fresh in our memories. So I’ll save it for another time…not a bad idea anyway, since there’s more than enough to say on the topic to fill its own post. Instead, we’ll just end this Oscar season with a polite smile, and hope that the films in contention next year will be a stronger lot. Based on how 2012 is looking, that shouldn’t be a problem. (I’ll have more to say on that in the next few weeks.)

A final reminder of this year’s Oscar night, this clip comes not from the broadcast, but from the red carpet. It was a moment that merited unmuting the TV: Sacha Baron Cohen, in character for his new film The Dictator, encountering a legitimately unsuspecting Ryan Seacrest. General, I salute you.


March 7, 2011

Oscars 2010: What Went Down

Filed under: Movies,Oscars,TV — DB @ 10:02 pm
Tags: , ,

Complete List of Winners

Well, that was…interesting.

My commentary on this subject comes late as usual, allowing me the necessary time to re-watch, reflect and comment on every little thing that crossed my mind, but the gist of it won’t be much different than what has already been said in all corners of the Oscar-watching world (though I’ll try saying it more nicely than others may have):

That could’ve been better.

The main reason I always enjoy watching the Oscars is that I actually care who wins. Not just Best Picture and Best Actor, but Best Art Direction and Best Makeup and so on. So I’ll always enjoy the Oscars, even if the show itself isn’t that great. And this year’s show wasn’t so great. It was badly produced, badly directed, blandly written…it was, in fact, the weirdest and yes, the worst Oscars I can remember in my 20+ years of Oscar watching. To be fair, the first year I watched the Oscars was 1987, year of the infamous Rob Lowe-Snow White opening number and the dancing Oscar statuettes. That show may have been worse, but I was 10 years-old and don’t actually remember it well enough to say. Now then…let’s get into it.

James Franco and Anne Hathaway are taking a lot of the heat for this, but I’m not going to pile it on. I don’t think they’re the reason the show was bad. We all knew from the beginning that they were odd and inappropriate choices to host, and sure, it could be argued that they should have known as much and therefore deserve the blame for taking on the job. But hey, they’re professional actors who were given a rare and pretty cool-sounding opportunity, so why wouldn’t they go for it? I think they did the best they could with the poor material they were given. Well…maybe Franco didn’t do the best he could, but I’m not sure he knew what the hell to do.

Things started off promising enough. The opening video in which Franco and Hathaway traveled, Inception-style, through some of the Best Picture nominees, aided by Alec Baldwin and Morgan Freeman, was funny. Not hilarious, but funny, even if the insert-host-into-actual-movie-scene has been done a lot by now. I’m not sure why the skit came around to inserting them into a scene from Back to The Future, which would have made sense only if the piece had featured other older movies as well.  But okay, it was early. No big deal. The duo finally made it onto the stage, but right off the bat it didn’t quite feel right. They just didn’t have the natural ease that comes with knowing how to stand on a stage in front of a lot of people and work the crowd. They’re not comedians. Or Wolverine. Their banter was a little awkward, but okay, that’s the natural state of award banter. Still no big deal. They did the requisite joke about being chosen as hosts in an effort to lure a younger audience, as well as the requisite joke about Franco being nominated while Hathaway was not. It all seemed stiff from the outset. The monologue was brief, the jokes weren’t great, and there was little of the typical give-and-take with the nominees and stars in the audience. Last year’s monologue by Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin featured too much pointing-to-stars, whereas this year’s featured too little. Check out almost any other recent Oscar show and you’ll find the right balance.

As the night wore on, things did not much improve. Hathaway’s song – an abridged and altered version of “On My Own” from Les Miserables which she sang to Hugh Jackman as a sort of follow-up to the great musical comedy bit they did during his 2008 MC gig – was the best hosting moment of the night. Hathaway’s got some genuine pipes, and this bit hinted at the playfulness that the show needed desperately but which was pretty much nowhere to be found. (Sorry, Franco’s Marilyn Monroe get-up didn’t qualify.) Other than that moment, Hathaway had only her enthusiasm to cling to. And she had that in spades, sometimes going overboard. I like Hathaway and think she’s a really good actress, but as herself she sometimes comes off like that girl in drama club who’s a little too theatrical a little too often. On the other hand, can you blame her for overcompensating, considering how little actual material she was given to work with? Also, was it just me or did she seem to be coming out solo a lot? There seemed to be a lot more of Hathaway than Franco. He was probably backstage studying for class while creating an avant-garde installation for MoMA at the same time that he was concurrently shooting and editing a film exploring the inequities between male and female performers as exemplified by Hathaway’s many costume changes, all the while writing an episode of General Hospital which he would run off to shoot during a commercial break. When Franco did show up, he looked bemused, uncomfortable, uncertain…if he was deliberately playing aloof, it was the wrong way to go. Or he just wasn’t doing it well.  And it’s not like the guy can’t act. Not really sure what was going on there.

But again, I blame the writers and producers for a lot of this. The producers, Don Mischer and Bruce Cohen, made a mistake hiring Franco and Hathaway in the first place, and then gave them little to work with. Hosts need to do more than just introduce people. There were no bits for them to do, no comedy for them…nothing. It was all very puzzling, to say the least.

