Photo: Bob D'Amico / ABC & AMPAS © 2011
The Oscars brain-trust supposedly went for a fresher, younger feel by tapping James Franco and Anne Hathaway to host the 83rd annual ceremony. So naturally the big hits in the Kodak Theatre on Sunday night included 62-year-old repeat emcee Billy Crystal, a frisky but stroke-impaired 94-year-old Kirk Douglas, 73-year-old Original Screenplay winner David Seidler, the 1953 avatar of the late Bob Hope, and James Franco's grandmother.
James Franco's Grandmother is my new band name, by the way.
I should warn you that I'm running a low-grade fever and feeling fuzzy-headed from an ongoing bout of bronchitis. Late, loopy, and lacking narrative though it might be, however, I can't help but offer my commentary on this year's Academy Awards. We'll start at the end, come around to go through the night more-or-less chronologically and increasingly haphazardly, then end back at the end.
A number of critics of the telecast called out the decision to have the final Best Picture montage unspool to the sounds of the climactic "King's speech" from The King's Speech, as if that revealed an inappropriate bias or presumption that the film would win. Yet I didn't see anyone complain that setting the opening montage to Swan Lake gave improper exposure to Black Swan. I take the point, but much stranger to me was how almost willfully spoiler-unconscious that final montage was; then again, maybe the plot revelations were only apparent if you were already familiar with the films.
Spoiler Unconscious is my new band name.
I'm not 100% sure on this, but I think that the gimmick of inserting the host(s) into scenes from the year's nominees (and other films) began with Crystal. Part of me feels like he should be allowed to own it — even if the concept actually originated with perennial Oscar writers like Bruce Vilanch — but the barn door is clearly open, with the Emmys and other venues having appropriated it as well, and I can't deny that it's a high point of the show. Not only was this year no exception to that truism, I dare say that it might have been the hosts' finest bit.
Tom Kane was the evening's announcer. If his mischievously stentorian voice sounds familiar, you may have heard him as Professor Utonium on The Powerpuff Girls or in any number of other animated series, videogames, and commercials.
It was a night for Toms, as Tom Hanks presented the first award, Tom Hooper won Best Director, and Tom Mankiewicz showed up to my surprise in the "In Memoriam" segment (on which more in a later post). Hanks was saddled with the first of many belabored introductions as Gone with the Wind was celebrated on the screens adorning the stage — quite randomly, at first blush.
"Oh," I said to myself when the explanation finally caught up to the exhibition, followed immediately by, "If these preambles are a running thing, it's gonna be a long night."
And it was.
Have you ever noticed how awkward many film and television actors are when presenting (or accepting) on awards shows? They're not used to using teleprompters or even microphone stands, let alone speaking as themselves.
Which begs the question of why the powers-that-be would choose Anne Hathaway and James Franco as hosts of the Oscars telecast. Most of the actors who've hosted in the past (and probably all of those who've hosted to general acclaim) relied on stand-up or sketch experience that not every actor has, from Bob Hope back in the day to Billy Crystal, Whoopi Goldberg, and Steve Martin more recently; Hugh Jackman had already proven himself by hosting the Tonys, a gamble that in turn was likely taken based on his breaking the fourth wall during the stage show The Boy from Oz, and frankly even Alec Baldwin, who's a favorite on Saturday Night Live, came across as a bit stiff hosting with Martin last year. David Letterman, Ellen DeGeneres, and Jon Stewart may not scream "Hollywood" or "middle America" to the Academy — there really was only one Johnny Carson — but they do know how live (or at least live-to-tape) variety television works, how to gauge the mood of a room, vamp, milk a joke, and otherwise think on their feet.
I vote for taking another chance on DeGeneres, who can bring the snark but whose largely aw-shucks, unironic demeanor stands in contrast to the likes of Letterman, Stewart, and Conan O'Brien. Tina Fey would also be a great choice, perhaps with a more "establishment" straight man (no DeGeneres pun intended) like Tom Hanks. And Robert Downey Jr., Fey's co-presenter from 2010, would likely be a must-watch wild card if he'd actually do it.
