March 9, 2011

In defense of this year's Oscars

In the wake of the 83rd Academy Awards, a disproportionately large wave of outrage and disgust swept the interwebs. Apparently, so many viewers felt utterly violated by the ineptitude of hosts Anne Hathaway and James Franco that the head of the Academy more or less issued an apology. In a hyperbolic Fox News poll, 57% of respondents said it was the worst Oscars ever. Was the show really that bad?

Of course it wasn't! In fact, I found it to be quite enjoyable and well done (especially compared to last year, with hosts Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin off their game and the sullen-looking stars of Twilight presenting a random horror movie montage). But the main problem with the Oscars these days is that it's locked in a standoff between the producers and the viewers.

The producers are bending over backwards trying to appeal to younger viewers, and in doing so are alienating and ignoring the older viewers who make up the majority of the audience. They're also constantly on the defense, hiring different creative personnel every year and trying to distance themselves from whatever came before. But then instead of actually trying to figure out what viewers want - reaching out to the public through focus groups, polls, what have you - they just come up with ideas in a vacuum and hope for the best.

The viewers, for their part, seem to approach the awards unwilling to like them. They refuse to like any host except for the all-stars of 20+ years ago. They say the hosts don't have enough good banter, but then they complain when the show gets too long. Maybe this seems cynical, but it reminds me of people who declare that "they don't make movies like they used to" but then shut out modern movies entirely and thus miss many that they would actually enjoy.

Basically, it's all a tangled mess of wrong moves and prejudices, so viewing the actual show objectively can be near impossible. However, if you can manage it, I think you'll be pleasantly surprised. Here's what I was digging this year:

- KIRK DOUGLAS! When they brought him out, I nearly plotzed. I don't care that he took forever - he's a 95-year-old legend who still puts moves on the ladies. They should have him host next year - the show will be 12 hours long, and AWESOME.

- Every year they spend millions of dollars on the set...and it ends up looking the same. It was great, then, to see them do something different (projecting different movie scenes and backgrounds onto the multi-layered arches).

- The Inception-based intro was seamless and hilarious.

- I had a good chuckle every time Hathaway blurted out "It's the young, hip Oscars!"

- And speaking of the hosts, yes, maybe they won't enter the hall of fame, but that's no reason to burn them at the stake. Hathaway was effervescent and charming as always, and Franco was...Franco. He wasn't high, he wasn't insane, he was just being James Franco. I'm not sure what the Academy thought they were getting when they hired him - you need only Google him for five minutes to find out about his, uh, "personality" - but I kind of enjoyed watching him have the last laugh by just being his kooky self.

- Whoa, it's Barack Obama! And he loves "As Times Goes By"!

- Presenting the awards in groups of two gave things a nice flow.

- I'll agree that the two-year experiment of having former winners say nice things about the nominees was a bit much, but I thought it was really nice to have one person dish out all the compliments. Having said that, I fully concede that it probably only worked because the presenters in question were the endlessly warm and lovable Sandra Bullock and Jeff Bridges. If the duty fell exclusively to, say, Sean Penn, that would just be terrifying.

- I'm glad they scrapped the little presentations of each Best Picture nominee. They're basically just trailers, which by Oscar night everyone's seen a hundred times already. And yeah, maybe John Doe somewhere doesn't yet know the plot and cast of The Kids Are All Right, but that doesn't mean that they have to take up broadcast time pandering to him. But I loved what they did instead, which was the...

- MEGA-MONTAGE! Having seen all the nominated films (and naturally, their trailers) already, it was neat to see the new life they took on when combined. Showing the differences, but mostly the similarities, shed a whole new light on the race. I hope they stick with this.

- Bringing out all the winners at the end was a nice touch.

Unfortunately, the things that really got me down this year were pretty important - namely, the winners of Best Director and Picture. Can somebody actually explain to me, in concrete, logical terms, why The King's Speech is a) the best picture of the year and b) a good movie at all? And you can't just say "it's inspiring," because if that's all that matters in filmmaking (and it isn't) 127 Hours or The Fighter should have won. Those films are EXPONENTIALLY more inspiring than a low-stakes story of a man overcoming an impediment that somewhat hinders but doesn't even remotely jeopardize his personal life or (token) career. Really, it could have been called "The King's Mild Inconvenience." On top of that, Tom Hooper's direction was actively bad. That's pretty difficult to achieve in a straightforward type of film like this one. Every frame was packed with unmotivated choices. Oh well, I'm sure history will have the last laugh when TKS is forgotten within a year.

And as a final, rather irreverent thought, I had been proposing ever since Colin Firth's win became inevitable that he conduct an Oscar swap with Jeff Bridges. It's like this: Firth's nominated performance last year in A Single Man was better than both Bridges in Crazy Heart and Firth himself in TKS. Bridges, on the other hand, won his Oscar for the tepid and uninteresting Crazy Heart but was incredible this year in True Grit. Basically, both men did great work but got Oscars for the wrong role - one too early and one too late. Usually the Academy has a displacement problem - they give Actor X the award the year Actor Y deserves it, Y the award the year Z deserves it, and so on - but this would be a simple, clean fix. Just sayin.

What did you think of this year's show?

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