Noel Murray and Tasha Robinson talk about the explosion of movie magic that was the 84th Academy Awards.
Tasha: Well! Last night gave us one of the most surprising Oscar ceremonies ever. Who could have predicted that Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close would win Best Picture after all, that Transformers 3 would steal Best Director for Michael Bay on an unprecedented write-in vote, and that Roberto Benigni would return for a belated victory lap across the chairs of his fellow attendees?
Okay, no, I kid. The 2012 Oscars struck me as one of the most standard examples of the ceremony I’ve seen in many years, almost like it was struck from a template—it felt to me a bit like a parody of itself. Endless self-congratulatory montages about “the magic of the movies,” an interpretive-dance-ish performance by Cirque Du Soleil, Billy Crystal doing the expected opening movie-parody sequence and opening musical medley name-checking the Best Picture nominees (some more minimally than others; if it was possible to blink aurally, half the audience would have missed the Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close reference, though he did make up for it later with some shtick about how that’s how his relatives watch the ceremony), and then—with just one really notable exception—the awards largely going to exactly who the pundits said would get them. Am I wrong here, Noel? Did you find anything particularly surprising, innovative, or impressive about the 2012 Academy Awards ceremony? And were you as irked as I was that we somehow had time for three talking-head montages with the likes of Adam Sandler and Ben Stiller over-emoting with aching sincerity about What Movies Mean To Them, but we didn't have time to hear Jason Segel and the Muppets performing their nominated Best Song? Or for that matter, that we had time for silly comedy bits involving presenters like Will Farrell and Robert Downey Jr., but the people they were presenting to wound up getting the “Go away” music cue and having their mics cut off?
Noel: That baffles me every year, Tasha. Here’s a bit of history: Billy Crystal hosted the Oscars for the first time in 1990, the year after the Rob Lowe/Snow White opening number fiasco, and ever since then, the people who produce the telecast have gotten it into their head that certain elements of the Oscars are too old-fashioned, including musical numbers and clips from the nominated movies. So we get quasi-musical numbers, like the Cirque Du Soleil bit, and we get clip packages, obscured by people talking about the nominated movies. I don’t get it. The two most genuinely enjoyable awards shows each year are the Grammys and the Tonys, not because of the awards they give out—the Grammy-winners in particular are usually lame—but because the producers structure the whole show as a pitch for their industry’s current product. The Grammys are loaded with contemporary music, from nearly every genre, while the Tonys offer songs and scenes from the plays they’re honoring. By contrast, the Oscars tend to be both smug and vague, with hosts who make fun of anything even remotely sincere, and producers who load up on montages arguing that, in theory, movies are great. (It’s like they’re all auditioning to direct the “Enjoy The Show” reel at their local AMC.)
That said, divorced from context, I enjoyed the What Movies Mean To Me clips—directed by Moneyball’s Bennett Miller, doing his best Errol Morris impression—because the emotions of the actors seemed genuine, and some of the movies they chose to talk about were wonderfully weird. (Who knew Brad Pitt was such a big fan of The War Of The Gargantuas?) Reduce those bits down to one package, stick it at the beginning of the telecast instead of Crystal’s tedious “Look, I’m in the movies” routine, and it might’ve been a highlight. I also have no problem with Robert Downey Jr. clowning around with Gwyneth Paltrow (though I didn’t think it was all that funny), or Emma Stone goofing with Ben Stiller (which I did find pretty charming), because I appreciated the effort to entertain. Again, this is the lesson of the Grammys and the Tonys: It’s not just about self-congratulation; it’s about putting on a show. My problem with Crystal as a host is that he comes from that Robin Williams school of “reference = comedy,” where he thinks if he just mentions something familiar to the audience and adopts an “Isn’t that sillly?” attitude towards it, then he’s made an actual joke. He got a few funny lines in last night, but I like my hosts to pop a little more.
Of course even if Johnny Carson had risen from the dead and taken the stage, this might’ve been a hard Oscars to salvage, just because of the movies it was honoring. A lot of movies from my Top 20 last year were nominated—A Separation, Hugo, War Horse, Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol, Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes, Rango, The Tree Of Life—but only a few of those were front-runners in their respective categories, while many of the nominees last night were from movies that I either personally didn’t like, such as The Help and Albert Nobbs, or just didn’t see, such as The Iron Lady. And while I do like The Artist, it’s never struck me as a “best of the year” kind of movie, which has made its inevitability this award season kind of boring to watch. (Though as I’ve seen pointed out a few places, the idea that a mostly silent, black-and-white French film would be considered the “safe” Best Picture choice is pretty mind-blowing, really.)
