TV review: Oscar’s wishful thinking

February 27, 2012

Buoyed by a nostalgic notion that a silent movie is totally where it’s at, Sunday night’s 84th annual Academy Awards telecast on ABC turned into a dull exercise in the ol’ Hollywood self-salute, a sentimental journey, as if the industry was performing CPR on a business model that is vanishing before everyone’s eyes.

Billy Crystal, hosting his ninth Oscar show (his first was in 1990, his most recent was in 2004), seemed to be overseeing a cruise ship dinner show designed to appeal to the over-50 travel club. Early on, it hit the rocks and started to list. Almost everyone drowned.

It seemed like a stretch to used the words “big win” this time around— has there ever been a year where you felt less inclined to make sure you’d seen every best picture nominee? — but just when everyone was packing to leave . . .

Hooray at last for Meryl Streep, who after eleventyseven winless nominations since her “Sophie’s Choice” Oscar in 1982, surprisingly won best actress for playing Margaret Thatcher in “The Iron Lady.” Streep’s award eclipsed the biggish awards that went, as completely expected, to “The Artist” — for best picture, actor (Jean Dujardin) and director (Michel Hazanavicius).

Oscars also went to a tearfully grateful Octavia Spencer for best supporting actress as a domestic worker in “The Help”; and, also expected, there was a best supporting actor nod for Christopher Plummer, who played an elderly gay man who comes out of the closet to his son in “Beginners.” (“You’re only two years older than me, darling, where have you been all my life?” Plummer playfully asked his Oscar statuette.) Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo” won a clutch of five technical Oscars. The Iranian divorce drama “A Separation” won best foreign language film.

The 63-year-old Crystal was full of perfectly palatable jokes during the show, the kind you smirk at more than actually laugh. “We’re here in the beautiful Chapter 11 Theater,” Crystal said, the first of many gags about Eastman Kodak’s bankruptcy proceedings, which led to the abrupt stripping of the branded name on the theater where the Oscar ceremony has been held for a decade.

Broke and desperate? How 99 percent. “Nothing can take the sting out of economic crisis like watching millionaires present each other with golden statues,” Crystal joked. He pulled out a lot of ba-da-dum gags that at least (the very least) had the appeal of seeming familiar as comfy slippers: There was the opening montage inserting the host into some of the year’s more memorable movie scenes (Justin Bieber and Crystal’s Sammy Davis Jr. in a 1920s “Midnight in Paris” bit, for example — “We’re going to go kill Hitler!” Sammy effused). Crystal followed that with one of those Gridiron-style musical medleys where the plots of current films are set to old show tunes and standards.

This nursing home feeling was all very apt, from the opening moment when actor Morgan Freeman came out and announced that show would “celebrate the present and look back on the [film industry’s] glorious past.”

Thing is, the academy is still very much living in that past. The tiniest rain cloud had already passed over Oscar’s skies last week, when the Los Angeles Times, after considerable research, gave its readers statistical proof of something true Oscar watchers have sensed all along: Academy membership is far too male (77 percent), long in tooth (86 percent are older than 50) and much, much too white (94 percent!) to exert as much influence over American popular culture as it does.

Oh, no, savvy viewers immediately ascertained and immediately whined about all across Twitter: It’s going to be that kind of Oscar night. And sure enough, large amounts of time went to montages of classic film moments from yesteryear, as if the 30 or 40 million Americans still bothering to tune into the Academy Awards had somehow ditched film appreciation class all these years. Everyone remembers such Hollywood 101 clips and characters. The montages could have been assembled in an iMovie tutorial session.

On top of that, viewers had to sit patiently and watch sappy, pre-recorded interviews through the show that featured movie actors and filmmakers gushing about their most formative moments as moviegoers. It’s true that this entire event is built around an industry honoring its very existence — but it felt like a long commercial.

