Oi, vay. Where to begin?
Every year the Oscars are painfully bad and every year I tell myself I am not going to watch them ever again and every year I tune back in. Last year’s Academy Awards were absolutely dreadful, which was a step up from the abysmal year where Anne Hathaway lip-synched for her life and drug around the hunk of dead weight known as James Franco for three plus, mind-numbing hours. I didn’t think the Oscars could ever get worse. But they did.
Having seen a very small handful of films this year, I’m not concerned with who won and who lost (although I’m glad Tarantino got his due. Seriously. The best writer in cinema today). No. When I say that the Oscars were awful I am talking about the television show where they hand out awards, tell cheesy jokes, and bore us with a slideshow of dead people, scored by a maudlin tune and smatterings of applause.
The Oscars, as we know them, are meant to symbolize greatness in cinema, the best of the year, the cream of the crop. To the winners and nominees, the Oscars symbolize bigger paychecks, more clout, and longer careers. But to the Academy, and specifically to their Treasurer, the Oscars are about one thing: money. And I’m not just talking about box office receipts for the studio heads. ABC, who has broadcast the Academy Awards since 1960, receives roughly 75 million in advertising for the Oscars, half of which goes to The Academy; The Oscars are essentially a fundraiser for the Academy’s other works like preserving film and education. This is why every effort is made to make it an interesting television show because more viewers means ABC can charge more the next year for ad space, which means more money in the pocket of The Academy.
But every year, it is still a terrible mess of a show, occasionally blessed with dynamite television moments like Woody Allen’s standing ovation and Halle Berry’s speech.
So what went wrong this year? Plenty.
Early in the evening, tossed off like a throwaway aside, Seth told us that this year’s “theme” was “Music in Film.” OK. Fine. You want to have a theme, Mr. Zadan. Fine. Even though themes don’t generally work at an evening like this; remember last year’s awful “Tribute to Comedy”? Eesh. But if you are going to do a theme, Mr. Meron, structure the whole program around it. That’s what a theme is. And this doesn’t just mean using old scores as interstitials (particularly the awkwardly tacky Jaws theme when speeches go too long), having an insanely cute trio of movie stars attempt to dance (not you, Channing; you and Charlize KILLED IT), or pimping your own Oscar winning musical (honestly, how many times were there references to Chicago!).
This means cohesion, this means rehearsal, and this means talent. If you need a visual aid, YouTube the year Bill Condon – you know, your Oscar nominated screenwriter on Chicago – produced the Oscars. This was the best Oscar show I have ever seen in my 15 years of suffering through the telecasts.
The Opening Monologue:
They almost got it right.
Seth – as we learn quite quickly – is not a stand up comedian. He is a comic actor. So standing up and delivering a litany of corny jokes (particularly without the assistance of Bruce Vilanch; I never thought I would long for the Catskills more…) was definitely out. And the idea of bringing in Cpt. Kirk/Shatner was fitting. Anyone familiar with McFarlane’s Universe knows that he is a Star Trek afficianado. The problem is that this was built in as a defense mechanism. He basically told us, “Everyone thinks I am going to suck as a host. Even I think I am going to suck as a host. So I am going to apologize for it now.” Wrong. In comedy, there are NO APOLOGIES! You go balls out. If they dig it, they dig it. If not, you can go back to your billion dollar empire. Instead, we got this half-assed hem-haw, desperately trying to find the tone of the evening (the requisite mock/respect of all successful hosts) that would allude him.
Year after year, this is the one that always baffles me. Theoretically, you have any writer you could ever want at your disposal. And what we always get are descriptions of categories and skills so dull that reading the phone book would be more interesting. Which brings me to…
The Oscars do a great job of getting star power (star power with projects to pimp or legends to secure) when it comes to booking presenters, which is more than can be said for other award shows (Really Grammys? Beyonce and Ellen Degeneres?). The names are the biggest in the business and some of the biggest in the world, most of them former Oscar winners/nominees themselves.
Then how come they can’t read a damn paragraph without sounding like a Guffman reject? Honestly. This is what you do FOR A LIVING. You have rehearsal for this shit. Your fans are watching. Your peers are watching. Your parents are watching. Put some effort into it. Or don’t agree to do it. And if it’s too complicated for the alloted time you have to rehearse, then it needs to be simplified or cut. What was the cast of The Avengers trying to do up there? Did they practice at all?
This is the one that cut me the most. Seth is a fantastic singer. Why was the opening number not a musical one, completely built around his skills? They could have rolled all the performers they had wanted to use into this five minute opener (in lieu of a monologue/sketch) – like they did mid-show with Hugh Jackman and Beyonce and Zac Efron, etc. This could have been filled with humor, sarcasm, and musical prowess. Why did we need to hear J.Hud sing “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going” or see Zeta-Jones mark through “All That Jazz”? Was this so “One Day More” didn’t stand out as a blatant We-Want-To-Hear-Them-All-Sing-Live-Like-They-Did-In-The-Movie bit? (Newsflash: We saw right through it).
Adele, one of my personal favorites in the game, sounded bored and lifeless; Shirley Bassey was absolutely painful; and Barbra…she…I…wow. Age has not been kind. The irony of her song choice was almost satirical.
The only musical performances I enjoyed were “The Boob Song” and “Here’s to the Losers”: an indication of what I think the show should have been.
