Oscars 2011 preview: What will viewers be talking about?

February 24, 2011

The Oscars should be viewed less like a horse race and more like a NASCAR race. After stomaching months of prognostications, few winners will truly surprise. So to endure the telecast, we must count on metaphorical car wrecks: controversy (Michael Moore bashes Bush!), big screw-ups (debris lands near Steve Martin!), near nip-slips (J. Lo’s gauzy top! Beyonce’s perilous dress!) and scenery-chewing (Adrien Brody mauls Halle Berry!).

When it comes to watching, “I like when something goes wrong,” says Lili Fini Zanuck, who produced the Oscars in 2000. That year, the biggest surprise was the “South Park” guys’ arrival in knockoffs of dresses made famous by Gwyneth Paltrow and Jennifer Lopez. “Producers try to streamline it as much as possible. . . . Everybody is doing everything for this to not happen.”

Hence the Oscars’ rigid format: banter, award, applause, speech, musical number, commercial break, repeat.

“In a show which is very orderly and guards against those moments, how do you get spontaneity and surprise to come through?” wonders Gil Cates, who has produced 14 Oscar shows. “They happen on their own. Most good TV is accidental.”

To psych ourselves up for the epic show, we’ve fantasized about moments that might set viewers aTwitter.

LIKELIEST DISRUPTION

Last year the documentary categories provided two of the show’s cringiest moments: When documentary short producer Elinor Burkett interrupted her estranged collaborator’s speech, and when “The Cove” subject-activist Ric O’Barry hoisted a sign that said “Text DOLPHIN to 44144,” cuing the orchestra and a cutaway shot.

The category is ripe for disruption this year, too, with street artist Banksy nominated for “Exit Through the Gift Shop.” The anonymous and prodigious prankster has already punked billboards around Los Angeles with his rogue symbols, so he’s around town. Will he storm the stage in disguise? Will he unfurl a giant banner featuring prints of his trademark monkeys? This is the “big cliffhanger” of the night, says GoldDerby.com editor and Oscarologist Tom O’Neil.

Gift Shop” producer Jaimie D’Cruz has promised Oscar honchos that he alone would accept the award, according to the Wrap, but wouldn’t it be great if Banksy somehow inserted a placard of his art into the actual envelope?

MOST BELOVED DEAD PERSON

Who gets the primo spot — and the biggest applause — at the end of the “In Memoriam” montage? Sometimes it’s a respected journeyman: Last year, it was Karl Malden, a past president of the academy. Sometimes it’s a superstar: Paul Newman got it the year before (being a humanitarian didn’t hurt). Sometimes it’s a wunderkind gone too soon: Heath Ledger in 2008.

Here are five legacies to put your money on:

l Gloria Stuart . What better way to end the montage than by running a “Titanic” clip of Stuart tossing the Heart of the Ocean overboard? Never let go, Oscar. Odds: 10 to 1.

l Leslie Nielsen . “I just wanna tell you both good luck. We’re all counting on you.” (“Airplane!”) Odds: 8 to 1.

l Arthur Penn . His “Bonnie and Clyde” propelled American cinema into its second golden age. Odds: 6 to 1.

l Tony Curtis . Heartthrob in drag, sire of Jamie Lee, pugnacious philanthropist. Odds: 4 to 1.

l Dennis Hopper . He batted cleanup during the Screen Actors Guild death montage, and his itinerant career spanned from cultured (“Giant”) to counterculture (“Easy Rider”) to subculture (“Blue Velvet”). Odds: 2 to 1.

CHEEKIEST PRESENTERS

The distinction falls to Russell Brand and Helen Mirren, who have reportedly been paired to present because they are co-starring in a remake of “Arthur,” which won Dudley Moore a nomination 30 years ago. Brand is the bawdy comedian who married Katy Perry, and Mirren is the bawdy thespian who straddles royalty (her Oscar-winning turn in “The Queen”) and ribaldry (bathing nude in New York magazine last year, hoping her shoes wouldn’t make her fall rump over bosom — and we’re paraphrasing — while accepting an Emmy in 2006).

Two saucy, sexualized Brits armed with Bruce Vilanch’s banter: This might be the most YouTube-able bit of the night.

“I am presenting an Oscar,” Brand tweeted Monday. “I shall also choose the recipient.”

EDGIEST SPEECH

Of likely winners, there are three who might trigger the five-second delay. Shoo-in Christian Bale (“The Fighter”) is prone to outbursts — in 2008, audio of an expletive-laden tirade on the set of “Terminator Salvation” was leaked, and he was arrested in London for allegedly assaulting his mother and sister — but he’s been remarkably temperate at podiums this awards season. After cursing her way through a “Saturday Night Live” digital short in 2006, Natalie Portman (“Black Swan”) has rarely missed an opportunity to subvert her porcelain-doll image — references to the bedroom in her Golden Globes acceptance speech, casual profanity in her Screen Actors Guild speech, plus a randy role in the recent sex-romp comedy “No Strings Attached.”

We’re most hopeful, though, for “The Social Network” director David Fincher, an incorrigible grouch who referred to himself at the Golden Globes as “a bitter man with a lot of opinions” and “JonBenet Rudin” (a blend of his Oscar-savvy producer’s last name and the first name of the slain pageant girl from the ’90s). The Oscar show is the biggest pageant of them all, so expect Fincher to be extra-uncomfortable as he defends his maverick shtick against all the manufactured glitz.

GAMIEST ATTIRE

Her long-standing fashion persona may best be described as “drowned Victorian courtesan,” so expect Helena Bonham Carter (“The King’s Speech”) to furrow brows on the red carpet. She wore different-colored shoes to the Golden Globes (one green, one red), and her affinity for knotted hair, teensy top hats, clashing colors and ghoulish makeup has placed her on numerous “worst dressed” lists.