That’s not to say the show wasn’t without some highlights: The funny women of “Bridesmaids,” especially supporting actress nominee Melissa McCarthy, made good on their reputations for being more watchable than male comedians these days. And the words “Cirque du Soleil” can often elicit groans from a crowded living room of awards-show watchers, until those acrobats actually get busy, and then we’re all mesmerized once again. (They also saluted the glory of yesterday’s movies.) Octavia Spencer’s tears were briefly moving. And the gang from Christopher Guest’s mockumentaries (“Best in Show”; “A Mighty Wind”) performed a hilarious pre-recorded bit that imagined what a 1939 test audience would have said about “The Wizard of Oz.” (“I’ve never seen so many unattractive people” [as the “Oz” cast], Jennifer Coolidge’s dour focus-grouper complained.)

Every other year or so, there’s an Oscar show where viewers mainly spend their time diagnosing why it’s not exactly working — especially since the evening’s best antics could be summed up so quickly: Red-carpet prankster Sacha Baron Cohen, in his latest guise as The Dictator, dumped an urn of not-really-Kim-Jong-Il’s ashes all over E!’s Ryan Seacrest; a long-overdue but highly debatable wardrobe malfunction happened to presenter J-Lo — was it shadow or slip? The Internet will decide.

Certainly a value-added aspect to any Oscar show is the chance to yell out one’s heated advice about the entire shebang, from what to trim from the show to how to remake and diversify the voting and nomination process. (And how to fix the sound. At times the show sounded like it was being delivered via dial-up modem.)

Sadistic though it may be, watching the Academy Awards anymore is about partaking in that national ur-angst about finding the perfect Oscar host. Lordy, we just won’t ever find him or her, will we?

Just when you thought you’d forgot Anne Hathaway and James Franco’s awkward forced-prom-date attempt at the hosting task last year (his fault mostly, and a little bit hers), it all comes rushing back, a rogue’s gallery of meh and bleh: Hugh Jackman, Ellen DeGeneres, Chris Rock, Jon Stewart. Alec Baldwin and Oscars alum host Steve Martin doing a patter dance a couple years ago. Nice people, all. You really wanted it to click.

We can go back even further: David Letterman (“Oprah, Uma”), Whoopi Goldberg (I think Goldberg had the clearest knack for it, or maybe that’s just how I remember it). They all had their moments, but not enough of them. Any further and you’re treading into reverent territory and speaking ill of the dead: Johnny Carson, Frank Sinatra (who hosted in 1963) and year after year after year of Bob Hope.

In the relative recent past, none of the Oscar hosts have been as good or as bad as the heaps and heaps of post-mortem reviews and discussions would have you believe. Oscar-hosting (and Oscar-producing) is a phenomenon we talk entirely too much about, with far too wistful a regard for a non-existent ideal.

You had to take what you could from this year’s show. For some small reason, I particularly liked the moment when Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall, who won the film editing Oscar for “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” and realized they had no business flubbing their way through a rambling, incoherent acceptance speech. They practically fled the stage at the first sign of an orchestra cue. “We’re editors!” one of them shouted in a perfectly good excuse.

Acceptance speeches have officially become a lost art. Somewhere along the way, the people who make, and especially star in, movies have forgotten how to eloquently say thank you or make broader statements, without the onerous obligation of listing everyone who got them there.

It’s a nice impulse — to thank everyone from your assistant on up to your director and spouse and finally your Maker. Although we assume that God gets thanked more than anyone else, he is actually fourth or fifth (the academy, of course, is No. 1 by far) based on various textual analyses of Oscar acceptance speeches over the years, including one such chart Sunday in the New York Times Magazine.

Let me offer future Oscar nominees a solution so often presented to those of us (still) in the newspaper business: Mightn’t a long acceptance speech work better online? Could stars not instead emit a series of grateful tweets and status updates once they’re backstage clutching their Oscar statuette? There’s never an orchestra in the virtual world asking them to move it along.

Stammering along, they manage thank their agents, directors, co-stars, producers. But you know who they almost never thank?

You. The filmgoer. The person who watched four hours of pre-show and red-carpet coverage. The one who keeps their names straight, who pays attention to what they wear (whether to the Oscars or to the Whole Foods). The people who still go to movies once in a while. The movie industry adored themselves as moviegoers, but they never get around to remembering us. The gall.

Hank Stuever has been The Post's TV critic since 2009. He joined the paper in 1999 as a writer for the Style section, where he has covered an array of popular (and unpopular) culture across the nation.
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