I wasn't going to write about The 85th Annual Academy Awards.
Image ® & © 2013 AMPAS.
Really. Not outside of some comments on other blogs, anyway. And not because the producers tossed out the formal nomenclature and rebranded this year's show purely as "the Oscars". I'm not above a linguistic gotcha; this is simply not such a gotcha. I honestly expected to be too fatigued and just plain iffy about the telecast that I was happy thinking about not writing about it.
But last night's Oscars telecast, hosted by Seth MacFarlane, was so disappointing that I kind-of can't help myself.
I don't have much to say about the content of the show, which of course won't stop me from saying something as long as I'm here. My anticipated mixture of indifference and irritation was pretty much spot-on. It's that during the telecast I finally came to — hmm... not a realization or epiphany, exactly, more of a rubicon I suppose — a rubicon in terms of my relationship with the annual event. I found myself curiously indifferent about my irritation.
I hold forth on the larger issue(s) this got me musing upon in another post that I've spun out of this one, but here's the upshot: At the age of 42, I'm finally on board with criticizing the Oscars.
Please raise your hand if you just did a double-take. (Joke's on you. If I could see you raising your hand then I'd already have known you just did a double-take.) I'm well aware that criticizing the Oscars is practically a national pastime among anyone who follows movies or television or just the intersection of movies and television that is the Oscars. There are probably Internet memes devoted to cats criticizing the Oscars — "I Can Has Four Hourz of Life Back?". I've done the Monday-morning QB assessment myself on this blog the previous three years [click the Oscars label here or in the footer for all such related posts] and since my WiFi did miraculously cooperate I live-Twittered much of last night's show [jump to my archived Twits if you like].
So what's the deal? The deal is that the Oscars were until last night perhaps the final aspect of the pop-cultural landscape that due to its age, pattern, and tradition I accepted as a sort of received wisdom. If AMPAS chose the producers and the producers chose the host then we got the Oscars we were supposed to get. Even the infamous turn by Anne Hathaway and James Franco a couple of years back somehow did not break the event's hold on me — my frustration with that outing, Franco in particular, remained in the vein of respecting the office of the President while disagreeing vehemently with the officeholder.
I suspect that this persistent veneration of the Oscars has to do with watching it and other awards shows — the Emmys and the Grammys, although not the Golden Globes, which I hold in exactly the esteem it deserves as an open-bar dinner party to celebrate/roast Hollywood thrown by 100 of its closest journalists — in a largely unbroken streak since childhood. They were a family tradition. My sister and I would curl up in our mother's bed with her on such occasions, allowed to stay up until the last envelope was opened if we were able. I have no doubt that there were bum hosts and bad production choices and baffling wins back then, too, yet the whole affair was at once above and beneath such criticism, beyond reproach. It just was.
Last night's telecast just was, too, for the most part, but far less ineffable than "What the eff?!?" The very fact that I didn't just outright hate the show may be what broke its spell on me. For the opposite of love is not hate but indifference.
Seth MacFarlane's jokes were not all entirely unfunny. His delivery, though, like much of the rest of the show, was borderline unprofessional. Whether or not you're a fan of his kind of humor in general or his cottage industry of animated sitcoms in particular — and I've seen too little to say I'm pro or con, although it doesn't seem quite up my alley — I think it's fair to assess his duties as emcee last night on their own terms. He just was not ready for prime time, live, himself. There were barbs that made me laugh, but I still felt that they were too barbed for the venue and he was too obviously prepared with canned replies to the groans as well. The Oscars aren't the Golden Globes, and MacFarlane isn't Ricky Gervais or, frankly, even Jimmy Kimmel. For all that the Academy Awards are self-congratulatory, I think that you need the respect of the room to host the show; MacFarlane didn't even have its pulse.
Producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron were apparently more interested in touting their own work than the grand legacy of movie musicals. Old-fashioned dance numbers would have been better served by a nice montage, maybe interwoven with or as a backdrop for live performances on the Oscar stage, rather than further muddling the tone of MacFarlane's too-long opening routine. Shatner as Kirk was a fun gimmick, but the show had its cake and ate it too by airing would-be "scrapped" bits in their entirety — and, predictably from all that cake, got bloated. (How did we avoid a J.J. Abrams swipe from old Bill, by the way? MacFarlane: "I... expected you to look more like Chris Pine, Captain." Shatner: "That's the movies, son. This is the real future.") As for the montages we did get, well, James Bond's 50 years on film deserved better, although it's perhaps inevitable to be let down when whispers of a joint appearance by all six official 007s were, however spuriously, in the ether.
I don't know if the gods of cinema history and/or television production were angry or what, but the entire show felt like an unpromising dress rehearsal. The banter from the Avengers crew just laid there, but not unexpectedly; Robert Downey Jr. is typically too cool for the room and Samuel L. Jackson hasn't spoken dialogue convincingly onscreen in well over a decade. When Paul Rudd and Melissa McCarthy can't get a bit to work, though, that's when you know something's wrong. I couldn't believe how terrible the audio was on what should've been Adele's triumphant rendition of the theme from Skyfall. Just about the only sparkling moments in the telecast were the genuine, spontaneous ones, like Adele's, Jennifer Lawrence's, and Daniel Day-Lewis's acceptance speeches.
Argo should not have won Best Picture. Not over Lincoln and Zero Dark Thirty, nor even, although I'd hardly have expected such a choice from the Academy, Beasts of the Southern Wild. I almost didn't care by the time Michelle Obama opened the envelope, after an exchange with a life-size stuffed doll of Jack Nicholson, in a surprise appearance that I will concede to my conservative friends was entirely inappropriate — partly because of the ammunition it needlessly gives to Obama-haters whose knees jerk at every perceived cultural incursion by an Obama. Yet what I didn't tune out of Ben Affleck's speech really rubbed me the wrong way; I've been impressed by the films he's directed, including Argo, but a Best Picture Oscar was not the right way for his admirers to make up for a perceived snub among the Best Director nominations and it sure as heck wasn't the right setting for Affleck to give the speech he would've given for Best Director.
Perhaps my favorite commentary on the evening came, unintentionally, during the recap package that aired right after the big show on the