The 81st Academy Awards suggested how, as an annual TV event, the Oscars could become extinct — and frankly, it doesn’t seem like such a bad idea.
And it wasn’t just that, from Hugh Jackman’s opening number, to the interminable tributes by past winners that preceded every acting award, to the shockingly bad production numbers, nothing — nothing — on this telecast worked.
The real problem was that the people who put together this year’s show ended up coming across as contemptuous of what they were doing. Parody can be the most loving of tributes. (That’s why Carol Burnett’s parodies of golden age Hollywood are considered affectionate and perceptive film criticism.) The Oscars have always kidded the nominated movies.
But it’s one thing for Billy Crystal to come out in a Dr. Lecter mask and joke his way through a parodic melody — it’s quite another to open with a number in which a movie about an assassinated gay politician is represented by a routine that looks like the campiest sort of gay bar theatrical.
Or to have clips from the nominated cinematographers reduced to fodder for Ben Stiller’s Joaquin Phoenix schtick. (Making fun of Phoenix’s intention to leave acting for rapping, Stiller said, "I just want to retire from being the funny guy." That happened already — right around the time of "Along Came Polly.")
Or to turn the year’s nominated dramas into material for James Franco and Seth Rogen’s stoner ridicule. Granted, the only thing you can do with a piece of scenery-chewing like Meryl Streep’s atrocious turn in "Doubt" is to laugh at it — for one thing, because it’s the kind of overacting that’s always a guaranteed nominee. But when the Academy doesn’t even have the integrity needed to stand behind its own taste, you wonder why you should bother giving it any attention.
That attitude couldn’t help but rub off on pretty much everything. The top-hat and tails production number used for the Best Song nominees was clearly an attempt to replicate the simple glamour of ’30s movie musicals. But it was so ineptly conceived and staged, it felt like the work of people who had no belief in that style to begin with.
Beyonce had the class to show up despite the fact that she should have been there as a nominee for "Cadillac Records," and seeing Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens sing a snippet from "High School Musical 3" was a relief. It was a reminder that, as that modest, enjoyable picture does, movies can still connect effortlessly with their intended audience without any ironic buffer.
We’d heard it was to be a scaled-down Oscars, and with Hugh Jackman standing very close to a more intimately configured audience, the setup suggested the style of ’60s TV variety shows. But his patter was so pat, his "just-kidding" delivery trying so hard to be ingratiating, that his likability came across as show-biz gladhanding. So did the endless lead-up to each of the acting awards, in which five past winners were called upon to praise the current year’s nominees.
There was a certain consonance in having Christopher Walken, our valedictory weirdo, address up-and-coming weirdo Michael Shannon. And Ben Kingsley addressing "the returning champ, Mickey Rourke," showed more class and better judgment than the voters. But along with the decision to treat each award as something like a sketch, this device slowed the show to a crawl.
No show is without its nice moments. I enjoyed Philippe Petit performing a coin trick for Werner Herzog. And the acting winners were all exceptionally gracious, with the predictable exception of Sean Penn. He had the taste to acknowledge that he had robbed Mickey Rourke, but Penn seemed to think he had won not for acting but for making an important stand for gay rights. In the eyes of the voters, he probably did.
What cut through all this, though, were the faces of the young cast of "Slumdog Millionaire" as it racked up win after win. It was, like the visage of Dev Patel as the film’s young hero, the unjaded look of people who believe themselves transplanted to Wonderland.
Which, I think, is also what Danny Boyle’s film makes its audience feel. It was a reminder that Hollywood lives — just maybe not, at this moment, in America.