Perhaps the reason we like to watch – and dish snark – over the Oscar television awards show is that most of the 6,000 odd (I use that term advisedly) members of The Academy are so unlike the rest of us. The big Sunday night show means we can all live for a few moments in a world of glitz and make believe – if three-plus hours of awards given mostly to people we’ll never see again followed by awkward speeches generally devoid of self-awareness can be characterized as “moments.” We are all Walter Mitty during the Oscars.
As Alessandra Stanley wrote in The New York Times this morning, “If the Super Bowl is a secular Christmas that everyone can celebrate, the Oscars are Easter: the dress-up parade and those long acceptance speeches are all part of the ritual. But some traditions, notably the Academy’s insistence on handing out technical awards early, are tiresome. It can start to feel like a high school graduation where diplomas are handed out alphabetically, and your child’s last name begins with Z.”
So, I admit I watched and if not actually enjoyed the annual spectacle I do recognize it for what it is – a snapshot of American culture played out in real (and reel) time on national television and, of course, Twitter. And, while host Ellen DeGeneres got the buzz for her “selfie” with half the audience, I think the best Tweet goes to the numbers geek Nate Silver who commented via Twitter: “Great product placement by #God.”
Here are my completely arbitrary takeaways from, if not The Greatest Show on Earth, then the longest show last night.
“12 Years a Slave” won the Best Picture award and deserved it. Hollywood tends to award “serious” movies that probes serious issues, or in the case of “12 Years” an historically correct issue – slavery (and race) – that is still barely below the surface of American life. As a measure of the importance of this film, I’ll predict people will still be seeing it and talking about it 20 years from now. If you haven’t seen it, steel yourself to watch a brutal and moving telling of the darkest story in all of the American story.
Oscar host DeGeneres mostly left me longing for Bob Hope or Johnny Carson. The role of Oscar MC requires the skills, generally speaking, of a late-night talk show host – sharp, topical and (mostly) clean jokes, self deprecation, ad-libbing ability, and a relentless focus on poking fun at the absurdity of the whole show. Next year give me Jimmy Fallon or even Kevin Spacey. Classy guys (or gals) who get the joke and can make one.
Given a show that is all about recognizing people who create and deliver powerful messages, the Oscar acceptance speeches are (generally) appallingly bad. As the Times noted, Matthew McConaughey, who won the Best Actor award for a movie about a guy fighting AIDS, “praised God, his family and himself, but didn’t mention people with AIDS.” The speeches are a litany of thanks to family, colleagues, producers and the fat cats who finance movies. Thank God no one, at least no one I heard, thanked their lawyer or accountant, as has happened in years past. The good Oscar acceptance speech is as rare as the short Oscar acceptance speech.
One of the few good speeches came from the writer John Ridley who produced the screenplay for “12 Years.” Perhaps it should be no surprise that a talented writer can make a good, short, emotionally powerful speech. Best Supporting Actress Lupita Nyong’o of “12 Years a Slave” also give a moving speech. “It doesn’t escape me for one moment that so much joy in my life is thanks to so much pain in someone else’s.” That is a classy line, both true and self aware.
The visually stunning “Gravity” richly deserved all the praise it received and the awards, but while the film was highly entertaining it was not Best Picture worthy. The story was mostly unbelievable and the acting mostly overdone, but the effects were appropriately other-worldly. Perhaps instead of what seemed like endless clips of old movies – including the 9,000th tribute to “The Wizard of Oz” – the Academy could have commissioned a 90 second clip on how the special effects of a film like “Gravity” or “All is Lost” increasingly add magic and transform the movie experience.
I am gratified that foreign-born film makers – the Best Director is from Mexico and the director who made “12 Years” is a Brit – are finally getting some overdue recognition. Cinema is a world-wide thing and great movies are being made everywhere, not just in Hollywood.
Final takeaway: Cate Blanchett was far and away the Best Actress in any movie I saw in 2013. Her role as the emotionally broken down, once-rich glamor girl in “Blue Jasmine” was a performance for the ages. She now stands on nearly equal footing with the great Meryl Streep as the finest actress of our age. Here’s hoping she continues to get roles fine enough to match her very great talent. Her pitch to Hollywood to get beyond those “who are still foolishly clinging to the idea that female films with women at the center are niche experiences. They are not,” was also spot on.
If, as has been said, politics is show business for ugly people then the Oscar awards show is prom night at a very exclusive, very expensive high school were all the girls dress with the certainty that they’ll be the queen and all the boys have the cockiness that goes with being sure they are destined to captain the football team. This Academy teaches conspicuous consumption, ego maintenance and the value of cosmetic surgery, both done well and not so much. In this school a pizza delivery – how very pedestrian – is the stuff of high humor and an $85,000 bag of swag is just the most obvious benefit of showing up for class.
I get it. I really do. When the Academy asks me to produce the big show next year my first decision will be to have Penelope Cruz present all the awards.
See you at the movies.