TV review: At the Oscars, the same old song and dance
By Hank Stuever,
While some guy was accepting his Oscar for visual effects (for “Life of Pi”) during Sunday night’s medium-warm Academy Awards broadcast, something new and wonderful happened: He went on too long and got the “Jaws” theme from the orchestra, which crept up on him and audibly devoured his words as he kept thanking people.
It’s a brilliant and overdue remedy to Oscar night’s oldest problem, and it should be a fixture of all award shows.
And it worked! The producers only had to use it a few more times — and frankly should have shown the courage to use it on the A-list names, such as you, Ben Affleck, or perhaps during best supporting actress winner Anne Hathaway’s predictably ooky, near-tears wish that nobody should ever be as poor and desperate as Fantine, her character in “Les Miserables.”
But to be fair, the “Jaws” theme ought to be used when the host’s shtick is dragging on, too. Such as when you have William Shatner don his Captain Kirk costume and beam in from the 23rd century to tell the host — in a protracted and meta way — that, in real time, his gig is getting bad reviews from critics.
It was a too-long setup for host Seth MacFarlane’s best number, “We Saw Your Boobs,” backed by the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles.
MacFarlane, the potty-mouth cartoon mogul turned latter-day lounge lizard, did a fairly middle-of-the-road job as host on a fairly middle-of-the-road telecast. He occasionally found the balance between the knifey, pop-savvy humor of his TV shows and his other side as a show-biz sycophant who sings all the standards at the top of his lungs. What you got was a combination of sicko and retro, an Oscar show hosted by someone who waited until Oscar night to discover that he’s only so-so at stand-up comedy.
He was neither comfortable with the easy jokes (“Amour — or as I call it, ‘This is 90’ ”) nor the provocative ones that he was brought on board to tell and perhaps goose the ungoosable youth market for Oscar ratings: “I would argue that the actor who really got inside Lincoln’s head was John Wilkes Booth,” he said. (That wasn’t the real joke, though. The real joke came after the Hollywood swells in the Dolby Theatre gasped and groaned. Then it became what it was meant to be in the post-irony age: a “too soon?” joke.)
Worse news: “Tonight, for the first time, the Oscars have a theme,” MacFarlane announced in his opening monologue. “We will be celebrating music in film.”
Oh, for the love of Pete. Must we?
It couldn’t be stopped, as the Academy Awards tried to win a Tony. The show, which ran past 3 ½hours, was produced by Neil Meron and Craig Zadan, two guys who have brought us things like NBC’s irreparable Broadway drama “Smash” and the movie musical “Hairspray.” And so, from mite-sized theater imp Kristin Chenoweth’s icky-sweet red-carpet patter for ABC’s pre-show (Adele, you have our permission to sit on her until she stops moving) to the protracted musical medley from “Chicago,” “Dreamgirls” and — I had to leave the room — “Les Miserables,” this was the Oscars by and for showfolk.
The only people still tweeting about the Oscars at this point were the drama-club kids, Gleeks and those predisposed to get verklempt when La Streisand came out to sing “The Way We Were” in tribute to Marvin Hamlisch during the “In Memoriam” reel. (“If we had the chance to do it all again/ tell me, would we?” she sang, interrupting herself cheesily to answer, “Of course we would.”)
At its first lull, the telecast honored the 50th anniversary of James Bond movies, something the infotainment industry has been celebrating for what feels like two or three years now. The Academy’s tribute to Bond was mostly just one more clip job — has anything so reliably mediocre received more pop-culture accolades than the 007 franchise? But it was saved by the rare sighting and true, pre-Beyonce era pipes of Dame Shirley Bassey, who came out to sing “Goldfinger” and was resplendent in all the latest cryogenic technology.
In an unfortunate comparison of how today is never quite like yesterday, the fabulous Adele came out and sang her recent Bond theme song, “Skyfall.” Not a bad song (and, in fact, it did win best original song), but sadly, the best we can do nowadays, collectively, as a popular culture.
As I’ve written before, most of us watch the Oscars certain in the belief that it can never be quite fixed. That is the fun of it.
Yet, unfortunately for Oscar, two other recent award shows — the Golden Globes and the Grammys — upped their game. Compared with the Oscars, this year’s Golden Globes show was a brisk and enjoyable evening, and not only because it was hosted by Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. (A fact that one of MacFarlane’s quips begrudgingly acknowledged.) And the Grammys were a relative sensation compared with the Oscars’ staid notion of excitement.
There was nothing notably terrible about the show, and nothing particularly enthralling — though it was nice to see that Meryl Streep possesses almost Carnac-like powers to grant Daniel Day-Lewis the best actor Oscar for “Lincoln” without needing to see the contents of the envelope.
And how about that appearance by first lady Michelle Obama, co-presenting with Jack Nicholson, via satellite from Washington, the best picture Oscar to “Argo?” (What’s that you say? You are no longer thrilled by the sight of Michelle Obama on every television show?)
More than before, and maybe because of recent news floating about in the Gulf of Mexico, this year’s Academy Awards felt a little bit like a cruise. Especially those last five minutes set aside for MacFarlane and Chenoweth to warble a little more. When you think about it, a cruise ship is a venue that would perfectly suit this year’s Oscar show. And when the norovirus inevitably strikes, Chenoweth is there to hold our hair back as things lurch on and on.