-The first big prize of the night was Best Supporting Actress, and in the curious absence of last year’s Best Supporting Actor Christoph Waltz, the Academy brought out screen legend Kirk Douglas to present the award. It wasn’t pretty. At 94 years old, Douglas still seems pretty sharp, but he kept making jokes that made no sense (Hugh Jackman is laughing at him? Colin Firth isn’t laughing at him?) There was a total non sequiter that found him pretending to fight over his cane with the random young guy who was standing with him onstage. Then, after opening the envelope, he kept delaying the announcement of the winner. Did he think he was being funny? I mean, it was funny…but in a painful, awkward way that makes you want to cover your eyes. Why even have him there to present this particular award? It’s not like there was a theme of Hollywood icons presenting in other categories. That would somewhat go against the stated desire to draw a younger audience to the show, wouldn’t it? Most of today’s teens probably don’t even know who Michael Douglas is, let alone Kirk. His presence wasn’t a logical fit with the show at all. The Oscars are one of the few awards shows all season long where the presenter actually reads the nominee names themselves, rather than the task being handled by some anonymous voice, yet they didn’t have Douglas read the nominees. Why not? He barely shut up while he was there, so why couldn’t he read the names himself? Were the producers worried that people wouldn’t be able to understand him? Hearing-impaired actress Marlee Matlin did it when she presented Best Actor in 1987 (to Michael Douglas, in fact). It just stood out against the rest of the presentations, and highlighted the oddity of him being there. When he finally did announce the winner, it was Melissa Leo, and thrilled for her though I was, her “is this really happening” schtick was a little overdone, and wasn’t helped by Douglas continuing to insert himself in the moment as she accepted her award. The whole thing was just uncomfortable.

-As expected, Aaron Sorkin took the Best Adapted Screenplay award for The Social Network, and kudos to Sorkin for calmly continuing with his speech and ignoring that the orchestra was obnoxiously trying to play him off. I don’t know what their problem was. He hadn’t even been talking that long before they chimed in, and here they had an eloquent, grateful and humorous guy who has a way with words, so why no let him give his speech? Dicks. (Not really the orchestra’s fault; the show director is to blame, and that job was held by co-producer Mischer. )

-In another win for The Social Network, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross took Best Original Score. It was the one bold choice the Academy made all night (a deserving win, though I would have preferred Inception). But you gotta love that they gave an Oscar to Reznor, the guy who sang “I want to fuck you like an animal.”

-Don’t worry Randy Newman, you were good television. One of the bright spots of the show, in fact.

-If you’ve read my previous Oscar commentaries this season, you probably know that Tom Hooper’s Best Director win is a disappointment to me. It seems that every year, at least one Oscar needs to be given out that can go into the books as one of the all-time bad choices, and Hooper’s win is the one this year. My annoyance was heightened by the look on his face when Kathryn Bigelow said his name. See for yourself at the 1:30 mark, and tell me you don’t kinda want to punch him. (If you think he actually deserved the award, maybe it doesn’t bother you. But I wanted to punch him.) I will, however, give him kudos for his speech, which was gracious and included a nice story about how he came to direct the movie. Still, I’ll never understand how he won this award.

(By the way Academy, here’s one way you can bring your show into the modern era and maybe even cater to some of those younger viewers: let them embed your clips on their blogs instead of making them leave and view them on YouTube).

-Two years ago, each acting award was presented by five previous winners of that same award, each one saluting a current nominee. Last year, an attempt to do something similar by having a past co-star address each nominee stumbled a bit. This year was better than last, with the presentation of Best Actor and Best Actress being done solely by last year’s winners Jeff Bridges and Sandra Bullock, respectively, still speaking to each nominee directly. But where was the love for the Supporting nominees? Just like last year, they were treated like second-class citizens while the extra love was given to the leads. Why is the Academy messing with the hierarchy? If you delineate between actors, it just means everyone else gets shoved further down the food chain. Pretty soon the sound and visual effects artists won’t even be allowed in the building.

The Good:
You know…there was so much bad and weird that we should really start there, and come back around to the good in an effort to end on a positive note.

The Bad and the Weird:
-The first awards of the evening, presented by Tom Hanks, were for Cinematography and Art Direction. With imagery from Gone With the Wind and Titanic employed to striking effect – the projections grandly filling the proscenium arch – Hanks made the connection between Best Picture winners that had also won the two awards he was giving out. It was an odd way to frame the presentation, since there was no guarantee that the winning movies would go on to win the night’s Best Picture award (and in fact, neither did; Cinematography went to Inception, while Art Direction went to Alice in Wonderland). The evoking of Gone With the Wind and Titanic suggested that the show might incorporate Oscar winning classics as a theme, but the idea turned out to be half-baked. The only other films referenced in such a direct way were Shrek and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, and while there’s nothing wrong with those, they aren’t exactly reaching back into the Oscar history books. How about incorporating some older spectacles, like Lawrence of Arabia or 2001: A Space Odyssey?  Maybe The Wizard of Oz or Mary Poppins?

There were a few jumps back in time, but not using specific movies. Presenting the two screenwriting awards, Josh Brolin and Javier Bardem appeared as white-tuxedoed waiters in a replica of Hollywood’s Roosevelt Hotel, where the earliest Academy Award ceremonies were held. Later, a special podium was wheeled out and 18-time Oscar host Bob Hope was projected there to give the audience a glimpse of what it might have been like in the room when Hope hosted. Both segments were nice pieces of nostalgia, but the Roosevelt Hotel bit didn’t quite gel with the rest of the show, and the Bob Hope gimmick was kind of unsettling since it alternated between actual jokes as they’d been spoken by Hope and someone impersonating Hope to comment on the ceremony at hand and introduce the next presenters. It was done affectionately, and so wasn’t as offensive as Fred Astaire dancing with a vacuum cleaner or John Wayne hawking Coors Beer, but it still felt odd.

Bottom line: the theme for the show, such as it was, didn’t really come off.

-The stage was once again used to great effect for the Best Original Score presentation, which found the orchestra projected in silhouette behind the screen and the layers of the proscenium lit up in bright colors while the musicians played a medley of classic movie music from Star Wars, E.T., Lawrence of Arabia and West Side Story (as well as the famous THX sound effect). But while the orchestra proceeded to play selections from the nominated scores, accompanied by a montage of clips from each film, someone in the booth cut away to a crew member leading presenters Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman to a different part of the stage. Why would you do that? It was just one of many terrible cutaways throughout the show. While Oprah Winfrey was on stage making a nice point about the power and importance of documentary films, there was a cut to Joel Coen, scratching his ear and looking around like he dropped something. Who was running the booth?!? It’s like someone let their 12 year-old kid come in and direct the show. Actually, I take that back. I directed some cable access TV when I was 12, and I knew better then to cut away to something like that.

