There comes a point in every broadcast of the Academy Awards, usually sometime in the third hour when I’ve reached a state of dreamy exhaustion, when I find myself wondering why I’m watching an industry’s celebration of itself. Sure, the Oscar attendees are more famous and probably more expensively dressed than the folks who show up to the Chicago Dental Society Midwinter Meeting. And unlike the participants in the World of Concrete, the people who are invited to the Academy Awards are professionally entertaining, or at least they’re supposed to be.
But despite these surface differences, the Academy Awards are still just the announcement of the results of an intensely insular months-long process. Unlike the Super Bowl or the NCAA basketball tournament, the process that produces those results isn’t sufficiently interesting to broadcast. And even worse, the Oscars combine rigid setpieces with unpredictable speechmaking, and then load impossible requirements on the host. If it’s insane to do the same thing over and over under the same conditions and expect the results to be different, maybe it’s time we stopped expecting the Academy Awards to be as good or as engaging as the movies they’re intended to honor.
It is, at this point, accepted wisdom that the Academy Awards are a daunting production to stage. But it’s worth taking a moment to step back and look at just how daunting a task it really is.
The host must navigate controversies of the moment — which may be specific to the industry as with #OscarsSoWhite or as nationally consuming as the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks — while also keeping in mind that audiences tune into the broadcast for many different reasons. If the entertainment industry had figured out how to simultaneously mollify people who want to see Hollywood atone for its inequalities and entertain viewers who just want to see a few snappy musical numbers, it could have saved itself decades of controversy and criticism. This need to give everyone something inevitably results in tonal discordance and periods when the host has to be aware that someone in the audience is inevitably going to be dissatisfied.
That’s not the only tension the show has to deal with. It’s absolutely appropriate that the Academy Awards recognize the full spectrum of contributions that go into a movie, from acting to sound mixing. But it’s also reasonable to assume that the number of people who are interested in the results in every single category is actually quite small. As a result, the Oscars are basically an exercise in trying to keep the audience entertained and engaged through the bits that many viewers may find dull, even as they’re an essential and honorable part of the ceremony.
The producers must wrangle a cast of dozens of presenters and performers, any one of whom may have an off night, resulting in at best a stiff performance, and at worst a mistaken announcement of a winner.
And no matter how many jet skis Jimmy Kimmel has on offer as an incentive to keep the speeches snappy, it’s simply impossible to predict who the winners of the 24 awards that are announced during the broadcast ceremony will be and do or say when they take to the stage.
The Oscar results can themselves clash with the message a host is trying to send. On Sunday, it was jarring to see Kobe Bryant, who agreed to publicly apologize to a woman who accused him of sexual assault (though he did not admit guilt), and Gary Oldman, who was investigated by the police over domestic violence allegations, picking up Oscars even as host Kimmel kicked off the show by talking about the movie business’s myriad gender issues and the broadcast devoted a segment to actresses who have spoken up against sexual misconduct in the industry.
And even when they aren’t controversial, the entertainment value of the acceptance speeches can be inconsistent. Just because it’s lovely for people at the peak of their professional careers to take a moment to thank the important people in their lives doesn’t mean it’s actually terribly engaging to watch them do so. And when a speech as high-energy and deeply felt as Frances McDormand’s call for a specific solution to Hollywood’s gender problems comes along, it may do so at a point that’s too late to give the broadcast real momentum.
The Oscars are too complicated and high-stakes for the producers or the host to improvise in response to those speeches, cutting bits if it seems as though the ceremony is running long, or trying to inject pep into a low-energy evening. And because they’re broadcast live, the ceremony can’t be workshopped and edited with the care and attention to pacing that actual movies can.
I suppose there’s something intriguing about watching a group of professionals tackle an assignment as difficult as the Academy Awards, and watching for the possibility of magic — or failing that, an electrifying disaster, like the end of the 2017 ceremony with its flubbed announcement of the best picture winner. But maybe we’d all be better off if we watched the Oscars out of a sense of appreciation for the people who have entertained us all year, not with the expectation that they’re supposed to entertain us yet again.