The Sound Guy:
As if the singing wasn’t awful enough, why were the vocal mics turned way down? Did he know it would be dreadful and was trying to spare us?
I want to start by declaring Seth MacFarlane the Norman Lear of his generation. He is the best comic voice on television and it should go without saying that I think he is a Genius. So if one were looking for someone to bring the funny to a potentially boring television show (and bring the ratings), you really couldn’t go any higher than Seth MacFarlane.
The biggest problem with this is that Seth is not a stand-up comedian; a brilliant comic actor, yes, but not someone conducive to live performance. It was evident that Seth was reading his lines from a TelePrompTer. Of course, Billy, Whoopi, Steve, etc. read their lines from the TelePrompTer, but had the stage presence to carry it off as being casual and improvised. Seth was too rehearsed, which made him somewhat rigid. Except, ironically, the moments where he did improv due to the audience’s negative reaction. (The best of which was his “too soon?” slavery joke…)
I return again to the topic of tone. Previous Oscar telecasts have done a good/mediocre job of balancing the delicacies of making fun of the proceedings while honoring them. The tone of Seth’s gig, however, never found this balance. It was either “disrespectful” (read: funny) or stale (“respectful”). And where the hell was Stewie? We had Peter – oh, excuse me, Ted – but not Stewie!? Doesn’t ABC, the Academy, and the team of writers know why America loves him? Why would you hire Seth MacFarlane, a man who has made his fortune on making fun of pop culture in a junior high manner, and then strangle him on network television (owned by Disney, no less) to play nice in a mostly vanilla fashion? It would be like asking Joan Rivers to host and tell her not to yell at the audience.
What started as a great idea was an error in judgment and, yes, despite the bump in ratings, Amy Poehler and Tina Fey will host next year. And will be brilliant.
The Oscars don’t have to be boring. You got glamourous girls, hunky guys, beautiful music, and the most talented performers in the world. But no one seems to know how to get this shit together! While better men and women have tried and failed, Saia has a few tricks up his sleeve that can get the viewing audience to not secretly loathe themselves for sitting through this tripe out of obligation.
1) More Acting – The best part about this year’s telecast was the pre-recorded scene Seth did with Sally Field. How are you going to have an evening honoring acting (lets face it. These are the only awards anyone cares about…) and have to suffer through the stodgy readings of “The nominees are…” Here’s an idea. Instead of putting on a thousand press conferences and luncheons, get the acting nominees together in each category and write a scene for them to perform live on the show or to prerecord. Can you imagine the brilliant interactions, the once in a lifetime match ups, you could have? (What possible shenanigans could Quvenzhane and Emmanuel have gotten into…?)
2) Less Awards – I’m sure winning an Oscar for your Short is really exciting for you, but not for us who have to watch people we don’t know thank people we’ve never heard of after winning for films we haven’t seen. They should get their own night – not televised – like they do for the Governor’s Awards. Also, move the Tech Awards (Visual Effects, Sound Editing, Sound Effects, Art Direction, Costume, Hair/Make-up, Editing, Cinematography) to the Scientific and Technical Awards ceremony, which occurs the week before. The winners at these awards are announced already at the Oscars and the recipients get their moment on stage for a round of applause. Just add the winners from all the above categories and call it a day. This would easily shave an hour from the broadcast.
3) Less Music/Dance – I can’t believe a musical theatre nerd is saying to have less music and dance, but let’s face it. The dances are mostly crap and the songs are always a deathmarch of friggin’ dirges sung by people way past their primes. If you are going to have theatrics, make them theatrical. And make them count.
4) Reinstate the Lifetime Achievement Awards – This is the most egregious mistake past producers have made in the interest of time. If anyone should be given five to ten minutes of tributes, video packages, and speeches, it is people who have dedicated their lives to the art of making movies. These are the people we want to hear talk, not the host as he goes through some bit about the length of the show or the President of the Academy telling us what the Academy does. We’ve got Google. We can look that shit up on our own time.
5) Reinstate the Winners Circle – The best thing about the best Oscar telecast was that five previous winners came out to honor the five nominees in each category with compliments and support. It was like they were inviting them to join their club. It felt familial. Plus, you could tell that the actors were speaking from their hearts out of respect, which is what the evening is ostensibly about: congratulating peers. With the time we are saving on cutting the other awards, this would not need to be rushed.
6) Cut the In Memoriam – If someone incredibly famous dies – a Liz Taylor, a Jack Nicholson – an acknowledgment is warranted. But do we really need a slide show – mostly of people that no one, not even this cineaste, knows – to commemorate the dead? Does seeing their picture give us some kind of closure? No, it doesn’t. And it takes up four minutes.
7) Change the format of giving speeches – Many a producer has tried to get people to stick to the 45 second rule and demand that people don’t read a list of names (Gil Cates actually offered a brand new TV to the person who gave the shortest acceptance speech….), but of course it never works. This is their moment in the sun. And they want to thank the people they want to thank, Jaws music be damned. But instead of threats and bribes, the nominees should be given a form to fill out of all the people they would like to thank. In the event that they win, this list will then be scrolled along the bottom of the screen like CNN as they are telling an interesting anecdote about the making of the film or what playing this character meant to them (thank you Julian for this idea. Hopefully by the time you are ready to host, I am ready to produce).