But fishnet skirts and spooky spectacles may be good counterprogramming to a legion of stars playing it safe. Her Oscar outfit is “probably going to be a catastrophe,” Carter admitted to the Telegraph at the nominees luncheon earlier this month. Sounds like a promise.

LIKELIEST POLITICAL SALVO

Without Sean Penn onstage, the task of stirring the pot falls to lesser-known nominees whose works explore explosive material. Winners may see the podium as the loftiest platform they’re ever likely to get for their pet issue.

In the feature documentary category, “Inside Job” tracks the financial meltdown, “Restrepo” follows a platoon of soldiers in Afghanistan, and both “Gasland” and “Waste Land” tally the environmental consequences of man-made actions (fracking and landfilling, respectively).

There’s still more tumult in the documentary short category. “Killing in the Name” is about a jihadist attack in Jordan. “Poster Girl” is about an Iraq war vet’s post-traumatic stress disorder. “Sun Come Up” is about refugees of climate change. Unless the winner is too overwhelmed to pontificate, here is where to expect controversy. Or, at least, a bit of reality to pop the Hollywood bubble.

SNAZZIEST NEWCOMER

Sometimes a strong showing on the red carpet — both sartorially and verbally — can jolt someone’s career, even if they don’t end up winning inside the Kodak Theatre.

Jesse Eisenberg. He doesn’t look or act like a leading man, but the star of “The Social Network” has endeared himself to nerd-lovers with his bashful, bewildered behavior on the talk-show circuit. An Oscar nominee hasn’t been so riddled with tics since Woody Allen.

Jennifer Lawrence. Blond, beautiful and nowhere near as severe as the character she plays in “Winter’s Bone.” An uber-talent in a starlet’s body: Charlize Theron redux?

Hailee Steinfeld. Oscarologists have overthunk themselves into calling the supporting-actress category for the “True Grit” star. Win or lose, if she has half the presence of her character, the spunky Mattie Ross, Steinfeld could use the red carpet as a dense battery of auditions for meaty roles.

SILLIEST GIMMICK

The children sing “Over the Rainbow.” A choir from P.S. 22 in Staten Island, N.Y., will reportedly sing the Harold Arlen standard, having tallied millions of YouTube hits for their covers of Coldplay and Bon Jovi. The fifth-graders sang Katy Perry’s “Firework” in a news conference to promote their appearance on the telecast. They’re cute. But will they make for good, uncloying TV?

The “mominees” tweet. Producers are corraling nominees’ mothers to post Twitter updates. James Franco’s mother and grandmother have already issued tweets using the hashtag #mominees, as have the mothers of “The Fighter” screenwriter Paul Tamasy, “Toy Story 3” director Lee Unkrich and “Black Swan” cinematographer Matthew Libatique.

“Found some more old photos of Matty,” Libatique’s mom tweeted Sunday.

Fascinating, Mrs. L.

Hathaway and Franco go vaudeville. The show usually opens with a big number, be it montage or performance. Two years ago, Hathaway revealed her vocal chops by dueting with host Hugh Jackman, but Franco’s a different story — earlier this week he released audio of his rehearsals of “You Haven’t Seen the Last of Me” from the Cher movie “Burlesque.” The number’s been cut from the show, perhaps for good reason: Franco, a workaholic polymath, can’t hit a note.

These hosts are actors who follow scripts, so don’t expect the ad-libbing acumen of Billy Crystal, but they’ve already got some insiders on the edge of their seats.

“The biggest part of that show is who you have to host,” says Lili Zanuck. “But it’s a very hard job, nobody really wants it, it doesn’t pay and you’re always blamed for everything. . . . So I’ll be watching them. They’re definitely an out-of-the-box choice.”

The multi-dimensional scenic transitions. The Oscar set will transform itself throughout the evening via a series of projections, according to interviews with show producers in the Hollywood Reporter. But high-tech efforts like bulky, moving screens are often accidents waiting to happen, says Garry Hood, who has stage-managed more than 20 Oscar shows.

“They spend so much money on the look of the show that sometimes they try to push the envelope a little too much,” Hood says. “Be it the graphics you see on air or the scenery moves they try to do — the Oscars has the budget to try those things, and the challenge is to dream realistically.”

MOST LIKELY TO CRACK ON CAMERA

The most diabolical element of the show is the close-up of a loser as he or she is in the act of losing. For decades now, five cameras have been positioned all up in the five nominees’ faces, recording the puncturing of egos in real time as one wins and four don’t.

Annette Bening. This is her fourth time at bat, and she seems destined to be runner-up once again to an ingenue (Portman). She’s practiced her steely smile by losing twice to Hilary Swank (in 2000 and 2005), but has seemed more at ease this awards season. How will Bening’s trademark poise weather another rebuttal from her peers?

Melissa Leo. The supporting-actress front-runner has taken some hits for self-funding an unconventional Oscar campaign that betrays some level of insecurity. Jittering while accepting Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild awards, she seemed slightly unhinged by the recognition. Will a sudden loss at this stage blow her mind?

Roger Deakins. A camera won’t be in the “True Grit” cinematographer’s face the moment he wins or loses, but surely there will be a reaction shot. This is Deakins’s ninth nomination over 15 years. And no wins. Will a scoff escape the Brit’s mouth should a rival be running up the aisle?

zakd@washpost.com

Dan Zak is a feature writer and general assignment reporter based in the Style section. He joined the Post in 2005, after stints as an editorial assistant at Entertainment Weekly and a city-desk reporter and obituary writer at The Buffalo News.
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