After too many years of trying to wow us or discover some elusive idea of edginess, the producers of Sunday’s 86th Academy Awards show decided, for once, that simple does it.
Host Ellen DeGeneres told jokes that were easy on the ears, gentle on the mind and, for the most part, sparingly nice, even when she complimented the actual Liza Minnelli, sitting in the audience, for superior work as a Liza Minnelli impersonator. (“Good job, sir.”)
By reverting to basic awards-show conviviality and glamour, the show got slightly more classy, but it also overindulged in its reverential Hollywood worship — weighing down the first half with meaningless clip montages, telling us about budding filmmaker awards and taking care of other industry-supporting business that the Academy likes to conduct but nobody likes to watch.
At 31 / 2 hours, the show ran about as long as usual; it just seemed much longer. The orchestra appeared to have given up on rushing acceptance speeches with wrap-it-up cues. It was a show that spent the night acting as though it had all the time in the world — tacking on Bette Midler singing “Wind Beneath My Wings” after the “In Memoriam” reel instead of during it; the perfect song to accompany the show’s sense of bloat. Meanwhile, your Oscars-watching party guests began to look at their watches and fret about the wintry mix and peel off before any of the major awards were handed out.
When the show would get moving, it would just as quickly come to a halt, such as it did with a 75th-anniversary commemoration of the 1939 classic “The Wizard of Oz.” Even with a lovely belting-out of “Over the Rainbow” by pop star Pink, I wondered whether there has ever been a time when our culture has not been honoring “The Wizard of Oz” — re-releasing new DVDs; mourning the deaths of the last of the Munchkin actors; auctioning off the shoes and other memorabilia. Note to Hollywood: Surrender the addiction to Dorothy.
The great middle of an Oscars show is always something of a chore to endure, and always will be. Some 90 precious minutes elapsed between Jared Leto’s anticipated win for best supporting actor in “Dallas Buyers Club” at the beginning of the show and Lupita Nyong’o’s anticipated win for best supporting actress in “12 Years a Slave,” which seemed like a long trek because the proceedings were missing some kind of boffo centerpiece — an extravagant pre-recorded mini-movie sketch or something — that usually has everyone talking the next morning.
Instead, we had DeGeneres wandering the audience, taking selfies (part of a Samsung cross-promotion) and joking about ordering pizzas for a crowd of woefully malnourished celebrities.
And by golly, the pizzas arrived, wasting still more time while DeGeneres handed them out. Then she came back around to the joke, carrying one of Pharrell Williams’s Smokey Bear hats and asking stars to chip in. Money jokes seems to really crack up the A-list. DeGeneres handed Bradley Cooper some scratch-off tickets, making a joke about consolation prizes. (It’s funnier because they’re both so rich!)
DeGeneres is the perfect sort of host for roaming the aisles and joshing around with the celebrities who adore her non-threatening style. The show was cute and casual and just a bit boring. This is not to say I sat through this year’s show pining for another Seth MacFarlane show tune about naked boobs — at least, I don’t think so. But the dragginess of this year’s show did afford me enough time to search out and watch the clip of that number from last year’s show.
●Gracious and quietly triumphant acceptance speeches from both Leto and Nyong’o. (Except where Leto managed to name-check his rock band.)
●Matthew McConaughey’s tender, gentlemanly treatment of 81-year-old “Vertigo” star Kim Novak, with whom he presented awards to animated films. (While the blunter realms of the Twittersphere asked, “Who’s that old lady?”)
●Darlene Love belting out a refrain of freedom during a group acceptance for best documentary feature for “20 Feet from Stardom,” about backup singers.
●Impressive performances by the artists up for best original song, including Pharrell’s pep-tastic “Happy” (from “Despicable Me 2”); U2’s performance of “Ordinary Love” from “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom”; “The Moon Song” by Karen O (from “Her”); and according to a heavy-lidded John Travolta (who took the stage looking like a beginning art class oil painting of John Travolta), a woman named “Adella Dazeem” singing “Let It Go” from “Frozen.” (Her name is Idina Menzel. Is it that hard to say?)
As for lowlights . . .
Most years, whatever happens during the Oscars telecast (good, bad or otherwise) wipes clean any memory I had of the red-carpet pre-shows hours earlier, but not this year: ABC needs to get a grip on how it handles the hour or so before the Oscars begin.
I get that it’s a smarm-fest; I’ve been there myself, trying like crazy to get movie stars to say something interesting. Even allowing for the requisite fawning that comes with the drudgeries of red-carpet duty, Lara Spencer, Robin Roberts, Tyson Beckford and Jess Cagle (who edits Entertainment Weekly and now People, too, and, as such, should not be engaged in this level of shameful celeb slobbering) fumbled through it with dopey banter and anemic non-sequiturs.
Strangely, during the carpet’s heaviest traffic, the pre-show allowed itself to be hijacked by the network’s late-night talk host, Jimmy Kimmel, who, to promote his Oscar after-show, put on a self-serving bit where he crawled through the TV screen and scolded Mr. and Mrs. America for tweeting “mean” comments from their sofa.
Kimmel turned it around on us Oscar-night slobs in our roomy pants, our fat fingers caked in Cheez Doodles dust, tweeting our disapproval of the dresses and hair.
What was the point of that? To make fun of non-famous people? To make us feel bad for not watching this Hollywood lovefest with enough reverence and respect? To make us feel bad for telling jokes, which is his job? To make us feel bad for watching it all?
In that case, mission accomplished.