Chris Rock was funniest, because he chose a side
Brett Ratner got lucky.
It probably didn't seem that way in November, when he lost his gig producing the Oscars after a casually homophobic comment. But his stupidity saved him from having to perform the delicate dance the Oscars struggle more and more to perform each year.
To wit: Begging the people watching at home to go to the movies more, even as they celebrate films that don't appeal to many of them. It's a difficult task that comes down to finding the slim overlap of good and popular.
Sunday's show was awfully boring, in part because it strived so desperately to be popular when it should have just embraced good. It played it safe by rolling out the same old tributes to old movies, which only created the impression that Hollywood's best days are behind it.
The show made several attempts to educate and entertain at once. The least successful came when actors appeared in taped interviews doing what actors do worst: pontificating about the importance of their craft. (No one in the real world needs to hear Robert De Niro use the word "misery" again when describing moviemaking.)
But as bad as it was, it could have been much, much worse.
Ratner would have been a move toward appealing to the lowest common denominator. But there's no appealing to the lowest common denominator in a year when "The Artist" happened to dominate.
You can't remind people how much they love the movies by praising a movie most of them haven't seen.
Ratner was replaced by the very skilled Brian Grazer. If this was the best show Grazer could produce, you can imagine how poorly Ratner would have performed the delicate dance. Just look at the drop-off in quality from the second "X-Men" film to the one Ratner directed. Balancing acts aren't his thing.
But they shouldn't be anybody's thing. The funniest person at Sunday's ceremony was also the one who most decidely chose a side. Presenting in the animated categories, former Oscar host Chris Rock ridiculed the notion that voicing animated films is hard. He imitated himself being fed his lines and shouting them — and then collecting a million dollars.
Rock may not have captured the mood in the room, but he said what everyone in the home audience was thinking.
Billy Crystal, who gamely took on hosting duties when Eddie Murphy bailed out with Ratner, could have benefitted from a similarly strong point of view. His best joke came at the expense of the Republican presdential candidates, as he compared them to Christian Bale's menagerie of daffy and menacing characters.
But given his questionable decisions this year, maybe it was best that he stuck mostly to the middle of the road. A joke he probably thought was very safe — reviving his Sammy Davis Jr. imitation — set of a twitterstorm because he did it in blackface.
The night's best performance was by far the riskiest: Cirque du Soleil performed a riveting aerial number. It didn't even pretend to have a connection with this year's films, but there's no quibbling with people gutsy enough to do mid-air gymnastics.
One skit managed to celebrate Hollywood history while simultaneously celebrating artistic risk-taking. Christopher Guest's band of usual suspects imagined a 1939 test audience critiquing "The Wizard of Oz." The viewers agreed: Less Dorothy. Fred Willard wanted more monkeys.
The point of view, bluntly: Sometimes audiences are dumb.
And we are. But that doesn't mean moviemakers should cater to us. It means they should lead us into danger. (Preferably while acting humble about it, and never complaining about anything.)
As it stands, the industry prefers to listen to and even act on our stupid insights about more monkeys. Because it's in a tenuous position.
The same technology that has made it more appealing to stay home has made it less appealing to go to the movies. Screen creep has made televisions and phones increasingly valid options for watching films — and added ubiquitous cell phones to the list of moviegoing indignities. (Endless advertisements are also on the list, along with the talkers who have ruined movies since before talkies.)
Handing out the award for Best Picture, Tom Cruise had to keep a straight face as he praised "the shared experience of being in a theater with hundreds of other people."
Maybe the academy selected Cruise to deliver that line because his "Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol," was the rare movie that actually benefits from being seen with an audience. Your neighbors' gasps actually add to the soundtrack of its vertigo-inducing sequences.
But "Mission Impossible" isn't the kind of movie the academy celebrates in the major categories. Not most years, anyway.
Every Oscars, academy members have to choose between praising crowd-pleasers in the hopes that doing so might encourage more movie-going, or highlighting smaller, more challenging films they actually consider good.
Unfortunately for this year's show, this was one of those years the academy decided to go with good. While pretending good was also popular.
This isn't a criticism of "The Artist." It's just that an awful lot of people won't pay to watch a French-made film that's black and white and silent. Not for the same price as "Ghost Protocol."