Sure, Hathaway was quite game — and displayed impressive pipes — a couple of years ago when she joined Jackman for a skit. I wouldn't have minded seeing her host with Jackman, whose combination of genuine humility and showmanship might have tempered her sometimes exaggerated eagerness. While it seems impolitic if not outright churlish to charge Hathaway with insincerity, I think that her veneer of pluck took on a perhaps unfairly superficial spin in contrast with Franco's increasingly shut-in, bemused demeanor as the night wore on. Franco has made headlines (and fun of himself, including on SNL) for mixing up his varied film roles of late with a short-story collection, graduate-school work, and a self-referential stint on General Hospital, so he clearly has a work ethic and willingness to experiment, but he also has a reputation for coming across as stoned; on balance, I have to say that this ledger does not necessarily add up to hosting the Oscars. As someone who enjoys the pomp and spectacle of the evening, I was almost offended by Franco treating his participation as performance art, capturing video for running Internet commentary and otherwise spending most of his time onstage as a spectator — although all would have been forgiven had he turned out to be Banksy.
Outright Churlish is my new band name.
Justin Timberlake's declaration "I'm Banksy" was funny, speaking of the guerilla graffitist, as was his ad lib of "Y'know..." in reference to Kirk Douglas's schtick. In fact, Timberlake's a singer/dancer/actor with experience in front of live crowds whose charm might well have trumped any cries of demographic-chasing cynicism that accompanied his selection as co-host. But I despaired that most viewers would have no f---ing idea who Banksy was.
Which brings us to Douglas, Melissa Leo, and the so-called "F-bomb". I don't know how much of the venerable Douglas's loose-cannon routine was sketched in beforehand, and I have to give Leo the benefit of the doubt on her flying "f---" being spontaneous, but I do know these three things:
I generally enjoyed Douglas milking his time ad absurdum until Leo joined in.
I'm really sick of the coinage "F-bomb". While "f---" is decidedly crude and can still be used to coarsely (often misogynistically) refer to sexual activity, it's also wildly prevalent in popular culture these days as what the FCC calls a fleeting expletive. Can we please just go back to referring to it as "the F-word"? The N-word and the C-word, those are still (deservedly) explosive, the linguistic equivalent of the A-bomb in most conversations; the F-word, even though it certainly has shock value and is to be withheld in polite company, not so much.
I know he was using it playfully with the usher earlier, but you still don't just take a man's cane away from him. My eyes almost literally bugged out of my head when that happened, and I suddenly had the most fervent hope that Amy Poehler will pop up on Weekend Update this Saturday to join Seth Meyers for a Melissa Leo edition of Really?!? That was, admittedly, before Charlie Sheen started granting TV interviews to extol his "winning" lifestyle, but one can pray for a double bill; Sheen, incidentally, would probably have introduced Douglas as Issur Danielovitch.
Issur Danielovitch is not my new band name, although The Issur Danielovitch Experience has promise should Fleeting Expletive ever get that klezmer side project off the ground. Fleeting Expletive is my new band name.
By all accounts Leo was excellent in The Fighter, as was her co-star and fellow nominee Amy Adams, but between the hubbub over Leo's odd for-your-consideration campaign and potential vote-splitting with Adams among Fighter admirers, it felt like Best Supporting Actress might go to Hailee Steinfeld for True Grit (on which more in another later post).
Last year a compilation of animated shorts that included the Oscar nominees came to my local art-house theater, The Bryn Mawr Film Institute, and I hope another such package is on its way. The only one of this year's nominees I've actually seen is Pixar's brilliant "Day and Night"; if the others are anywhere near as creative or delightful, which history suggests they are, everyone should make a point of searching them out.
Toy Story 3 won Best Animated Feature, entrenching Pixar's reign and once again making me at least half-wish they'd abolish the category. I have nothing against the Pixar domination per se, and it's great for a film like The Illusionist to get the exposure that an Oscar nomination brings — same with the entries for Documentary Feature and Foreign-Language Film that conceivably could be, yet in practice aren't, in the running for Best Picture — but I'd put Toy Story 3 up against The King's Speech any day, and I think that a Best Picture nomination for an animated film carries more weight if there's no "safety net" of a whole category for it to win.
