The 86th Academy Awards, or, Tasteful to a Fault

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Seth MacFarlane will go down as one of the most inappropriate Oscar hosts of all time.  His tone-deaf schtick turned the ceremony into a three-and-a-half-hour episode of Family Guy, and I say this as someone who was a fan of his before he became associated with “We Saw Your Boobs,” the most notorious Oscar opening number since Rob Lowe danced with Snow White.

But admit that during last night’s ceremony, as Ellen trudged up the aisles to order pizza for the nominees, you wanted Seth MacFarlane to come back.  At last, you’d have something to actually bitch about on Twitter instead of the thousandth gay joke about John Travolta after he mangled Idina Menzel’s name.  180 degrees from sick is still sick, and that was the problem with the 86th Academy Awards last night: in an effort to purge themselves of last year’s debacle, they played it safe, tried and true.  As a result, I spent the show pretty bored by the majority of it.  The Academy may be honoring films made in the 21st century, but their attitude towards producing an awards show feels out of sync with the best ones today: the Emmys, Tonys, and Golden Globes.  Those three, for whatever their faults, have managed to be very entertaining these past few years, but the Academy cannot capture their tone.

I’m not going to blame Ellen for the tired, lackluster feel of last night’s show.  Blaming the host for the show’s problems is like killing the messenger.  The real problem that always hung over this year’s Oscars from the start was that Craig Zadan and Neil Meron were the producers.  I always associate the mess of last year’s ceremony with them, because their inability to recognize problems when they saw them (“We Saw Your Boobs”) and egocentric need to turn the show into a tribute to themselves (they produced Chicago, which was endlessly lionized by presenters)[1] sank the evening.  I don’t envy anyone who has to make a show about the big screen excited for sixty-inch TV sets; it’s much easier to produce the Emmys in that regard.  But Z/M tried so hard not to offend anybody that we got stuck with the usual, “noble” ideas that come off badly in execution, like “the year of the hero,” represented by – wait for it – clip packages!  Christ, I am so done with these things invading the Oscar ceremonies.  Even when you show clips that I don’t associate with clip packages (thank you for not showing Marlon Brando’s “I coulda been a contendah” speech for the zillionth time) they’re still the devil’s work.

As for the musical numbers, well, the Academy has a really spotty history with these (ROB LOWE!  SNOW WHITE!  “PROUD MARY!”  UNFORGIVABLE!) but there are ways to make them entertaining.  I thought Pharrell Williams brought exactly the right tone that the show needed, and lacked at the very beginning due to there not being an actual opening number.  He was young, the dancers were great, and he got the audience involved.  The best award show numbers do this: think of how great Jimmy Fallon was covering “Born to Run” on the Emmys four years ago, or Neil Patrick Harris’s Tony opening number a few years ago.  But Zadan/Meron don’t even appear to watch award shows, because their dated approach to the show’s songs only furthered the impression that the Academy is stuck in the past.  What is my generation supposed to get out of watching Bette Midler perform “Wind Beneath My Wings?”  We’ve never even seen Beaches, much less heard of it, and when it comes to in memoriam packages, I just want to see the names of the people and move on with it.  The last couple years in a row they’ve blown it by having pop stars come out and sing through it – so at least having Bette sing after the reel was the one positive thing I can say about that moment.

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As for the winners themselves, there’s a lot to be happy about, unless you’re David O. Russell.  I felt badly for the whole American Hustle team, who deserved better than they got, but in a strong year like this one, somebody was going to go home feeling that way.  I got 19/24 on my ballot, and had I predicted two more correctly, I would’ve had my best year ever, but I was more than happy to mismark it when Steve McQueen jumped up and down with the cast and producers of 12 Years a Slave, my favorite movie of 2013.  I had thought the Academy would finally overcome their aversion to sci-fi and all things digital by giving Best Picture to Gravity, but they still seem averse to the technology.  The tally between the two big winners of the night was the most lopsided since 1972, when Cabaret won 8 Oscars, including Best Director, and lost Best Picture to The Godfather, and like those two movies, I believe that Gravity and 12 Years a Slave are both going to be revered for years to come.

What’s more, the four acting winners redeemed many of the show’s faults with their gracious, and in one case, characteristically crazy, acceptance speeches.  Jared Leto got some flack at the Golden Globes for being tasteless, but last night, I felt he was eloquent and real: his shoutout to his mother was heartfelt in all the best ways.  Matthew McConaughey was…Matthew McConaughey. I mean, seriously, what did you expect?  For me, as goofy as the speech was, it reminded me that I watch the Oscar ceremony for those bizarre moments of spontaneity (and also the beautiful ones, like 20 Feet From Stardom’s Darlene Love taking the microphone.)  Cate Blanchett’s call to arms for the industry to make more films about women was extraordinary, and Lupita Nyong’o, the most openly emotional winner last night, didn’t let her tears give way to her ego, and gave the most moving speech of the night.  I saw her in a Q&A a couple of months ago, and was impressed by her poise and candor on that stage: the audience asked her questions as inane as, “why do you refer it to the soap scene and not the lashing scene?” (referring to the scene in the film where she is whipped by Michael Fassbender) and she said, simply, “I call it the soap scene because if I called it the lashing scene, I would cry.”

Final thoughts: in a close year like this one, I’m going to take up William Goldman’s frequent complaint about the Academy and ask that, at some point, maybe a year from now, maybe ten years, we need to know the votes.  I know, you like to operate with the guise that these things should remain confidential, but they really shouldn’t.  I think you owe it to us to know how members voted, so we can at least begin breaking down the demographics of how people vote, and bring about real institutional change within a group that is largely old, white men.

Enough.  The Oscars are done.  At last, we can get back to talking about movies.

PS Once the Oscars channel posts clips on YouTube, then I’ll include them here.


[1] Interesting tidbit about that: though Zadan/Meron are widely acknowledged to have been the on-set producers of Chicago, Martin Richards, who owned the property, was the only credited “producer” and the sole acceptee of the movie’s Best Picture Oscar.  For his decades-long effort to bring the project he nurtured in its Broadway run to the silver screen, he was not included in that year’s in memoriam package.  Coincidence?

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