By Tom Shales
Monday, February 26, 2007
Alternately (and sometimes simultaneously) a bore and a horror, the 79th annual Academy Awards, televised live from Los Angeles on ABC, had a few bright spots to keep weary viewers propping their eyes open as midnight approached -- even if they had never heard of, much less seen, many of the nominated films.
The number of big, emotionally rewarding moments was infinitesimal -- but one had real oomph: Jennifer Hudson winning for Best Supporting Actress for her acting and singing in the hit musical "Dreamgirls." The Oscar had to be especially satisfying for Hudson because she lost out in the "American Idol" competition on Fox and had to endure insults from judge Simon Cowell.
Ellen DeGeneres, doing a crisp and unpretentious job in her first gig as an Oscar host, said at the outset that this would be "the most international Oscars ever," and that prediction seemed to come true. But it meant that many of the films cited were largely obscure to the national audience. Weren't the Oscars invented to honor American films? Apparently not anymore.
The acclaimed Mexican film "Pan's Labyrinth" won prizes for art direction, makeup and cinematography -- but also lost for Best Foreign Language Film.
Al Gore, looking larger than life, took to the stage twice, once to chew the fat with Leonardo DiCaprio (who told Gore, "You are a true champion for the cause," meaning, of course, the cause of environmental issues). Gore returned later to share in the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature, "An Inconvenient Truth," essentially an illustrated lecture by the former vice president on the subject of global warming.
Jerry Seinfeld, introducing the nominees for documentary feature, referred to them as "five incredibly depressing movies," but in fairness to Gore, "An Inconvenient Truth" is more rallying than depressing. Davis Guggenheim, the film's director, said as he grabbed Gore's arm, "We were moved to act by this man."
Virtually everything about the Oscarcast, except for a few mercifully brief features, was entirely, punishingly too long. The award for Best Foreign Language Film was preceded by a montage of famous foreign movies going back to "La Strada," presumably for people who had no idea what a foreign film is.
Later, the Academy voted a special honorary award to Ennio Morricone, the innovative Italian composer whose work distinguished and enlivened films from Clint Eastwood's debut, "A Fistful of Dollars," to Brian DePalma's "The Untouchables," and many more. Eastwood presented the Oscar, richly deserved -- but then Morricone gave his arduously lengthy acceptance speech in his native Italian, which meant that Eastwood, squinting to read the prompting device, then had to translate, sentence by sentence.
Then Celine Dion sang the "world premiere" of a Morricone-penned song called "I Knew I Loved You." Unfortunately it sounded like the theme from "Titanic" and every other song she ever sang.
Time was wasted throughout the evening on a number of cutesy gimmicks that laid enormous eggs -- among them the avant-garde Pilobolus Dance Theatre, whose members posed behind a white screen and acted out the titles of films, or something. DeGeneres joined them at one point and the film they seemed to be interpreting was "Snakes on a Plane," although it was not nominated for any major awards.
As the third hour of the show approached, the stage was taken over by the cast of "Dreamgirls" for a medley of songs from the film. It was fine, but like everything else, and the Oscarcast itself, it went on and on and on. And on. It might still be going on now, for all we know.
DeGeneres reprised a bit from when she hosted the Emmy Awards a few years ago, wandering out into the audience and making small talk with such luminaries as Martin Scorsese (who won Best Director for "The Departed"); she presented Scorsese with a script she said she'd written. Later, she got Steven Spielberg, the world's most successful director, to take a snapshot of her and Eastwood, who occupied an aisle seat in the Kodak Theatre.
It was cute, but DeGeneres didn't seem to have quite the stature of the legendary Oscar hosts of the distant past -- namely Johnny Carson and Bob Hope. Of course, that was a long time ago, and Hollywood has changed hugely.
In past years, impatient viewers of the Academy Awards were teased with a couple of major Oscars awarded early in the show so as to encourage them to stick around. But for the first time in years, the Oscars for Best Supporting Actor and Actress were not given out in the first half-hour. Instead the first awards presented were for art direction and makeup.
More time was wasted with a lame piece of "special material" -- a song about how comics don't win Oscars, performed by the usually hilarious Will Ferrell, the semi-talented John C. Reilly and hack Jack Black. The song wasn't funny and went on, yes, too long.
The awards show was preceded on ABC by the traditional Barbara Walters special -- a very entertaining hour that featured, as the final guest, Eddie Murphy. Meanwhile, the E! Entertainment network offered a red-carpet show that was arguably more watchable, if also more ridiculous, than the Oscar show itself.
An E! innovation this year: The Glam-O-Strator, a modified version of the "telestrator" used for football games, except this time it was used for designers and other interested parties to comment upon, and circle key elements of, glamorous dresses worn by women attending the show.
Next year: the 80th annual Academy Awards. Imagine how long that one will be.
After this year's ratings come in, though, maybe it will move to cable.