I so wanted Aaron Sorkin to start delivering his acceptance speech for Best Adapted Screenplay during the tracking shot as he made his way to the stage.
"My father always said to me I'd be a late bloomer," from Best Original Screenplay winner David Seidler, was one of the loveliest lines of the night.
I was expecting Hathaway to sing at some point, but without Jackman actually participating or the bit parodying a popular song, it was just sort-of there, like so much else of the show, talented as she is.
Does anyone else realize that Franco provided a presumably unintentional visual metaphor for the evening by appearing in drag?
Unintentional Visual Metaphor is my new band name.
You never bet against Rick Baker for Best Makeup.
The Auto-Tune video was fun, largely because there was a foundation of humor beyond the use of Auto-Tune — "He Doesn't Own a Shirt" is funny even to somebody like me who's never seen more of any Twilight film than a couple of promotional clips (including this one).
Sunday night could have used more such comedy packages or just some good old-fashioned themed montages. Did they really totally forego the use of clip reels outside of those elaborate video/stage-design setups to remind people Titanic Was a Popular Movie That Existed? I can't remember an Oscars telecast without a mid-show montage honoring something, be it a particular anniversary or memorable screen kisses or thrillers or whatever, and even an homage to silent films would have seemed hipper than the actual, palpable silence that accompanied those transitions, no matter how state-of-the-art the trumped-up dioramas might have been.
More precious moments that I'll never get back and that the show can't afford to spend were wasted as Oprah Winfrey strode to the mike slowly from way too deep upstage.
And speaking of upstage, Billy Crystal got a standing ovation from a crowd apparently yearning for even a hint of the days when hosts knew what they were doing. There must have been even more flop sweat evident in the theater than at home for that to happen.
If I didn't know better — and, of course, I actually don't — I'd think that the producers cannily slotted Crystal in as a litmus test to gauge audience, critic, and popular reaction in case this year's experiment bombed. As I wrote (in free verse, no less) a couple of years ago, Crystal is still the standard-bearer. He's hosted eight times since 1990, and next year it'll be eight years since the last in 2004, so I wouldn't be surprised to see him retake the reins in 2012. Superhero-film frenzy, Presidential election, the purported end of the world... That's juicy material for whomever does get the gig, and those are just the known knowns with a year to go.
The Bob Hope hologram was mostly cool until they rather tackily used him to introduce the next presenters — via the voice of SCTV alum Dave Thomas, according to the end credits.
Can you imagine being nominated for an Oscar so often that you only win one out of ten times, yet you've still won twice? I admit that some of his stuff tends to blur together and sound kind-of the same, to the point where it's ripe for an SNL parody if one hasn't already been done, but obviously Randy Newman knows his craft. And there was a great song in Toy Story 3 in the form of the Spanish version of "You've Got a Friend in Me" (performed by The Gipsy Kings); it probably wasn't eligible since the only changes to the original were a translation of the lyrics and an awesome new arrangement.
Oh, Celine Dion... While your heart goes on, so does my mute button.
Even though I wasn't as smitten with Black Swan as many critics were, as I said a month ago, I was thrilled to see the deserving Natalie Portman get the statue for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role. And I really wanted to focus on what she had to say, but her earrings kept flailing around like a bungee jumper rebounding from free-fall.
I had a tingling suspicion that The Social Network's David Fincher might take Best Director over The King's Speech's Tom Hooper, and even that Network might overtake Speech for Best Picture, but it was not to be. Clearly all this stagnant mucus is making it hard to distinguish cosmic signals from wishful thinking and the chills.
All This Stagnant Mucus is the new album from my band, Tingling Suspicion, soon to tour with special guests Cosmic Signals, Wishful Thinking, and The Chills.
We got a really lovely ending to the show, at least. I've always hated how abruptly the Oscars telecast finished, with the winners of the ostensibly most prestigious award often being unceremoniously played off and the hosts mustering a quick farewell. Never mind that producers tend to be unglamorous, inarticulate moneymen; it still doesn't seem fair for the director of the telecast to cut them short when they're the last folks onstage purely because their award is the culmination of the entire evening. Having the night's winners enter for final applause as a children's choir sang "Over the Rainbow" was a very nice touch. The kids were more than all right; the show as a whole, not so much.