Moreover, did you notice how random the reaction shots of the audience were? Usually there are frequent glimpses of movie stars reacting to the jokes or presentations. Here, it was like director Mischer went out of his way not to show celebrities. I lost count of how many medium shots capturing a sea of unrecognizable faces in the middle of the auditorium we were treated to instead of the movie stars that most people are actually tuned in to see. All respect to recent Academy president Sid Ganis, who I saw at least three times, but I suspect people would prefer a cutaway to Halle Berry or Mark Ruffalo. Did anyone notice there was not a single shot of Natalie Portman all night until the Best Actress presentation came around? Not one shot of the star of the moment – a beautiful, pregnant actress who was the favorite to win one of the night’s top awards. Get your hands on any past Oscarcast and tell me when you’ve seen the likes of that. Forget it, I’ll save you the time: you haven’t seen the likes of that, because it doesn’t happen, because any moron can tell you that the when you have a bunch of movie stars sitting in room full of TV cameras it’s pretty much understood that you actually show some of them.

-Lest we think that Hathaway and Franco had the market on awkwardness cornered, there was plenty to go around. What was going on with Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis during their presentation of the Animation awards? I liked Timberlake’s opening joke, hesitantly announcing to the audience that he’s actually the mysterious, never-seen graffiti artist Banksy, one of the evening’s nominees for directing Best Documentary contender Exit Through the Gift Shop. But the joke died when Kunis had no real retort, and throughout the rest of their presentation they seemed to either be sharing a private joke or dealing with an incomplete script. After pretending to use his iPhone to decorate the stage with a backdrop of Shrek‘s The Kingdom of Far Far Away, Kunis told him that he missed a spot. Then he stared at her for too long a beat, then she laughed, then he feigned being flustered and began announcing the nominees while we tried to figure out what the hell was going on.

-In a presentation similar to the one for Cinematography and Art Direction, Best Makeup and Best Costume Design were lumped together for no other reason than that both awards had once gone to Best Picture winner The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. One of that film’s stars, Cate Blanchett, did the honors, though the connection between the awards was even more tenuous this time since none of the Makeup nominees were among the Best Picture contenders.

Also, for what it’s worth, smarter Oscar producers would have had Blanchett present the award for Best Supporting Actor, instead of Reese Witherspoon. For whatever reason, Blanchett was not at the Oscars the year after she won Best Supporting Actress, and so was unable to carry on the tradition of the previous year’s winner presenting the award to the opposite sex the following year. Blanchett has still never presented an acting award, so given that last year’s winner Mo’Nique was unable to attend this year, it would have been the ideal time for Blanchett to get her chance of presenting to a fellow actor.

-The presentation of Best Original Song included a random “man on the street” segment of people on Hollywood Boulevard talking about their favorite songs from movies. Where did that come from? Who cares what some tourist from Nebraska thinks? If you’re going to do a segment like that, find a way to make it funny. Remember Chris Rock’s hosting gig in 2004, which featured a taped segment of Rock interviewing patrons of a Magic Johnson Theatre (all African-American, except for Albert Brooks)? That’s how it’s done. I wish I could find that clip online. So good. Anyway, this segment was yet another WTF moment. That goofball couple singing “Beauty and the Beast” to each other was just horrible. And on top of that, the interviews weren’t even filmed well! The camera was way too close to the subjects, the shots were badly framed…and then after all these average Joe’s off the street, suddenly there’s President Obama in the White House, commenting on his favorite movie song. Seriously, who put this thing together?!? Awful.

-The actual performances of the nominated songs were not without their problems either. Randy Newman was up first, battling poor sound quality (through no fault of his own, I’m sure) and clumsy staging. It was just Newman at the piano, belting out the tune, yet he was set so far back on the stage. There was a circular platform right in the center, nice and close to the audience. Why couldn’t the piano have been placed there, to create a little more intimacy? Later on, Gwyneth Paltrow performed her song from Country Strong, and while she’s proven she can sing, she didn’t look or sound all that great this time around. As for the song from 127 Hours, it’s a pretty but unconventional song that doesn’t really lend itself to a live performance.

-Following the interviews for Best Original Song, another misfire came with a joke introduced by Franco and Hathaway in which auto-tuning was applied to scenes from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I, Toy Story 3, The Social Network and Twilight: Eclipse. A joke like this might play fittingly at the MTV Movie Awards or Broadcast Film Critics Awards, but this is the big leagues. You can do better.

-As has been the case in recent years, the In Memoriam segment, acknowledging the passing of Academy members during the past year, was accompanied by a live song performance, this time by Celine Dion (I’m surprised the Academy didn’t go for Willow Smith). However, unlike in previous years, the names of behind-the-scenes folks who weren’t necessarily familiar to most viewers flashed by without any examples of their work. Usually, the photo of the person or live footage of them is shown alongside a poster, clip or title font of a famous movie or two that they worked on, to provide some context. Not this time, meaning that most people watching the show – even those in the audience, I’d wager – had no idea who many of the people were. How hard is it to get these little things right? Had Don Mischer or Bruce Cohen ever watched the Oscars before? (I know Bruce Cohen has, because he won an Oscar for producing American Beauty.)

-As of last year, honorary awards are no longer given out on Oscar night, but are instead presented at the Governor’s Ball, a special ceremony held a few months earlier. This year, honorary awards went to actor Eli Wallach, director Jean-Luc Godard and film historian and preservationist Kevin Brownlow, while Francis Ford Coppola was given the Irving G. Thalberg Award. (Click here for video highlights from the ceremony.) It would be nice if the television audience was at least treated to a few moments from the Governor’s Ball, just as the Sci-Tech Awards are briefly covered each year. Instead, Coppola, Wallach and Brownlow were trotted onto the stage (Godard did not attend either ceremony) to stand awkwardly while the audience gave them a deserved standing ovation. Yet another poorly conceived moment in the show. Next year, show us some clips from the private reception and then have the recipients stand up in the audience or from special balcony seats and give a wave. That’s what happened last year, and that’s how it should go. They’ll still get their standing O, and it will feel much more natural.