What about you, Tasha? Were there any wins you were especially happy to see? And any of the show itself that you thought worked?
Tasha: I think it worked about as well as it could under the circumstances. The Oscars are necessarily different from the Grammys or the Tonys because while you can present an entire song or dance number at an awards show, and show the audience the entirety of what they’ve missed if they haven’t been paying attention to a given musical artist, or haven’t seen a given Broadway play, you can’t exactly stop the Oscars to show everyone a feature film. And it’s always seemed to me like the Oscars are more meant for people who have already seen all the films—Billy Crystal’s opening “I’m in the movies” montage and song medley are basically a series of in-jokes for completist viewers. So lengthy clips would be redundant. That’s what makes the Oscars different—they’re more about celebrating celebrity than presenting the art they’re ostensibly about. Though possibly there’s an attempt to fight that dynamic, and that’s why the producers spend every Oscar ceremony trying to find new ways to say “Hey, aren’t the movies magical?”
The wins themselves were largely what I expected, apart from Meryl Streep stealing Best Actress from Viola Davis, and for a caricatured impression in a fairly lousy movie at that. (You haven’t seen The Iron Lady? Good for you; keep calm and carry on with that.) I was glad to see A Separation take Best Foreign Film, which will guarantee it gets more eyeballs from here on out, though as our dear Scott Tobias has repeatedly said, it would have been more of a coup for it to win Best Original Screenplay as well, in order to take it out of the foreign-film ghetto.
But I didn’t have much of a dog in the hunt this year, apart from wishing The Tree Of Life had ended up with something more than “It’s totally impenetrable” jokes. I turned up, as I always do, to see whether anyone would do anything surprising that took them out of the staid “Actin’ respectable at an awards show” persona. And I got that this year in little ways from the winners, over and over. Angelina Jolie’s “Look how high my dress-slit goes” wide stance was bizarre, so kudos to Best Adapted Screenplay co-winner Jim Rash for adopting it himself when he got up there, in a silent parody. (Also kudos to whoever instantly created the Twitter account @angiesrightleg. Thank you, ridiculous immediacy of the Internet.) I appreciated the Best Film Editing winners, Angus Wall and Kirk Baxter, acknowledging that they didn’t expect to win for The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, and weren’t entirely prepared: More award-recipient speeches should end with a half-panicked “Let’s get out of here!” And more awards recipients should, as Philip Stockton did when he won for Best Sound Editing for Hugo, cut to the chase by thanking “everybody who’s ever been born, or may be born or be born again, or reborn.” This was a good year for quick, funny, non-maudlin speeches.
And we saw a bit of that in the acting categories, too. Octavia Spencer deserved her Best Supporting Actress win, and the combination of crying and joking was mighty sweet: She started her speech by thanking the Academy for putting her onstage with presenter Christian Bale, “the hottest guy in the room,” and ended it with a teary “I’m freaking out!” And hooray that Christopher Plummer won Best Supporting Actor, and double hooray for his address to the Oscar statuette itself: “You’re only two years older than me, darling, where have you been all my life?” (My least favorite part of the entire evening? Billy Crystal making “Christopher Plummer is 82 and therefore senile and incompetent” jokes. Hacky, hacky stuff, Billy Crystal. He’s still a better actor than you at 82.)
As to the ceremony itself, I was less taken than you were with the “Here’s what we like about the movies” talking-head montages, and even less taken with the early “Here are some movies that made some money” swoony show-reel that included Twilight, Avatar, and inevitably, the When Harry Met Sally deli-orgasm scene. I was torn on the Cirque Du Soleil performance, which was eye-popping, as their work so often is, but as with so much of the Oscars’ “Movies are magic” business, seemed simultaneously conceptually quaint (Movies are about people staring at screens, gape-mouthed and bug-eyed!) and over-emotive. (Movies are about people leaping and soaring and flying through the air!) In the end, their “impression of what it’s like going to the movies” felt much more like an impression of what it’s like going to the circus.
