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


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.


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?


Why The Oscars Do Not Matter, or: A Look Back at 1975


Voting has closed.  Price-Waterhouse is counting the ballots.  On Sunday night, we will find out who won the 86th annual Academy Awards.  On Monday, most people will forget who won, except for the people who make it their business to never forget (Harvey Weinstein, I’m looking at you.)  And given the hurt feelings, rivalries, and “How-the-fuck-could-they-ignore-XYZ-but-award-ABC” reactions that will become inevitable over time, I need to remind you guys of something really important:


That’s right.  You heard me.  I, the person who in fifth grade memorized every winner in just about all the major categories, am here to remind you all that these awards do not matter.  Sure, they matter in that it’s fun, and that getting them means you’ll be king/queen for a day, and you have a beautifully designed trophy to put on your mantle.  But seriously, whether or not the person you love, or the movie you love, wins or doesn’t win an Oscar, is vastly unimportant in the grand scheme of things.  In order to demonstrate why, I have to borrow from William Goldman’s essays in Adventures in the Screen Trade, so forgive me if this essay sounds like his voice and not mine.

All right, flash back.  The year is 1976.  You have a ballot in front of you for the 1975 Oscars.  There are only five nominees for Best Picture at this time in history.  If you had to choose between these five for the best of the year, which would you choose?

The Man Who Would Be King

Night Moves


The Sunshine Boys

Three Days of the Condor

If you haven’t seen these five films, you should: they are all terrific.  The Man Who Would Be King paired Sean Connery and Michael Caine with director John Huston in one of the most entertaining adventure films ever made; Night Moves is a thriller filled with existential dread; Shampoo, a modern rewrite of the restoration comedy The Country Wife is an underrated gem; The Sunshine Boys is without a doubt the most quoted movie in my family, except for maybe Tootsie; and Three Days of the Condor is one of the best 70s conspiracy films.

So which one of these films won the Academy Award?  The answer: none of them.  That’s right, none of these movies won, because none of them were nominated.  See how much tougher the competition was when you could only have five nominees?  Also, since these movies were left out, it can only mean one thing: 1975 was a really great year.  This can’t be denied when you look at the movies that were nominated:

Barry Lyndon

Dog Day Afternoon



One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Chances are, your memory doesn’t need refreshing on any of these films: on any shortlist of the best movies of the 70s, at least two of them would make the cut, maybe three.  How do you decide?

Cuckoo's Nest 1

In 1975, the majority of voters went for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, making it the second film to sweep the “Big Five” awards (Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Screenplay.)  At this point in time, we were midway through the American new wave, and it was starting to wind down.  The next year, Rocky would win over Network, All the President’s Men and Taxi Driver, a controversial victory to be sure, but not an unexpected one.  If you look at the five films from 1975, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is the most hopeful.  Sure, the film ends with a suicide and a mercy killing, but it’s hard not to feel uplifted by the finale, which is undeniably moving.  The previous year, the Best Picture Oscar had gone to The Godfather Part II, no doubt a tragic film, but three of the other nominees were infected with the same pessimism: Chinatown, The Conversation and Lenny (the fifth, Irwin Allen’s disaster epic The Towering Inferno, is pessimistic about ignoring fire codes, but not much else.)

Why did One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest win?  It had been two years since Nixon’s resignation, and the country was beginning to feel better about itself.  Jimmy Carter would be elected President that year, and he began his campaign as the darkest of dark horses.  When the chips were down, people voted for the optimistic film, and that wave of hope swept into 1976, when Rocky beat the decidedly more cynical Network and Taxi Driver.  So it makes sense that Cuckoo’s Nest would have taken the top slot.


Now let’s flash forward to the 1980s.  There’s a recession, Reagan’s leaving the White House, things are decidedly not better for the country.  The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting left behind.  Of the five nominees, I think Barry Lyndon would have had the best shot at winning.  My favorite of Kubrick’s films, it’s an epic study of one man who rises to the very top only to be brought down by his own hubris.  The story is traditional, and Redmond Barry, the film’s protagonist, has little to no redeeming qualities, but Kubrick holds you spellbound by the skill of his art and the wryness of its comedy (See it with an audience, as I did recently, and you’ll hear tons of laughs that you may not get from watching it on even the nicest TV.)  So Barry Lyndon might take it all.


Does that mean it would have won in the nineties?  Probably not.  With the rise of media circuses surrounding the Menendez brothers, the OJ chase and trial, and the dominance of the 24-hour-news cycle, Dog Day Afternoon probably would win, and it would deserve to, because not only would the context of the time support its victory, it is a powerhouse of great writing and acting, containing probably my favorite Al Pacino performance.


A victory for Dog Day probably wouldn’t be supported by the climate of the 2000s, with the rise of the internet, Napster, and YouTube.  Given the way the music industry changed so dramatically in those years, I wouldn’t be surprised if Robert Altman’s Nashville took it all, and again, it’s a great movie and would deserve everything it won (I highly recommend getting your hands on the new Criterion DVD of it.)


And today, with the changing landscape of big-budget entertainment, and the fact that almost all the nominated movies this year seem to be about survival, in one form or another, I think Jaws would win.  And do I really need to remind you how awesome Jaws is?  In fact, Gravity winning this year would totally make up for Jaws losing nearly forty years ago.

The point I’m trying to make is simple: while the context of the time would affect which of the five 1975 nominees would win Best Picture, merely losing an Oscar to another film does not diminish that movie’s stature.  Sometimes, it increases it:  Citizen Kane will forever be the movie that lost to How Green Was My Valley in 1941, probably the most-cited case of an Oscar upset.  But I want to discourage you from this kind of thinking, which diminishes the movies that win to increase the status of those that don’t.  How Green Was My Valley shouldn’t be thought of as just “the movie that beat Citizen Kane,” instead it should be remembered as a great and moving film, and one that, if the two films were voted on today, would still probably win again.

Yes, we all have our problems when it seems to us that something was more deserving than another film.  Sometimes we’re right and sometimes we’re wrong.  But this is all just mindless fun, and it shouldn’t be taken too seriously by any of us, lest we should start being condescending towards other people for not sharing our taste.  Robert Altman said it best, when he was nominated for Best Director one year: “I’m not even in the same business as these guys.”  He didn’t say it out of malice, rather, he meant that when you’re up against five guys who do completely different work from you, how can you judge who’s best?  The answer is simple: you can’t.  So when you turn on your TVs Sunday night to see who won, I urge all of you to take a step back from the whole thing, and just relax.

P.S. I know, I know, “How could you vote for How Green Was My Valley?”  I didn’t say I would.  I said the Academy would.

P.P.S. What movie would I have voted for of the five 1975 nominees?  Honestly, I’d leave my ballot blank.  Seriously, how am I supposed to pick?  I love all five!