-When it came time for Best Picture, clips from the 10 nominees played in a montage which used Colin Firth’s climactic radio address from The King’s Speech as a through-line. Some people felt this showed favoritism toward Speech, but I thought it was just a nice connective tissue. Didn’t bother me. What did bother me was that the montage cycled back through most of the nominees two or three times before a single clip of Toy Story 3 was shown. A big deal? No, of course not. (None of this crap is a big deal. It’s the friggin’ Oscars, not cancer research). But it was further evidence of the sloppiness that ran through the entire show. Who put that reel together? How hard is it to feature all 10 nominees once before going back and showing each one again?

-Speaking of Best Picture, couldn’t they have found someone else besides Steven Spielberg to present it? Don’t get me wrong – I loves me some Steven Spielberg. But he’s presented Best Picture three times in the last decade (and while we’re keeping score, Michael Douglas, Tom Hanks, and Jack Nicholson have each done it twice). How about having Kirk Douglas do that award? Or Francis Ford Coppola, who was there for his Thalberg win anyway? How about trying to get the retired Gene Hackman to come out and present it? There are more than a few people left in the movie business with the stature to make them worthy Best Picture presenters. Can we get a little more creative?

-Whatever the producers intended as the theme of the Oscar show, “Awkward!” proved to be the actual theme of the night, and the final moments of the show didn’t disappoint on that front. I found it a little hokey when cute kids from Staten Island’s PS22 flooded the stage to sing “Over the Rainbow,” but okay, kids are sweet and what a thrill it was for them and fine, I’ll go with it. But then all the evening’s winners walked out on stage behind the students, ambling about in a scattered assembly, some swaying and joining the song, others just standing there, all clutching their Oscars. Why, I ask you? Why?

-The show’s schizophrenia included its slate of presenters not really being ideal choices for that oh-so-desirable youth audience. Hilary Swank, Oprah Winfrey, Nicole Kidman and Tom Hanks (and again, Kirk Douglas) are not who the kids want to see. And that’s fine, because the show shouldn’t be catering to kids. These are the kind of people who should be at the Academy Awards, so the producers and Academy executives need to start acknowledging that and stop trying to turn the Oscars into something it will never be by trying to cater to an audience that will never care.

The Good, Take 2:
-Okay, I promised we’d come back around to some of the show’s good moments, so let’s get to those. Shouldn’t take long. It may have been a bizarre show, but it certainly wasn’t without its pleasures, some of which I’ve already mentioned and one of which – or four of which – were the acting winners. Although Firth, Portman, Bale and Leo were the favorites and had already won many awards throughout the season, I was no less pleased to see them emerge victorious here. For me, there’s still something special about seeing people win the Oscar, no matter how many other trophies they collect in the months and weeks prior. I’m especially thrilled for Bale and Leo, if only because my confidence in their wins was a bit shaken at this late point in the season. It was also pretty cool that Bale and Portman both began their careers as child actors. I think they were both 13 when they starred in their breakout movies, Empire of the Sun and The Professional, respectively. Both exhibited huge talent even in those early roles, and as we watched them grow up on screen we knew it was only a matter of time before they got their Oscars. Nice to see that promise fulfilled.

-The duos of Helen Mirren and Russell Brand and then Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law were among the few presenters who earned a laugh, though each pair was onstage only briefly. Cate Blanchett scored a great moment as well, when she was reading the nominees for Best Makeup and followed the clip of Benicio del Toro’s transformation in The Wolfman with the impromptu, sincere quip, “That’s gross.” The award did go to The Wolfman, and was shared by makeup legend Rick Baker and Dave Elsey. I liked Elsey’s comment, “It was always my ambition to lose an Oscar one day to Rick Baker. This is better.”

-I also appreciated 73 year-old Original Screenplay winner David Seidler’s comment, “My father always said to me I would be a late bloomer.”

-The enthusiastic speech from Best Live Action Short director Luke Matheny demonstrated that sometimes the best or funniest moments come from unlikely sources. The first thing people probably noticed as Matheny made his way down the aisle was his mass of tangled black hair that could easily have been housing a collection of bird eggs, and his first comment upon reaching the microphone was that he should have gotten a haircut. His short speech was a charmer, as he thanked his mother for providing craft services on his film and paid sweet tribute to his girlfriend.

-One of the highlights of the night was the surprise appearance of Billy Crystal, who walked out to an enthusiastic standing ovation. Was that purely out of affection for one of Oscar’s all-time great hosts, or more because the audience was desperate by that point in the evening for someone who knew how to do the job? Hope Franco and Hathaway didn’t take it the wrong way. Billy was there to introduce the aforementioned Bob Hope bit. He did a few jokes and instantly breathed life into a ceremony that was sorely in need of it.

-Although I already questioned Steven Spielberg’s appearance as Best Picture presenter, I did love what he said when he came out. “Well in a moment, one of these ten movies will join a list that includes On The Waterfront, Midnight Cowboy, The Godfather and The Deer Hunter. The other nine will join a list that includes The Grapes of Wrath, Citizen Kane, The Graduate and Raging Bull.” There was enthusiastic applause as he continued, “Either way, congratulations, you’re all in very good company.” It was a wonderful way to frame the award, and a nice reminder that it really doesn’t matter what wins the Oscar. Great work stands the test of time, and the ultimate winners are the audiences who get to enjoy them. (Still doesn’t take the sting away when the wrong thing wins, but oh well.)

-Okay, I’m sorry, I know this is supposed to be The Good section, but thinking about Mirren, Brand, Downey Jr., Law and Crystal just makes me wonder, where was the comedy? If ever there was an Oscar show that needed an infusion of Jack Black and Will Ferrell singing a song, or Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson playfully arguing, this was it.