But the ceremony felt pretty streamlined this year, in spite of the diversions. Am I wrong in thinking they cut half an hour out of the show’s usual runtime simply by ruthlessly eliminating all the jokes about how long the show is? They certainly made a point of cutting down on interminably draggy bits, like the “Here’s a slow pan across all the living Best Actor/Actress Oscar-winners standing uncomfortably on risers” business, or “five peers of the Best Actor/Actress nominees come out to address and praise them personally” routine. The Best Actor/Actress setups were still too long, but overall, the show felt mighty fleet this year, which gave us enough comfortable downtime for silly but honestly enjoyable business like Melissa McCarthy sexually harassing Billy Crystal, or the Wizard Of Oz focus-group sketch, featuring a chunk of Christopher Guest’s ensemble. (No Oscars ceremony featuring Fred Willard can be all bad.) Moving the Best Supporting Actor/Actress award up from the beginning of the night toward the end gave it a little more gravitas in a year where two very deserving people won.
There were still a handful of things that absolutely didn’t work for me, like Billy Crystal’s visually ghastly CGI nightmare intro. But even that had its sweet spot: I’m glad that we’ve gotten to a point as a society where we can see George Clooney kissing Billy Crystal onscreen, and not immediately turn it into a gay-panic joke—and in fact, we can even give it a “He’s a good kisser” callback later in the night. Part of me still wishes we’d gotten the Brett Ratner/Eddie Murphy Oscars ceremony that almost happened, because that seemed like a guaranteed recipe for colorful disaster. Instead, we got a comforting bowl of warm oatmeal, in the form of toothless Crystal jokes and, as you say, “Hey, remember that this exists? So do I!” humor.
Is that a terrible thing, though? What about the ceremony did you most love or hate?
Noel: It’s not “terrible,” no. As you note, if nothing else, Crystal and producer Brian Grazer ran a smooth show; and Crystal does have a comfort level onstage that other hosts lately haven’t. Basically, he knows this is his gig any time he wants it, so there isn’t any of that “please like me” aroma that has wafted off some of the insurgent MCs. And as you also note, the night had a few moments of genuine brightness: the Christopher Guest skit, the Bridesmaids cast intro-ing the short films with raunchy banter, Tina Fey being Tina Fey; and so on. This is more or less the way the Oscars always are, with small highlights strewn among an indistinguishable morass of Debbie Allen choreography and “I’d like to thank my agent.” It’s just that this year, the highlights were fewer, in part because so many of the nominated movies were bland and (in my opinion, anyway) unworthy of the spotlight.
Look, running an Oscars telecast is a tough gig, especially these days, when every asshole with a Twitter account or access to a liveblog—ourselves included—is judging everything second by second. This may be a topic for another Crosstalk (or For Our Consideration column), but I wonder if our embrace of new technology has made us a worse audience for some events. I’ve always felt that the big shared moments—like sports broadcasts or political debates or awards shows—were ideal for social media, because it’s like we’re sitting around a virtual living room with hundreds of our closest friends, sharing our jokes and opinions. Other kinds of live-blogging or live-tweeting tend to rub me the wrong way, because if I was sitting in a room with someone who wouldn’t stop talking during a movie or a TV episode, I’d bop him hard on the noggin and tell him just to watch the fucking thing and then decide whether the story makes sense or if the hero is sympathetic. Similarly, it seems fine to me for us to log an insta-reaction to someone’s dress on the red carpet, but judging an awards-show comedy routine before it’s finished strikes me as wrong-headed, even though I did some of that myself last night. Think of it this way: If someone was telling you a joke, would you really be receptive to it if you were interjecting every 30 seconds to say how you think the joke is going? It’s fun to make fun of the pretensions of the Oscars, don’t get me wrong, but if we go in expecting to make fun of everything, we’ve kind of stacked the deck against the people putting on the show.
That rant aside, I do wish one of these producers who’s pledged to “re-invent” the Oscars would come up with some better ideas than “More montages!” and “More stars telling other stars how great they are!” You say the Oscars are for people who’ve already seen the movies, but I’m not sure that’s true. That’s why I miss the way Oscar clips used to be: more like advertisements for the nominated movies, enticing people who haven’t yet had a chance to see, say, Beginners. (And by the way, I’m with you on Christopher Plummer’s acceptance speech being a highlight; especially since I was rooting for him.) Don’t try to get audiences excited about “movies” as a general topic; try to get us excited about these movies. If the Academy truly believes The Artist is worthy, show us. All the Oscars really have to do is trot out some pretty people, give us a few good jokes and a few good speeches, and make us feel like the Academy is paying at least some attention to what’s going on in the wide world of cinema. This year, the good jokes and speeches were thin on the ground, and both the nominees and winners felt like an afterthought. When I finish watching the Tonys every year, I want to buy cast albums and book trips to New York City. When I finished watching the Oscars, I wanted to fire up my DVR and watch The Amazing Race and Luck. Movies, schmovies.