Those with whom I watch the Academy Awards, both virtually and sharing the same couch, were a little worried about me last night. My praise for the remarkable achievement of Boyhood has evidently been effusive enough that there were nationwide predictions of dire thoughts overtaking me when it became clear the night was turning against Richard Linklater’s film. But I like Birdman, too. (There are some critics out there this morning undoubtedly feeling far angrier about this outcome.) If it had been a night about venerating the dreadful The Imitation Game, exactly the sort of prestige pablum the Academy might have found entirely irresistible a generation or two ago, I might have needed to crack open the Scotch. I may not always agree completely with the outcome, but the Academy gets it right enough often enough that I don’t see much point in complaining about the slight differences from my preferences. I think Julianne Moore’s work in Still Alice is minor compared to what she did in Boogie Nights and Far From Heaven (and what Rosamund Pike did in Gone Girl or Reese Witherspoon did in Wild), but a world in which Julianne Moore is an Oscar-winning actress is a world in balance.
The show itself is another matter. Produced by Neil Meron and Craig Zadan, their third straight year at the helm, the ceremony continued its recent trend of courting irrelevance through its tepidness. Neil Patrick Harris was predictably charming and game, showing a special gift for delivering his most scathing lines in a disarmingly gentle way (disguising them as a Freudian slips, as he did with “the best and the whitest” or the Edward Snowden line, is one of his favorite tricks). He understands what it means to be a host, making the night about the awards rather reveling too much in his own ability to deploy cheeky showstoppers. So much of how Meron and Zadan approach the show, however, suggests they’d prefer it if the boring old awards were just out of the way. There’s almost nothing present conveying why the Oscars is different than all the precursors leading up to it or even anything that communicates why the awarded work is so exemplary, the best of the year. What I wouldn’t give to go back to the method of presenting the acting awards that was introduced by Bill Condon and Laurence Mark when they produced the show, stacking the stage with prior winners who actually talked about the nominated work with some meaning and appreciation. It served to both emphasize the significance of the award (here’s the company you’re joining) and celebrate the art (and here’s why you deserve to join this company). I think it was partially scrapped because of the perception that it lengthened an already overlong show, but Condon and Mark’s Oscar telecast was twelve minutes shorter than last night’s endurance test.
Instead, I worry that the developing preference is to skew the Oscar more towards the direction of the Grammys, where the actually handing out of trophies is basically treated as a nuisance between big musical numbers. I’m sympathetic to the value in having the spectacle of big musical numbers as part of the show. The powerhouse performance of “Glory” was one of the true highlights of the show and itself argument enough for the song’s deserving Oscar win minutes later. Similarly, Lady Gaga belting out a Sound of Music medley isn’t my thing, but Harris was correct when he alluded to it as the Oscar moment everyone would be talking about the next day. And it was worth it just to hear Julie Andrews say, “Lady Gaga.” It’s more problematic when the annual “In Memoriam” segment is treated as mere preamble to Jennifer Hudson (Oscar winner!) coming on stage to sing a diva-sized song from the wisely disregarded television program Smash, a series not coincidentally produced by Meron and Zadan. It transformed what is traditionally among the most poignant moments into any Oscars telecast to one of unforgivably egotistical crassness.
The approach of recent years diminishes the possibility of those memorable moments that can’t be staged. “Glory” was great, but the subsequent acceptance speech by Common and John Legend was even more powerful. And there was nothing last night as purely thrilling as watching Meryl Streep fiercely cheer Patricia Arquette’s call of equal pay for women.
If both Chris Pratt and Zoe Saldana are both going to be presenters anyway, why not assign the galaxy guardians to the same category and hope a little charmed camaraderie shows through? Instead, the producers orchestrated a parade of presenter pairings with no apparent rhyme nor reason making movie stars look about as comfortable as middle schoolers in the opening minutes of a blind date,
Plain and simple, there are better ways to run this show, ways that tap into all the reasons the Oscars still matter more than all the others. Whether or not I agree with the names and titles engraved into the base of the statues matters less to me than the show itself. I want the Oscars show to be worthy of its legacy. I know it can happen.