Thank god for beautiful women and their frocks, because this Oscarcast needed all the push-ups it could get. I’m no Joan Rivers or Mr. Blackwell, but for me, the winners of the night were Mila Kunis, Natalie Portman, Jennifer Lawrence, Marisa Tomei, Reese Witherspoon, Amy Adams and Scarlett Johansson. Thank you ladies, for doing your part to help the show.

The takeaway for me from this year’s Oscar show, and it seems like we go through this every year, is that both the Academy and TV critics and viewing audience need to accept that Oscar night should be an evening for celebrating filmmakers first and foremost, and a television show second…while still making it the best television show it can be. That means the Academy needs to stop making decisions based on a desire to get higher ratings, and the at-home audience needs to get over it if they don’t care about any but the top few awards. Everyone, even cinematographers, art directors, visual effects artists and sound designers should be given their moment to speak without being cut off (though yes, they should be encouraged ahead of time to try and avoid reading lists of names, as Randy Newman references in the clip above). The Oscars weren’t created to satisfy the public; they were created to honor achievements in filmmaking. Public interest after the first awards in 1929 led to the ceremony being broadcast on the radio, and eventually television, but us movie fans who want to be included should remember that we are invited guests. Think the show is boring? Don’t care who wins Best Film Editing? Then don’t watch. These days, you can go online the next day and find video of the acceptance speeches by the actors. If that’s all you care about, then don’t subject yourself to the whole three-plus-hour presentation.

On the flip side, the Academy has to accept that the Oscars aren’t the Super Bowl. (They’re my Super Bowl, but I’m abnormal.) They aren’t going to score Super Bowl-level ratings. There may have been a time when they did, but things have changed. The media landscape is overstuffed with information and options. The movie landscape, specifically, is more fragmented as well, with many more movies released each year and the true “event movie” now a rarity. Gone with the wind are the days when the movies the public went to see en masse were the same movies that were of high enough quality artistically to be top Oscar contenders. Now such movies – Titanic, Lord of the Rings, Avatar, Inception – are few and far between, while Oscar is more likely to shine on smaller films, indie films – Secrets & Lies, The Pianist, The Hurt Locker, The King’s Speech. The kind of films that studios hesitate to finance, and the kind of films that don’t ring up billions in ticket sales or entice the large viewership to the Oscarcast that the Academy would like to see.

But there are still millions of viewers who tune into the Oscars, so as I said earlier, stop cheapening the show by trying to attract a demographic that, by and large, isn’t interested. The Oscars celebrate a certain kind and caliber of movie, and most younger people aren’t interested in those movies. The Oscars may be a bit stodgy, a bit old fashioned, but that’s part of their appeal. So focus on creating a show that truly celebrates the nominees and winners, and be comfortable enough to recognize what the Oscars have always been and should continue to be. Then, once you’ve done that, do all that you can to make the show entertaining to the audience – in the room and at home. Hire comedians or skilled comic actors to host it. Write good material and get charismatic presenters (not every movie star is as captivating in reality as they are when playing a character). Hire a competent director to run the booth. Continue making attempts to shake it up, but don’t lose sight of tradition. The acting presentations from the 2008 ceremony – which I mentioned earlier –  is the perfect example. Some liked it, some didn’t, but it was a new idea that still colored inside the lines.

My final note to the Academy: I am available to consult, produce, write or direct. Call me.

March 14, 2010

Oscars 2009: What Went Down

Filed under: Movies,Oscars — DB @ 4:49 pm
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Complete List of Winners

It’s been a week since Oscar night, and I’ve finally had a chance to put my thoughts down in writing…just in time for nobody to give a shit anymore. But so be it. I need to get it out of my system. As usual, I needed to watch the whole thing again during the week so I could pick up on all the stuff I missed entirely or just didn’t take in fully amidst the commotion and distractions of an Oscar party. I know the idea of watching the entire three-and-a-half hour show a second time right away probably seems like torture to most of you, but I like going through it and hearing all the speeches and whatnot. Yes, my movie and Oscar geekhood runs that deep…deeper than the Tree of Souls that Avatar‘s Na’vi worship and revere. So with that, a final dip into the 2009 Oscar pool…

All season long it shaped up as an Avatar vs. Hurt Locker showdown. In the end, the Iraq drama took the big two prizes, proving that when it comes to winning Best Picture, nobody cares about how much a movie made at the box office. It irritated me that in the first few days after the show, articles kept popping up trying to explain why Avatar lost, as if it had been universally deemed the heavy favorite and suffered a stunning upset. Why do people feel a need to justify the loss? This wasn’t a Crash/Brokeback Mountain scenario. I’ll tell you right now why Avatar lost: because The Hurt Locker won. Why didn’t I see articles last year asking why Frost/Nixon or Benjamin Button lost to Slumdog Millionaire? Everyone has a theory about Avatar, and I’ll bet if you asked enough Academy members who didn’t place the movie high in their list, each theory would be heard. There’s no big mystery here, so stop trying to prolong the drama. The majority of Academy members felt The Hurt Locker was a better movie than Avatar. The end.

The opening of the show, with the lead acting nominees paraded out onstage and forced to stand there like beauty pageant contestants while the announcer said their names, was awkward and unnecessary. And why were only the lead actors singled out?

