What was that?
The 85th Academy Awards -- I know the producers opted to just call it “The Oscars,” but it really was the 85th Academy Awards -- ended an unusual awards season with an unusual show.
Seth MacFarlane’s entire opening centered on how bad a host he might prove to be, hardly the most promising stance from which to proceed. He got Tommy Lee Jones to laugh with his first joke of the night -- “And the quest to make Tommy Lee Jones laugh begins now” -- and then acted as if he were determined that Tommy Lee should never laugh again.
There were big musical numbers from decade-old musicals, and a Barbra Streisand performance that turned the second half of the In Memoriam tribute into a salute to one person, Marvin Hamlisch.
The voters, meanwhile, showed that a revamped Oscar voting schedule didn’t really have any effect on their choices; for the most part, they still picked what the guild wins suggested they would pick.
From what I hear, the show played well in the room, but it in many ways it was a puzzler onscreen. Here are some of the questions that still hang in the air, and that were being asked out loud as soon as the show ended on Sunday night (or Monday morning, depending on your time zone):
1. What was up with all the “Chicago” love?
As Tim Molloy noted in his review of the show, producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron also produced the 2002 Best Picture winner, “Chicago.” (Neither of them got an Oscar for it, though; that went to Martin Richards.) They made that musical the jumping-off point for a tribute to the last decade of movie musicals, even though its inclusion makes that an 11-year decade. And then, later in the night, they brought back the cast of “Chicago” to present the two music awards.
Also read: Oscars Review: Guys, It's Not About You
Lots of other significant things happened at the Oscars in 2003 (a war that caused the red carpet to be canceled, Michael Moore’s speech, Adrien Brody and Halle Berry), and the show didn’t commemorate them. When I interviewed Zadan and Meron last week, they admitted being disappointed that their film had won at a scaled-down Oscar show: “It was somewhat bittersweet going there with such a great movie and then not getting the full Oscar treatment,” said Meron.
But giving your 10-year-old movie “the full Oscar treatment” is perhaps not an appropriate way to make up for a perceived slight.
2. Why would you turn being played off by music -- a humiliating experience to begin with - into a joke?
One of the most cringe-worthy moments on the show came when Bill Westenhofer, the head of the visual effects team on “Life of Pi,” won an Oscar and began to talk about the work of the Rhythm & Hues effects house, which has declared bankruptcy.
The orchestra played off Westenhofer -- not with the usual subtle music that slowly gets louder, but with the menacing theme from “Jaws.”
It’s bad enough that they played off Westerhofer exactly at the 45-second mark, when many other winners went longer than that -- but to turn the play-off into a joke by using the “Jaws” theme went beyond disrespectful into inexcusable.
The music should be a gentle reminder to wrap up the speech, and if the winner keeps talking, then it’s fine to turn it into a more forceful reminder. It should never add insult to injury the way this musical choice did.
(As Micah Mahjoubian asked on Twitter, if Steven Spielberg had won Best Director and spoken too long, would they have played him off with the “Jaws” theme, too?)
What’s even stranger is that the official Oscars blog, on the pages devoted to video clips of “Oscar highlights,” included a clip titled “The visual effects artists behind LIFE OF PI win an Oscar and have their acceptance speech curtailed.”
That’s something they ought to be apologizing for, not calling a “highlight.”
Later in the evening, the orchestra began playing the “Gone With the Wind” theme to get Quentin Tarantino to wrap up. Obviously the music was intended to point up the connection between two slavery-era films, “GWTW” and Tarantino’s “Django Unchained,” but the purpose of play-off music is to say “please wrap up,” not “look how clever we’re being with our musical choices.”
3.Does subpar material stop being subpar if you admit that it’s subpar?
Boy, it’s a good thing that MacFarlane didn’t really perform that “We See Your Boobs” number on the show, because that would have been dumb and insulting and sexist.
But by placing that number in the context of William Shatner’s Captain Kirk talking to MacFarlane from the future and telling him what not to do on the show, it turns a bad Oscar number into a parody of a bad Oscar number, right?
Wrong. He may have been commenting on it as he was showing it, but MacFarlane still did it on the Oscars. And he also did a baffling sock-puppet take on “Flight.”
And those things took up the same amount of time on the show even if they were supposed to be from some alternative future that MacFarlane was being warned against.
Getting all meta on the Oscar show is not an acceptable excuse for bad material.
4. Is it wise to let things run long?
Gil Cates, who produced 14 Oscar shows and received more than his share of negative reviews, used to have a rule: Keep every element of the show to three minutes or less, because even if it’s bad it’ll be over quickly.
Zadan and Meron obviously didn’t heed that advice. MacFarlane’s opening went on for 17 minutes, a Billy Crystal-esque stretch of time without Crystal’s lightness. The tribute to three movie musicals took 10. The James Bond tribute took six, even though they put Adele’s Bond song in a different part of the show.
Barbra Streisand’s much-hyped first Oscar performance in 36 years turned out to be what most people had guessed it would be -- a breathy rendition of “The Way We Were” to go along with the In Memoriam segment and pay tribute to the late songwriter Marvin Hamlisch. But by adding it to the end of the memoriam rather than incorporating it into that segment, it stretched the “I see dead people” part of the show to new lengths and made Hamlisch seem as if the Academy thought he was as important as all the other deceased people combined.
The result was a show that ran three hours and 35 minutes, but felt like four hours plus.
5. If you’re going to say your show is a tribute to the music of the movies, shouldn’t you show some respect to the music that was nominated?
Five songs were nominated for Oscars this year. One of them, “Skyfall,” received a big buildup and a full four-minute treatment from Adele.
Another, “Everybody Needs a Best Friend,” got a slightly truncated rendition from Norah Jones that lasted less than two minutes.
A third, “Suddenly,” opened the “Les Miserables” medley – and while Hugh Jackman only sang about 40 seconds of it before Anne Hathaway entered and started a different song, it did kick off one of the show’s big musical showpieces.
But the final two nominees, which Zadan and Meron had promised would be represented on the show, were simply heard in truncated versions in film clips rather than performances.
And it felt disrespectful that on a night that was supposed to be devoted to music, more time was spent on the music of the past – whether it was the songs from “Chicago” or Seth MacFarlane’s perfectly respectable but not terribly interesting versions of pop standards – than the music that brought nominees Mychael Danna and J. Ralph to the Dolby Theatre.
Plenty of other questions could be asked as well:
Did they really think people would enjoy it if they refashioned Frank Sinatra’s “Here’s to the Losers” as a show-closing hymn to the people in the audience who didn’t win? Why did they have to give a shout-out to the sponsors before singing that song? Why leave Andy Griffith out of the In Memoriam segment?
And maybe one of the questions should be, “Aren’t you just nitpicking about a show that featured a new take on the job of Oscar host, and some wonderful performances from Shirley Bassey and Adele, and an historic appearance from Barbra Streisand?”
But I don’t think it’s nitpicking. I think it’s an attempt to find an answer to the bigger question, which I asked at the beginning of this piece:
What was that?