Tom Shales finds pretentiousness aplenty, whether on 'Idol' or the Oscars

By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 9, 2010

On "American Idol" -- returning Tuesday night for another performance round -- amateurs try to look like professionals. On the Oscar show, professionals often come off looking like amateurs, whether they're trying to or not.

That limping old warhorse, the 82nd edition of which was just held in Los Angeles (the 57th to air on television), looked a little less lame this year, largely because acceptance speeches really were kept short for the most part and because winners seemed somewhat more articulate and a little less fatuous.

Fabulous fatuousness, meanwhile, is again the order of the day (and night) at Fox's "American Idol," the show's so-called judges descending now and then into utter gibberish as they dole out ersatz analysis. The exception? As usual, Simon Cowell -- who by a stroke of bad luck is leaving the series at the end of this season. Though in the early days Cowell came across as merely rude and nasty, he has since become the panel's lone voice of reason and even, on occasion, wit.

He is the least dispensable member of the show's cast, which includes intrusive series host Ryan Seacrest.

It used to be such fun to watch Cowell pick on, and be picked on by, dippy departed judge Paula Abdul; it is no fun to see him suffer the insipid bloviation of Kara DioGuardi. "I have no idea what you just said," Cowell told her on one of last week's shows; she seemed to have little idea herself.

Cowell also confessed that the panel is forever giving contestants "contradictory" advice. Time and again, singers are told they don't bring enough of themselves to the songs they sing, but then others are told that they brought too much of themselves and made too many idiosyncratic changes.

It's impressive, in a depressing way, how pretentious an untrained and even untalented young performer can be on "American Idol," though the trained and the talented do a pretty good job of it on the Oscarcast.

Jeff Bridges, glowing with goodwill when he walked into the Kodak Theatre, blew it by giving the worst kind of acceptance speech, the dreaded List. Accepting his entirely expected, widely predicted Oscar for Best Actor, Bridges touchingly paid tribute to his parents but then proceeded to pile on names: his agent at CAA, his own personal "team" ("Thank you, guys") "and Roger Love, man."

What about the UPS man, man, who brought him his tickets to the ceremony?

And year after year, it seems, those who win Oscars for working on the smallest, itsy-bitsiest, least-seen short subjects and documentaries prove the most self-indulgent of winners and make the most fuss in accepting. This year's show, of course, had an embarrassing moment not unlike the appearance on stage of a streaker in 1974 -- a "surprise" that, it has since been acknowledged, must have been a setup.

Anyway, filmmaker Roger Ross Williams was accepting the prize for documentary short, the kind of category that might exist only so there'll be a wild card in office Oscar pools, and as he spoke, Williams was physically upstaged by disgruntled collaborator Elinor Burkett, who took over the mike and gave the least coherent remarks of the evening. She was hustled off as the orchestra played "Thanks for the Memory."

Clearly, director Hamish Hamilton had been instructed beforehand by the Motion Picture Academy folks: "If anything interesting or surprising starts to happen onstage, cut away from it immediately!" When one of the winners for the feature-length documentary "The Cove," about the slaughter of dolphins by the Japanese fishing industry, tried to hold up a phone number for concerned viewers to call, Hamilton cut away hurriedly to random reaction shots.

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