The presentation of Best Actor and Best Actress borrowed from last year’s show by having someone directly address each of the nominees. It’s still a good idea, but it didn’t work nearly as well this time. Last year, a former winner in each category spoke to a current nominee. This year, friends and co-stars of each nominee did the talking. So far so good, except that whereas last year’s presentations were short and sweet, this year’s rambled on as the speakers tried to cover not just the performances, but what wonderful people the nominees all are. Again, nice idea…but it went on too long. Producers Adam Shankman and Bill Mechanic said they took the idea from what Robert DeNiro said last year about Sean Penn. In that instance, the former winner was also speaking to a personal friend. But DeNiro’s speech covered Penn the man and his  performance more succinctly than the speeches this time. The highlight was Tim Robbins’ salute to Morgan Freeman, and it was nice to see Michelle Pfeiffer there for Jeff Bridges 20 years after The Fabulous Baker Boys, but overall the execution was not great. One improvement was that clips of the nominated work was shown, which I always think is an important part of the acting awards. And seriously, what was with the bitchslap to the supporting acting nominees this year? They didn’t get included in the opening (yeah, I said the idea was stupid, but I didn’t like seeing the supporting actors given second-class treatment), they didn’t get the friend/co-star tribute…the supporting actors got treated with the lack of respect that actors are supposed to reserve for the winners in the technical categories!
As for the winners themselves? No surprises in Waltz, Mo’Nique or Bridges. I know some have criticized Mo’Nique’s speech, but I thought hers was one of the best of the night, beginning with her thanking the Academy for “showing that it can be about the performance and not the politics.” After all the flak she took for not campaigning, not showing up at every press or promotional event, etc. I cheered her for calling out all the idiots who thought she should be denied for not playing the game. By the way, does her husband ever smile? I’ve seen her win four different awards, and each time he sits there blankfaced, not looking moved, happy, proud or anything. Your wife just won an Oscar, dude. Look alive! (Okay, a Google Image search has revealed lots of pictures of him smiling. Apparently he just doesn’t do it when she wins anything.)
And then there’s Sandra Bullock. Her win will go down in Oscar history as one of the Academy’s more ill-advised selections (see Roberto Benigni), but as I have made my feelings clear, I’ll finish the season on a positive note. Over the years, there’s been a pattern in which winners who I didn’t think deserved their gold managed to soften the blow by giving great acceptance speeches (I’m thinking Michael Caine for The Cider House Rules, Russell Crowe for Gladiator and Adrien Brody for The Pianist). Bullock, at least, continued that tradition. She was funny, humble and classy – it was an A+ speech all the way (her moment comes at about the 8:25 mark). And if there’s an upside to her win, maybe it’s that she will now have access to better material – and will make better choices – that match the talent I do think she has, even if it wasn’t on display in The Blind Side to the degree that should merit an Academy Award nomination and win.

Also, in the spirit of really praising Bullock, I have to say that her showing up at the Golden Razzies ceremony the night before the Oscars to personally pick up her Worst Actress prize for All About Steve was pretty damn cool, and further showed why people love her so much. She really is about as down to earth as a movie star can be. Her Razzie speech is definitely worth checking out (skip ahead to the 1:26 point for her entrance).

The biggest surprise of the night was the Best Adapted Screenplay win for Precious, which made Geoffrey Fletcher the first African-American to win a writing Oscar. I loved Precious, so I can’t complain about this win, but I think Up in the Air deserved that prize. I was disappointed to see it go home empty-handed. But Jason Reitman seemed to be enjoying himself all night, and hey: the guy is 32 years old and is coming off his second Best Picture/Best Director nomination in three years. He’ll be back.

The Hurt Locker‘s win for Original Screenplay was a mild surprise. While everything starts with the script obviously, I think that Hurt Locker‘s biggest strengths came in other areas, whereas Inglourious Basterds was, in my mind, a stronger achievement in screenwriting. Still, Tarantino’s got one writing Oscar on the shelf, and Waltz’s Supporting Actor win kept Basterds from going 0 for 8.

-Costume design winner Sandy Powell didn’t come off so well, beginning her speech by saying in a rather blasé way that this was her third win. Here’s a hint to future award winners: don’t get up on stage and highlight that you’ve won the award before. It doesn’t exactly endear you to anyone, particularly your fellow nominees watching from their seats. Powell went on to try and pay tribute to the talented, hardworking costume designers on low-budget and contemporary films who don’t get the award recognition they deserve because these categories favor period pieces. It was a nice sentiment, but she somehow made it come off like an insult. Let’s hope she does a little better if and when she wins Oscar #4.

-One of the things that happens when I go back through and watch the show a second time is I can hear all the speeches that get drowned out by the din at the party. Sometimes those speeches have some of the funniest or most touching tributes of the ceremony, like Hurt Locker screenwriter Mark Boal thanking his father, who died a month ago. Or one of Avatar‘s art directors, who said that fifteen years ago he was diagnosed with a fatal condition that he obviously beat. I liked that Avatar‘s visual effects winner Joe Letteri thanked the actors for trusting the VFX artists with their performances. “I know that couldn’t have been easy,” he said. Original Score winner Michael Giacchino eschewed reading a list of names and instead spoke about the importance of supporting children’s creativity, thanking his parents for doing so with him. Nice moments, all.

-And then there was the WTF moment of the night, which came when Documentary Short winner Roger Ross Williams was interrupted by a crazy lady who turned out to be his fellow recipient, Elinor Burkett. There have been numerous accounts of the personal drama that was playing out in front of the world at that moment, but this short article from Salon is the most complete one I’ve seen. Obviously Williams and Burkett each have a different take on what happened – both in the making of their film and on the Kodak stage – but from what the video shows (the clip is embedded in the article) they both could have handled the situation a little more professionally. Still, it made for a great Oscar moment!

Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin did well, but I feel like they could have done more. The monologue was funny, but the entire thing consisted of acknowledging members of the audience and having fun with them. Nothing wrong with that; it’s always a component of the host’s monologue. But this year it wasn’t a component; it was all they did. Still, it generated some great jokes. The best of the night may have been when Martin said, “In Inglourious Basterds, Christoph Waltz plays a Nazi obsessed with finding Jews.” Then, spreading his arms wide to indicate the entire room, “Well Christoph? The motherload!”

It would have been great to see these two guys do more bits. The Paranormal Activity moment was funny, and I liked that they parodied that movie at the Oscars, but think about how much funnier it could have been. As it was, the camera caught the two hosts moving into awkward positions in their sleep, with Martin eventually getting up, standing over Baldwin and punching him in the head. But why not have Martin wake up in the middle of the night and start marching across the room playing a trombone? Then he gets back into bed and a little while later Baldwin gets up and starts trying to assemble an IKEA bookcase. They could have aired snippets all throughout the show, with each gag becoming progressively more elaborate.

That’s pretty much how it went for the whole show. They were good, they were funny, but I can’t help thinking there were a lot of missed opportunities.

Good show or bad, I always love the Oscars. That said, I think Shankman and Mechanic’s production was lacking in a lot of areas, especially after the great show put on last year.

-The ongoing belief that Oscar ceremonies must have dance numbers resulted in a decent by time-wasting opening number featuring Neil Patrick Harris. It’s hard not to like him, so he saved the number. Unfortunately, the second dance-a-thon of the evening fared less well. Pairing up dancers and excerpts from the nominated film scores wasn’t a first, but the mix was awkward. The dancers were talented, but the numbers just didn’t fit with the music. To be fair, it’s a challenge trying to do a meaningful dance to The Hurt Locker‘s score. But it was a challenge that, in terms of the choreography, they were unable to meet.

-There were also some odd things happening with the set. It looked good enough at the beginning and end of the show, but there were head-scratching sections in the middle where the backdrop was a big rack of miscellaneous lampshades. I thought I was looking at the back wall of a Pottery Barn. When that disappeared, it was replaced by what looked like a giant empty, bookcase. Or maybe it was a honeycomb. All I know is that it was bizarre and ugly. Not sure what the designers were thinking…

-The tribute to horror films was a good idea, but as it was the only such piece in the show, it felt out of place and didn’t connect to anything else that was going on. Introducing the clip, Kristen Stewart said, “It’s been 37 years since horror had a place on this show, when The Exorcist picked up two Academy Awards.” That’s great…except the montage that followed began with footage from Jaws, which was nominated for Best Picture and won three Oscars two years after The Exorcist. The reel went on to include plenty of horror films that have earned Oscars since The Exorcist, including Aliens, Misery, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, The Silence of the Lambs (which won Picture, Director, Actor, Actress and Adapted Screenplay) and The Sixth Sense, which won nothing but garnered six nominations. And in what universe are Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands considered horror films?

-The “37 years” bit was just one piece of misinformation delivered throughout the night. Some may have just been bad teleprompter reading, but I suspect they were the result of sloppy writing. Alec Baldwin introduced Robert Downey Jr. as an Oscar winning actor, but in fact Downey has never won the award. Samuel L. Jackson said that Up was only the second film to be nominated for Best Picture and Best Animated Film…but that’s not really true, since there was no Best Animated Film category when Beauty and the Beast was nominated for Best Picture. And when Charlize Theron introduced Best Picture nominee Precious, she said that it had earned four nominations when it actually earned six. Note to the Academy: You need to get your friggin’ facts straight, and I’m happy to offer my services next year to make sure you do.

-The John Hughes tribute fared much better than the Horror presentation, and was a wonderful gesture on the part of the Academy given that while Hughes’ films had a strong impact on a generation of filmgoers, they were never the kind of movies embraced by the Academy. For them to single him out for special tribute was damn cool, and the montage did his career justice, working in footage not just from the teen angst films that we immediately associate with Hughes, but also comedy gems like Planes, Trains and Automobiles, Mr. Mom and Vacation. Having so many of his stars there added to the presentation, even if Jon Cryer, Anthony Michael Hall, Ally Sheedy, Judd Nelson and Macaulay Culkin got trotted out only to say one sentence each.

-For the second year in a row, the In Memoriam montage was accompanied by a live song performance rather than a piece of canned score, and it was once again a nice way to go. There was plenty of talk afterwards about the omission of Farrah Fawcett, which Academy executive director Bruce Davis attributed to her career consisting primarily of television, rather than feature films. I actually think it’s a fair point, until people rightly point out that Michael Jackson was included. Davis’ justification for that is pretty weak in my opinion, and his last comment is flat out insulting.

-It jumped out at me that presenters were all saying, “And the winner is” instead of the more traditional, “And the Oscar goes to.” Shankman told Entertainment Weekly, “I always thought it was overly polite. I wanted a sense of tension in the show. We thought of [the Oscars] as the most well-dressed reality competition show in the world.” Well, it didn’t add any tension, and Shankman’s status as a reality show judge doesn’t make this Dancing with the Stars. It also struck me that in nearly every category, presenters read the names of the nominees awfully quickly, barely giving the audience time to applaud. Tom Hanks came out to present Best Picture and didn’t even read the list of films one last time. I know I’m in the minority, but I’d rather let the nominees savor their brief moment than sit through a pointless dance number. Sorry Doogie.

-The Best Animated Feature introduction was clever, as newly created animation featured each film’s main character talking about what winning an Oscar would mean to them.

-Oh, and while the explanation of the two sound awards was a nice, helpful touch, using The Dark Knight as the example doesn’t make up for not nominating it for Best Picture last year.

-This year’s ceremony turned out to be the highest rated in five years, since The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King swept the accolades. Avatar‘s presence was probably the biggest factor, and the expanded Best Picture category – which also allowed for hits like District 9 and The Blind Side – probably helped. I’d guess the pairing of Martin and Baldwin was a draw as well. If 2010 sees a box office phenomenon make the Best Picture list, then perhaps we’ll be able to draw more likely conclusions. But the ceremony itself hardly re-wrote the book or did anything likely to excite new viewers. Even with the removal of song performances and honorary awards, the show still clocked in at three-and-a-half hours. So while Shankman and Mechanic are surely taking pride in the ratings boost, I think they should be thanking James Cameron and the Academy before they pat themselves on the back.

-Finally, I was pretty shocked that there wasn’t a single mention of the earthquakes in Chile or Haiti. Usually the liberal Hollywood crowd is all about calling attention to those kinds of disasters, but nary a word was heard or a ribbon displayed.

-Best in Show, Part I: Tina Fey and Robert Downey, Jr. They made for one of the night’s high points as Fey the Writer and Downey Jr. the Actor offered dueling perspectives on the importance of the screenplay. Fey scores two years in a row!

-Best in Show, Part II: Ben Stiller. Some people seem to think this gag was a misfire, but those people need their sense of humor checked. Stiller’s suit-wearing Na’vi made for yet another of his classic Oscar moments, which have included dressing as a bearded, rambling Joaquin Phoenix and a Lord of the Rings dwarf. I especially enjoyed the portion of his alien speech that was actually a Passover prayer in Hebrew.

-Poor Taylor Lautner, of Twilight and countless girls’ fantasy lives, looked out of his element in that room and was stiff as a board introducing the horror tribute. And his co-presenter Kristen Stewart proved once again that she doesn’t perform nearly as well on live stage as she does on film. These two were not the best representation of young Hollywood…though maybe they were the most accurate. At least Zac Efron showed some charisma when he came out later on.

But do Taylor Lautner and Miley Cyrus really belong at the Oscars? Mechanic told The Los Angeles Times, “The younger side of the audience has been drifting for years, so we’re more conscious of trying to build a youth element into the show.” Oh brother. First of all, I think I can tell you why the youth audience has been drifting for years: because most kids couldn’t give a shit about the Academy Awards. Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t think No Country For Old Men, Million Dollar Baby, The Last Emperor and The English Patient are big draws for the 12-17 demographic, and you’re kidding yourself if you think hordes of them are going to tune into the telecast waiting around for some tween star’s minute-and-a-half in the spotlight. Even in the years when a popular film like Titanic, Lord of the Rings or Avatar is nominated, the youth crowd is still unlikely to be a significant part of the audience. Plus, the awards begin at 8:30 on the east coast, so a big chunk of the youth audience you’re courting could very well be in bed. So please, future producers: stop trying to win teenage viewers by throwing pretty faces with no real accomplishments onto Oscar’s stage. If you want to spotlight younger actors, try some like Dakota Fanning or Saoirse Ronan, who’ve actually done some real work (and to be fair, Kristen Stewart, Amanda Seyfried and arguably Zac Efron do fit that bill). But putting Cyrus and Lautner on the Oscars is just cheap pandering.

– I would like to suggest to the Academy that next time you invite Jennifer Lopez to be  presenter, go out on a limb and let her present in a category that doesn’t have anything to do with music. I’ll bet she can handle it.

-Sean Penn is one of our best actors, but he often finds it difficult to string together a coherent thought. A few nights before the Oscars, he was on Real Time with Bill Maher talking about his humanitarian work, and I’m pretty sure half of what he said didn’t really make any sense. His comments on Oscar night seemed headed for the same place, although upon second viewing I think he was trying to apologize to his ex-wife Robin Wright for not thanking her when he won last year, while also chiding the Academy for not nominating her this year for The Private Lives of Pippa Lee. Sean, you might be best sticking to the script.

-I liked that most of the Best Picture clips were presented by people who had an association with the filmmaker – Keanu Reeves, for example, saluting The Hurt Locker, which was helmed by his Point Break director Kathryn Bigelow (that’s right, the director of Point Break won an Oscar!), or Jeff “The Dude” Bridges introducing the Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man, etc. And it was kind of cool to have them do it on a raised platform in the middle of the auditorium, rather than on the main stage.

Being a fan of beautiful women, I’m as interested in the parade of dresses as any Sex and the City fan. I was largely underwhelmed by this year’s crop, but that’s not to say the ladies themselves weren’t looking good, so a shout-out to this year’s MVP’s: Penelope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, Tina Fey, Carey Mulligan, Zoe Saldana, Charlize Theron, Kristen Stewart, Demi Moore (still hot), Michelle Pfeiffer (also still hot, and really needing to make more movies), George Clooney’s date and of course, God love her, Kate Winslet.

The switch to 10 Best Picture nominees was not the only big change the Academy instituted this year. In the past, honorary Oscars for lifetime achievement and such have been given out during the ceremony like any other, but this year a special, private ceremony was held to recognize those artists. I’m disappointed about this, since I enjoy seeing these presentations as much as any other, and I like that they get the high profile recognition that comes with appearing in the broadcast. On the other hand though, rather than having to be be squeezed into a 5-10 minute slot amidst the three-hour telecast, they can be feted more intimately and more time can be devoted to celebrating their careers. This year’s honorees were Lauren Bacall; Roger Corman, the king of low-budget B-movies, who launched the careers of Jack Nicholson, Ron Howard, Francis Ford Coppola, James Cameron and many others; and Gordon Willis, whose extraordinary cinematography was seen in such films as The Godfather trilogy, All The President’s Men and each of Woody Allen’s movies from Annie Hall to The Purple Rose of Cairo. The Irving G. Thalberg Award, which is given to producers with a lasting body of work, was presented to John Calley, whose credits include The Cincinnati Kid, Postcards from the Edge, The Remains of the Day and Closer. If you’re like me and like to see these presentations, click here for video clips, photos and more.

As usual, the Oscars tend to cast a shadow over the other award show that always takes place the same weekend, The Independent Spirit Awards. It’s always a fun show – certainly more casual and looser than the Oscars, and always good for some quality laughs. One of the things I always like about the Spirit Awards is that there’s a palpable sense of community. At the Oscars, the camera often catches stars in the front row looking bored or not bothering to applaud while the winner in a “lesser” category is heading to the stage or delivering a speech. The stars are just as big at the Spirit Awards, but the atmosphere feels much more embracing. Winners aren’t played off stage after 45 seconds, but are allowed to say what they want, as long as it takes. Once again I’m sure I’m in the minority here, but I like that.

Precious was the big winner, taking Best Feature, Director, Actress, Supporting Actress and First Screenplay. Jeff Bridges also won, and as he finished his speech, he held the award up to his wife and told her it was really gonna tie the room together. Nice, Dude. Very nice.

Ben Stiller was on hand as well, and once again was a highlight of the ceremony as he presented Best Feature…

And so another award season comes to and end. Though later than I would have hoped, I’m putting together a list of the movies I’m most looking forward to this year, so we’ll see how many of them show up in next year’s Oscar race. Now then…I think I have a Lost write-up to go work on. Farewell, sweet Kate.

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